The History of Books: Part 1-ish

So I got into a discussion with a friend the other day about a bad review on one of my books. He wanted to know why I hadn’t armed myself like Rambo and chased the person down and I guess blow him up with an explosive-tipped arrow (I mean, these arrows can blow up Russian attack helicopters, so I’m pretty sure I can blow up a reviewer pretty easily, assuming I can even draw a bow without folding in on myself like an accordion in a Bugs Bunny cartoon).

I just shrugged and said I didn’t take it personally. I realized a long time ago that no matter how great something or someone is, there’s always got to be one (or as usual, more than one) person who has to go and take a shit all over it. That’s human nature. I mean, I bet if Jesus showed up, there’d be a mob posting troll comments all over his YouTube sermons.

That phrase, by the way, ‘taking a crap all over <insert whatever someone was taking a crap all over>,’ is actually from around 400,000 years ago.

In the ancient days, a caveman looked at another caveman’s drawing about a mammoth being hunted, and smeared excrement in the shape of a penis on it. This was Og’s first bad review, and he was incensed enough to hunt down the offending reviewer, and crush the reviewer’s head with a heavy stone.

Rokk, the first caveman lawyer, successfully defended Og, earning him the world’s first acquittal. He then went on to draw cave paintings of how he successfully defended Og. Of course, there were plenty of other cave persons who thought Rokk was the lowest form of caveman scum, even for caveman lawyers, and they smeared many pounds of excrement all over Rokk’s masterful drawing of his lawyerly prowess.

However insultingly disgusting that was, Rokk’s ego was saved by the many more supporters he had who would smear honey or blood on the cave paintings, while others would draw little cave paintings of praise below Rokk’s masterpiece.

Those little drawings of praise were the first set of known reviews on The little drawings of trolls or ice cream cones below the little drawings of praise below the cave drawings were also the first comments on the first reviews at

Yes, I know it was before electricity and computers were invented. Who’s story is this? Mine or yours? That’s what I thought. Now shut the hell up and learn about some book history stuff!


 A long time ago, this guy wrote a book. It was a pretty damn good book, but it was getting all messed up because everyone wanted to read it, and it was the only book. Producing a book back in this time was pretty expensive. The author had to write it all out by hand. (I hear young authors crying out in disbelief, but it is true, I swear. I even wrote by hand once, and not just to be “retro cool” either… it sucked but it was either that or lug around a 72 pound typewriter, which only got it stolen from you, and then you got your ass beat by big kids who called you names like “Eternal Virgin” and “Sissy Bitch.”)

And paper wasn’t like today. The author couldn’t just go down to Ye Old Wal-Mart Emporium and stock up on 200 count, college-ruled, spiral-bound notebooks for $.28/ea (Price Drop!). There were no name-brand pens and pencils and fuzzy troll eraser buddies and Scooby-Doo lunch boxes. You spent a small fortune for paper, or maybe papyrus if you are imagining this author living waaaaay back. Ink was messy, you had to dip something called a ‘quill’ into it, then once you wrote about two words, you dabbled sand onto the page to soak up the extra ink and help it dry.

If you are like me, your question is, “How the fuck did anyone ever write a second book?”

I’ve played around with these old-school writing utensils. Even being ultra-careful, I ended up looking like a five year old kid who found Mom’s stash of permanent markers. Except I was sticky. And everything I touched was permanently stained with ink. The ink was too thick in places, and soaked through the paper and ruined papers under it. Or the table, which really pissed my mom off as it was my grandmother’s hand-made table or something. It might have been just a cheap table (we were pretty poor), but she decided to unleash anger equal to it being a hand-made heirloom.

Okay, getting away from the point a bit. Let’s get back on track.

This author, he’s bummed because he accomplished this awesome task of writing a whole book. Better, people were demanding to read it, to the point that soon the book was in tatters. Luckily the guy was smart and remembered almost every word of the book (he did write it after all… painstakingly, each night by candlelight until he also developed the first known case of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome). And his intelligence went beyond remembering all of the words to the book.

He thought, “Hey, since my book is so popular, why don’t I charge people for it? They can pay me to write the book out and give it to them.”

This was a really good idea. I don’t believe it was the birth of capitalism, but it might have been. Also, ignore the fact that this guy wrote the first book yet in the last chapter I said it was a caveman named Og. Don’t judge me.

But this was a good idea. He (and it might have been a woman, I don’t know, I’m making shit up as I go along, but I’m a dude and so this author is a dude) could make money at this.

But damn… sitting around for six years just to sell twelve hardback copies at $24.99 (there were no bookstores back then to ruin the covers with those obnoxious 30% OFF!!! stickers, and besides, math wasn’t a real strong suit of people in that time, since most couldn’t read anyway, and trying to calculate a 30% discount on $24.99 can get tricky without modern computing).

And once again, luckily this author was intelligent. He thought, “How about I take some of this money I’m making and hire a company to do all the crap work like making multiple copies, distribution, marketing, editing, and all that mundane financial stuff? Then I can focus on just writing!”

And again, this was a good idea.

What the author didn’t know though, was that this company he hired, they were smart too. They didn’t really care what the author was writing about. They were too busy watching paying customers line up to pay the author to make a copy of his book for them.

Now, the author, he just wanted to write. There were words in his head that had to come out, and if they didn’t, the local priest would show up and claim he was possessed by Satan, and then he’d be unable to write anymore because back then if you accidentally wandered into this minefield, you’d be lucky to get off with broken, mangled hands and enough teeth and tongue to still form coherent words. A lot of times you wouldn’t get to write anymore because dead people don’t write.

Except ghost writers. But I think I might be confused about exactly what a ghost writer is.

So the company, they get with the author and tell him that he’s the greatest writer to ever walk the Earth, which is true because he’s written the very first book, so he’s the ONLY writer to walk the Earth, thank you very much.

These company guys tell the author, “Hey (all of these conversations back then started with ‘hey’, I at least researched that part), author, tell you what. You write the book. We’ll take that book and we’ll copy it perfectly as many times as peasants… er I mean citizens have the cash to spend. Not only that, we’ll send your book on caravans strapped to camels or donkeys, depending on where this is all taking place, but I’m not the author, just the a character so hopefully the author knows where the fuck this story is going, but anyway, we’ll send more copies of your book on caravans to other cities. We’ll take out ads in the clay tablet and papyrus newspapers, and if such a thing doesn’t exist, we’ll get on that while we’re at it. And we’ll do all of this for… 50%.”

The author thinks this is a great deal. He’s doing the work on his end to make a product, but these guys, they would help the author attract more demand for his books. Then they would copy the books to meet the demand. Hell, they’d even strap him to a horse and send him off to the next town to sign a copy or two of his books for the Duke or Duchess (since peasants were more likely to eat or burn a book than read it). It seemed like a good deal.

It was a good deal, too. For a while anyway. But soon another guy shows up to this company and he has a book he’s written, thanks to the inspiration the original author instilled in him. These guys, they see where this is going, and decide to call themselves publishers. They make the same deal with the second author.

Then one day a revolution happens. Some jerk invents a printing press. Gutenberg or something. This is bad for the poor saps who have spent their lives toiling away at copying pretentious authors’ words for ignorant readers. They are angry because they have Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and probably blood poisoning from all of the sticky ink that has soaked into their skin over the years. And now they’re being put out of work.

For the publishers, this is a winning lottery ticket. Now they could just pay to have this jerk Gutenberg build them a printing press, and pay one or two guys to do the typesetting and copying to make hundreds of books, instead of paying hundreds of poor saps to do the copying to make one or two books. Now the money was rolling in.

But somewhere along the way, these publishers weren’t happy with their profits. Over time, they squeezed more and more out of the authors, and made all kinds of excuses as to why when they were renewing their contracts the royalty rate had shrunk once again.

Now, it might sound pretty dire by this point for authors. Bloodthirsty publishers with pointed fangs and sharp talons drinking the lifeblood from poor, innocent authors makes for a good story. And so authors started writing stories like that. The war raged on for a while until word got to another group of humans known as The Agents. These Agents, they were like the French in the American Revolution. Wait. No they weren’t. Maybe. They might have been. I’m having trouble remembering where this story is going.

These agents came along and told the authors, “Hey, check this out. How about you just write, and let us be the guys who deal with those evil publisher types? We have the time and energy to whip them into shape by threatening to go to another publisher, or just not publish at all by going on some sort of strike maybe. How about this: you pay us 15% of what you make, and we’ll do all the legwork and such? But just so there’s honesty, we’ll collect the money, withhold our 15%, and then give you your well-deserved share.”

And once again, authors thought this was a good idea. And for a while, it was. The agents, they were like Teamsters in the early 20th century. They bashed heads, they went on strike, they made guys disappear into the desert (I might be thinking of Casino or Goodfellas here, just warning you… this might not be historically accurate). The publishers, they came around. Without authors, they wouldn’t have anything to sell. None of them were able to write books.

Some were, but they weren’t good at it. They were better at telling authors what to write, when they weren’t telling the authors to KILL YOURSELF, that is. Which was an inside joke with the offshoot sect of publishers known as editors. Editors knew without the authors that the publishers, which of course included editors, wouldn’t survive.

Anyway, kind of getting off track again, sort of. Let’s see. Where were we? Right.

For a while this symbiotic (*cough*parasitic*cough*) relationship led to a golden age of literature. Literacy was exploding in all of the developed nations, and books were no longer considered a luxury, but a staple of any educated non-savage. Books were flying off the shelves.

Then somewhere along the line, the publishers and agents were no longer mortal enemies… which means the agents and the authors were no longer BFF’s Forever. Publishers created all kinds of manufactured reasons and spreadsheets as to why they couldn’t pay higher royalties, how they spent all this money marketing a book but it still wouldn’t sell, hell, they even made some silly-ass excuse as to why the author couldn’t truly have a say in what kind of cover his book would have. Some could, but those guys were like… Hemingway or something.

Most authors got handed their printed book and if it was about cars but the cover had a picture of a dog crapping in a park, that’s the cover you got. Publishers couldn’t (or didn’t want to) understand why authors weren’t happy with their covers. The damn things were four-color with glossy finish, and cost more money than the book would ever make for the author. Maybe. Getting paid depended on how smart the author and his agent were, and how ethical the agent was in his dealings with his author and the publisher. There has been talk of some ‘funny accounting’ going on at times, but that’s all conjecture and some other term I might have heard on a television show about lawyers but can’t remember now.

There’s a lot of algebra subtext in this story. I hope you are okay with that. I’m not, so I am going to forgo the actual figures and numbers and secret accounting journals that might have been hidden a wall safe. Take my word for it. I’m not making any of this stupid story up. Whatever, somehow the authors ended up costing these publishers too much money. That’s the story handed down from generation to generation, anyway. These publishers, they were doing all the work except writing the words. Jeez. I mean, what more did authors want from them? To write the fucking books for them?

Then there came a time when a phrase was invented called “market saturation” that I learned about in Econ 102 back in high school. Or college. One of those two. Or I saw a headline on the internet, which is more likely. So this market saturation thing was a problem. There were too many authors writing too many books and so these publishers really were losing money. Not enough peasants… er citizens were buying the books being published. So the publishers decided to go into the lab and create this hideous beast know as “The Gatekeeper”.

I know, right? Pretty scary sounding title that they gave this new creation. The Gatekeeper, his sole task was to dig a pit within the publishing tower and hunker down, sifting through the slush pile for things that ignorant readers would spend real money to purchase and read. The Gatekeeper only ate when something tasty was tossed into the slush pile. In a perfect world, you know, the laboratory that the crazy scientists had that produced this abomination, their calculations said that The Gatekeeper would be a last line of defense, an almost autonomous creature that would apply very little emotion towards its decision as to which bits of the slush pile were actually tasty and nutritious.

But just like Frankenstein busting loose and pillaging or whatever he did (I never actually read the book… haha just kidding, I got 128 hate-filled emails during that short pause until I said just kidding), The Gatekeeper soon became like that Gollum guy from that one story about elves and wizards and giant talking trees. Maybe not exactly like Gollum, but kind of. If you stretch your imagination a bit further than normal. The Gatekeeper realized it had the power to decide life and death for an author. I know of MANY authors who fell down dead in an instant when thousands of miles away The Gatekeeper tossed the author’s manuscript into the trash. Pow. Just like that. Dead.

By now, the whole publishing thing was growing into this dysfunctional sort of theocracy. Or maybe an oligarchy? Democracy? No, definitely not a democracy since there are about 100x more authors than publishers, and while we authors are pretty good at allowing ourselves to be thoroughly abused, we wouldn’t let it go on that long with that kind of majority in a situation where voting could change outcomes. My wife will really be pissed when she reads this because she teaches this stuff and she isn’t really down with being married to an idiot-dullard.

PART 2-ish

1 thought on “The History of Books: Part 1-ish

  1. Pingback: The History of Books: Part 3-ish (or 2.5, whatever) | Angry Games

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