Twenty years of e-publishing

I have been e-publishing for just a few days shy of twenty years.  Not twenty months.  Twenty years.

Back in 1989, my friend Ray started a zine.  We listened to a lot of obscure metal, thrash and death metal, and you could barely find Metallica tapes in northern Indiana back then, let alone underground music.  Ray scoured the earth for this stuff, and started writing letters to weirdos in Sweden and Germany and Japan, trying to trade tapes or score free shit, and he eventually started writing reviews and printing a little homemade magazine that he gave away at record stores and sent to record labels to get free stuff.  He eventually got me to start writing for him, too.

(Various things we did not know at the time: these “major labels” like Earache and Nuclear Blast America and Roadrunner were run out of tiny closets of offices; the people in “signed” bands like Napalm Death probably made less money than I did washing dishes in college; there was a whole universe of zines outside of the arena of death metal that was about to explode; there was a whole world outside of Indiana that was infinitely more interesting, too.)

Ray handled all of the business issues with the zine, which was great because his mom ran a business that did some mail-order stuff, and things like postage rates and bulk-ordered envelopes and offset printing quirks were totally within his wheelhouse.  And so was finding all of this unknown metal music and talking to record labels and getting people to buy ads.  I never could have started a zine like this, because I wasn’t plugged into any of this, and this was long before the days of google, where you could just put “where can I find a printer that’s not totally into jesus” or “what the fuck is media mail” in a search engine and get your results.

I have no idea what it would take to publish a real magazine, but even publishing a zine was an arduous process.  Once you actually got all of the reviews and interviews done, you had to put them in a word processing program.  I knew a little about this, but Ray was the one that actually owned a computer, and he used some weird program called GeoWorks to get all the fonts done correctly.  When you had the actual pages done, you had to go to a printer and get a thousand or two of them printed at once, which cost hundreds of dollars.  (You could photocopy, but then each issue would cost two or three times as much, and look like garbage.) Then you had to sell those, and pay postage to get them all out to people.  All told, it didn’t seem like you could really do a zine for under a couple of thousand dollars, although once you made the nut on the printing, you could use the proceeds from orders to cover the postage.  But issues that went to trades or to record labels or otherwise as promotional fodder would come out of your own pocket.  You’d never print a thousand copies and sell exactly a thousand copies.

I went back to college in Bloomington in 1991, and this major revolution in publishing was about to happen, and I didn’t realize it.  First, I spent all day fucking around on usenet news, and found some heavy metal newsgroups where I actually found other people who listened to bands like Carcass and Unleashed.  Sure, this was interspersed with a whole bunch of people who wouldn’t shut the fuck up about Guns N’ Roses or that new Metallica album Smell the Glove, but making fun of them was almost as fun as finding out about that new Entombed album before it came out.  This was as cool as writing to some freak in Denmark who knew all about the cool bands, except it didn’t cost a bunch of money in postage, and it was instantaneous.

This got me thinking: what if you did a zine where the whole thing was just a text file that you posted on usenet or emailed to people?  You could put in the latest news, maybe interview some people, review stuff, have addresses or ads for bands trying to sell tapes, and tell people to email in their news or band info.  There was no way to sell issues like this, and you couldn’t include any artwork or band logos or photos.  You also needed a computer to read it, along with a way to get email, and this was before AOL was everywhere, when a new PC cost four or five grand and a 2400-baud modem would run you a hundred more bucks. But it would be free to “publish”, and people would be able to write back right away if they liked it.

Ray came down to Bloomington in February, to sleep on the floor of my tiny apartment and hang out for a long weekend.  The band Prong was in town, and while they were not super high on our list of most extreme bands ever, but we got maybe one cool show a year in town, and tried not to squander it.  It was right after Valentine’s day, and I had been whatevering with this girl for a week or two and went straight from third base to the friend zone, so I was insanely depressed and in need of loud music and fun.  Me and Ray stayed up late every night, and talked about this zine thing, and whether it would work or not.  Late one night in one of the computer clusters, we typed something up, and I posted it online.

That was February 18, 1992.  Here is the original post.  It is somewhat horrible, far more than cringe-worthy, filled with typos and stupidity and corny fake satanism.  But it’s been there for almost twenty years.

This was insanely confusing to people at record labels.  My main goal was to get them to send me free stuff, and it was like explaining the Kindle to a geriatric.  Nobody had email then, and I tried printing out some copies and mailing them in, but that confused them even more, and defeated the purpose.  I thought about eventually doing both the electronic version and a print version, something whipped up in WordPerfect with some nice fonts and a few pictures and whatnot, and by the 4th issue did that, but I also wanted something out of a god damned Bruce Sterling cyberpunk story, a computerized mind-meld of text and music and artwork and interactivity.

There was a lot of disparate pieces of technology that weren’t linked together that offered pieces of what I envisioned. There was this thing just starting to show up called Gopher, a hypertext system that let schools and libraries publish linked documents on the internet.  It didn’t really have graphics, and only big institutions had servers running, without an easy or obvious way to publish your own info, unless you ran a university science lab somewhere, or worked at NASA.  We swapped a lot of text on the web in usenet and email, but just very unstructured stuff, with no real centralized organization.  Those of us in the know used FTP servers to look at pictures, mostly porno stills that would take hours to download and then offered blocky pixelated images.  And you could digitize music to .au files, which were gigantic, but could sound great.

Later that year, some people at CERN came out with a great improvement on gopher, that let you post pictures and sounds and let almost anyone make their own pages.  I quickly created a thing called a hyplan that played a sound clip from a Cannibal Corpse song, but didn’t envision that this would take off to the point where anyone in the world would use it to read zines online.  But of course, that’s basically what happened.

My little zine only lasted five issues.  Ray’s zine, Metal Curse, is still around today.  I didn’t make any money, although I got some free tapes and met some cool people and interviewed a couple of  decent bands.  More importantly, this put this idea in my head to write creatively, which eventually led to stories, and then to books.  And it instilled some DIY ethic in me, which made me start another zine, and then decide to publish my own book in 2000.

I have not made millions self-publishing.  (Someone with a name similar to mine has.  That’s not me.)  I think that aforementioned dishwashing gig brought in more money than all of my books combined.  The internet thing did land me a career doing technical writing, though.  I think if I added up all of my paychecks from when I started doing that in 1995 to today, it’s in the seven figures, and it gave me free health insurance and paid vacations, but also involved a lot of dumb meetings and things that make TPS reports look like a god damned Tolstoy masterpiece. But self-publishing gave me the ability to do what I wanedt, to not have to worry about changing me by changing my writing because Rumored to Exist doesn’t contain enough vampires or teenaged wizards to sell enough copies to keep a roof over my head.  It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been fun.

So here I am, 20 years down, 40,000 words into the next big book, and wondering what the next 20 will bring.

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  • "all the members of METALLICA died in a horrible bus crash. It was reported

    that the song "Anasthesia (pulling teeth)" could be heard just before the

    accident."

    That may be even funnier now than it was then.

  • Good piece on self publishing. I didn't start self publishing until 1997 at the tender age of 30 – before that I was trying to be a rock star – mailing out cassette tapes got really expensive as well as paying for your own half ass garage studio to record in. I started with chapbooks and found the net, Robert, and anti-heroart. com in 1999. I sent a manuscript to bizarro press on Valentine's Day. I'll see what happens.