Thomas Hamm was the subject of many tributes and high praise at Earlham College this month, as he retired from more than three decades as a professor of Quaker history and director of the school’s noted archives, built around an extensive Quaker collection.
I was among those who gathered during the weekend of May 19-20 at the Earlham School of Religion, for “Quakerrama,” an extended hybrid tribute to his scholarship at the Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Indiana.
Actually, the publishing revolution started nearby, in South Carolina. A company there originally called BookSurge, and later CreateSpace, began using a machine, not much larger than a good-sized office copier, that could print and bind paperback books one at a time, quickly, automatically, at a low cost.
About 2009, another fast-growing company, built on selling used books, wanted to expand its reach in publishing, and bought CreateSpace. That fast-growing company was Amazon. And thus was born the Print-On-Demand (POD) book publishing industry.
This change was seismic, and still boggles my mind. I won’t dwell on it now, but for interested readers, here are links to two short (3 minutes or so) videos that provide a quick visual tour of how POD works.
What Amazon brought to the deal was its unrivaled bookselling apparatus: an author now could upload a finished manuscript, and Amazon listed it; when a reader ordered a copy, the new machines printed it, then Amazon collected the money and shipped it.
And here’s the kicker: for all this service, Amazon charged the author exactly (wait for it) NOTHING. $Zero!
This wasn’t charity, though: the company took a commission on each order.
With POD, Amazon brought together printer, mail order bookstore, shipping, and bookkeeping. For me, this combination meant no more nights stuffing packages, no debts to printers, no cartons stacked in the hallway. What I did was write, edit, upload and collect royalties.
POD took a huge load off my mind as a writer/publisher. Yes, my niche still produced niche earnings, typically in the high three figures for a year. But so what? It paid for itself, I had more time to write, and still kept my day job.
There are two other key aspects of this POD revolution to acknowledge: one, with this service, Amazon put tiny niche independents like me “on the map,” by including us on the virtual “shelves” of the world’s largest ”bookstore.” I was right up there with Stephen King and the other big names. That made us real and accessible.
And second, in the process, Amazon thereby brushed aside the legacy publishing industry’s gate-keeping function. Authors didn’t have to put up with sheafs of rejection slips; Amazon invited us into the marketplace willy-nilly, to take our chances.
Further, unless you send them terrorist plans or kiddie porn — or they caught you plagiarizing somebody else’s stuff — Amazon doesn’t censor. That also frees us from the old industry’s fads, phobias, and insufferable snobbery.
Are you from (or writing about) an underrepresented or unfashionable group? Come on in.
There’s no sensitivity screening (unless you want it); authors can try our experiments, make our own mistakes — and correct them.)
Sure, lots of what comes off their presses is junk; but [PSSSST!] that’s also true of the mainstream, except with (sometimes) classier covers. (And, face it: some people buy the junk.)
By 2007 I shifted the printing and mailing of my Quaker journal and niche books to CreateSpace. Since then, I haven’t looked back. I’ve done numerous books there, almost 50 different titles. All are still “in print,” too; goodbye to the dreaded “remainder” notice!
Amazon has printed the books (and makes E-books too), shipped them, handled the credit cards, and has paid me by direct deposit every month. (Talk to other authors about horror stories of publishers who didn’t pay.)
A few years ago, Amazon turned CreateSpace into Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). New name; same radical publishing game.
At the end of November 2012, I retired from day jobs– eleven days later I turned 70, and began collecting Social Security. Since then my finances and writing have finally come together. It’s my “trust fund,” and will likely stay that way til I wear out. It’s also my version of tenure.
2012–TODAY– I have since pretty much lived “low on the hog” mostly on Social Security; and am still writing, editing and publishing my passion. More of a writer’s success story. Having recently turned 80, I’m feeling my age, and slowing down some.
Yet I still do books, and turn up the occasional Quaker scoop and scandal, and put the royalties into new projects. Since the Orange invasion and the pandemic, I blog more, and write most every day. And there are readers: the blog reached half a million hits a few months back, and I haven’t yet run out of appealing/challenging Quaker material.
Some friends of mine like to hate on Amazon, and the company definitely needs some help (mainly a UNION). But as a writer I am very thankful to Amazon/KDP, for busting up the old exclusionary publishing world. It has let tens of thousands of writers, particularly newbies & those with niche passions, knowledge and stories, into the marketplace, including ME, by vaulting over the old gatekeepers.
As of 2018, KDP reportedly had issued 1.5 million titles, and by March 2021 its authors monthly royalty payments were over $40 million, including a bit over $100 that month to ME.
(But if you want to publish POD and really can’t abide Amazon, FEAR NOT: there are other smaller companies that will do similar work – for a fee.Find them on Google & YouTube.)
Despite this big opening, the hard truths of competition remain: for most Amazon/KDP writers, as for writers generally, bestsellers are rare, average book sales are modest; most published writers still need day jobs.
But now they – YOU–can be in the game, and getting it done. And there are KDP authors who do make lots of money. They write for money — I write for passion; we both get what we want.More at: kdp.amazon.com
PS. For the record, I did not and will not receiveone penny of payment, finders fees, commissions, discounts, or any other compensation from KDP for writing about it here. (Well—that is, unless you buy any of my books there, then I’ll get a royalty.) I don’t work for KDP; they work for me.
PPS. One last thing: What about “immortality”? isn’t that a kind of success many writers aspire to? Sure, and I plead guilty. But continuing readership is as much a lottery as penning a bestseller. Consider: in my early decades as a Friend, Rufus Jones was mentioned frequently. He published 40 books. But quick quiz: what quotes do you remember from him?
John Woolman, on the other hand, only wrote one book, a journal, and didn’t even publish it. But it’s been in print since a committee brought it out in 1772 — 250 years and counting, And how many recognize this quote?
There is a principle which is pure, placed in the human mind, which in different places and ages hath had different names. It is, however, pure and proceeds from God. It is deep and inward, confined to no forms of religion nor excluded from any, where the heart stands in perfect sincerity. In whomsoever this takes root and grows, of what nation soever, they become brethren in the best sense of the expression. (From his Journal.)
Is there anything remotely as memorable in my body of work? Only time will tell. Otherwise, one of my much-favored books is a set of lectures from 1992 I call Wisdom and Your Spiritual Journey.
It’s packed with timeless and memorable quotes. I know that because I put them there, plucked mostly from the Bible. But to leaven its pages, I included some of my favorite Quaker chuckles, original or revised. Maybe the opening one is a fitting closer for this account:
In the early 1830s, a young man went to sea, hoping to make his fortune. A Baptist by birth, he read the Bible each night in his shipboard hammock, and was especially struck by a verse in the fourth chapter of Proverbs:
“Wisdom is the principal thing: Therefore, get wisdom: and with all thy getting, get understanding.” Wealth, the youth piously decided, was nothing without this seasoning of wisdom. But where was such a combination to be found?
Presently his ship sailed into the harbor of Nantucket Island.
Nantucket was then a prosperous and vibrant community, built and largely populated by members of the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers.
As he walked the bustling, cobbled streets of Nantucket town, observing the fine grey shingled houses and the plain but well-heeled inhabitants, another verse from Proverbs came to him. It was something about “I am Wisdom, and in my right hand is riches and honor.”
The more he saw of Nantucketers, the more he felt sure that here was a group that genuinely understood and knew how to apply this kind of Wisdom.
When he turned down one street, known then as “Petticoat Row,” he saw a succession of neat, well-stocked shops and stores. Almost all were operated by Quaker businesswomen.
The sailor was so impressed with this commercial tableau that he impulsively entered one of the shops, a kind of grocery store. He walked up to the counter and said to the plain-dressed woman behind it, “Madam, I want to know why you Nantucket Quakers seem so wise in the ways of the world.”
The Quaker woman said to him, naturally very humbly, “Well, of course, it’s mainly because we follow the Inward Light. But,” she added, “it’s also because we eat a special kind of fish, the Wisdom Fish.”
“Wisdom Fish?” the sailor exclaimed. “What’s that? Where could I get some?”
“Friend,” the Quaker shopkeeper said, “thee is in luck. I just happen to have one here, which I can sell thee for only twenty dollars.”
Twenty dollars was a lot of money in those days, but the sailor didn’t hesitate. He pulled out his purse, handed over the money, and she gave him a carefully wrapped parcel, which he carried out of the shop with an excited smile on his face.
He returned a few minutes later, however, looking puzzled and a bit disturbed. “Excuse me, madam,” he said, laying the half-opened package on the counter. “This is nothing but a piece of ordinary dried codfish.”
Under her modest white bonnet, the Quaker shopkeeper raised one eyebrow.
“Friend,” she said quietly, “thee is getting wiser already.”
My writing niche was a doubly-disadvantaged one: first, it was religous. I was raised old-time Catholic. There are lots of Catholic readers, and a fair number of writers. But I left all that, then wound up as an enthusiastic Quaker. And ex-Catholic authors who are “fallen away” — souls deemed to be bound for hell— were not high on the Catholics list
Further, not only are Quakers a very small group overall, but I had landed among their liberal branch, which is a minority-within-this-minority. Even a “bestseller” among them doesn’t yield much in the way of royalties.
Yet despite our absurdly tiny “market,” Quakers have had a hyperactive history, producing many interesting people, who did much that was little-known but worth writing about.
Or at least much that I thought was worth writing about, including Quaker mistakes and scoundrels. Not only via nonfiction but fiction too.
During the next two decades, into the early ‘90s, I wrote or edited five more books, and 133 newsletter issues, all Quaker-related (& all online here, with an index, for free). I was reimbursed for some labor on a couple of the books; the newsletter subscriptions covered its costs (except labor). But mainly, they got done while I held day jobs, as a reporter, a Congressional staffer, a courier, followed by a long stint with the Postal Service. Several of them I published myself, on my own imprint, Kimo Press, created in 1981.
What did these five get me? In 1992, another humbling experience also common to many PUBLISHED writers: I wrote a mystery: Murder Among Friends.
Then like lots of others, I sent out 100+ query letters to literary agents. Signed every one, stuffed all the envelopes, licked the stamps.
The queries yielded a few nibbles, but zero takers. That meant the mystery pay rate at that point was $0 per hour.
I stayed at the day job.
I won’t lie: it’s a drag to get one rejection slip. It’s a much bigger drag to get 100+ of them. It could have been the end of the line.
But no! Instead, as the great sage Yogi Berra said, I came to a fork in the road, and after some dithering, I took it.
Looking over the manuscript after thumbing through the stack of rejections, I thought: “Well, maybe this story isn’t the best mystery I ever read, but it’s better than some I have. And if they could find their place in bookstores, why shouldn’t mine, dammit?
Yeah! So I printed Murder Among Friends myself, under the Kimo Press imprint. I put $2500 on a credit card (a lot for me) to pay upfront for 1000 copies (the printer’s minimum order).
Soon cartons were stacked in the bedroom, spare closet, the hallway. There were many late nights, shoving books into mailers, scribbling addresses, lots of stamps, lugging the parcels to mailboxes. I also spent several afternoons sitting at book tables, not selling much.
But I was lucky: the copies sold out; mostly to Quakers. So I printed 1000 more, and they sold out too.
A success! (I didn’t print more, because many hot books squander their profitability by printing more copies just when the market is full. My timing that time was good.)
The credit card was paid off, and I had money left over, cleared maybe $2000. Again, though, that raised my compensation from $0 to about $2 per hour of writing, promoting and shipping. I was no threat to Stephen King, but still this venture was “successful.” That is, if need be, I could afford to do it again.
Yet, of course, I still needed the day job.
In 1994, the day job situation improved a lot, because I went to work for Quakers, at Pendle Hill, to start an experimental social issues program. There was a lot of writing and editing in the work, and I continued writing on the side.
In 1995 I finished and printed a second Quaker mystery novel, Un-Friendly Persuasion. I liked it, maybe better than the first . . . and it was a flop. (Ya never know.) I lost several hundred dollars. Still have a few cartons. $0 per hour. A three-figure loss was a hit, but not a catastrophe. I stayed with the day job, though.
1995-2007– I should add that while necessary, money was not my main measure of writing success. In these years I made numerous discoveries, retrieving forgotten nuggets of Quaker history, uncovering conflicts and scandals some wanted to keep in the shadows, and amassing a large collection of Quaker jokes. Some people even laughed.
All that was very satisfying, and helped keep me motivated. Between 1995 and 2005, I authored or edited a dozen more titles, all Quaker-related. Together they sold enough to cover the expenses.
In 1997, funds ran dry for the Pendle Hill job; too bad. I mostly freelanced for the next few years, but kept writing, Not long after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, I went back to work for Friends, as Director of Quaker House, a peace project near Fort Bragg, in North Carolina. With new wars in Afghanistan and Iraq looming, the days were plenty busy there, and I had a lot to write, especially to raise funds to keep the place going. (It still is, in 2023.)
But I also kept writing on the side. In 1999, I had started a Quaker theology journal, twice a year. Print circulation was small, but I was able to find a “short-run” printer for it, Instant Publisher, with only 100 copies (not a thousand!) minimum per order. That meant much less upfront cost and fewer leftover copies. I also posted a free version online; still there.
If this chronicle stopped here, say in 2005, I would deem my writing “career” an overall success: I had been able to write and publish extensively and productively on what I was passionate about, and was still able to pay the bills (with occasional struggles, true, but overall). Not to mention that reader feedback indicated that much of the stuff was getting looked at, and occasionally it seemed to make some impact.
Even in the crowded Quaker House years, I managed to publish half a dozen more books (and twenty-odd issues of the Quaker Theology journal). Somewhere, I had acquired a tee shirt with the motto, “Wear out, Don’t Rust Out.” Don’t know what happened to it; it likely wore out.
But there’s more, in part because unnoticed amid the ferment and hubbub of those war years, a revolution was about to bust the book publishing industry wide open, and it soon reached me in North Carolina.
More on that tomorrow, in the wrap-up installment. . . .