Books Were Once Like Razor Blades

Remember fanzines? Dating back over a hundred years, they were the first scalable form of self-publishing. Students with access to moveable type printing presses would delight in composing anthologies of short stories or news tid-bits and running off a hundred copies or so. In the 1920s, writers of science fiction bypassed the limited space in Amazing Stories and produced their own works in the first of many genre fanzines. Other fanzines brought together horror film fans, fringe music scenes, political commentators, and conspiracy theorists. These xeroxed works were the successor to the coffee shop and the precursor to the internet.

After the web gained popularity in the mid-90s, the fanzine moved online. Websites and blogs filled the same function, except now these works were permanent and the potential audience went from hundreds around town to The Residents of Planet Earth. Fanzines were read and then lost, discarded, recycled, forgotten. They had a limited lifespan and a limited audience. They were as disposable as razor blades.

Recently, we’ve seen a group of authors argue that books aren’t like razor blades (an insult to people who make things for a living, but set that aside). But maybe these old-fashioned writers are on to something. Because books were indeed like razor blades just ten years ago. They were printed once, and then they gradually wore away, whether through use, by rot, or the fact that most went out of print.

Like fanzines and razor blades, books started off fresh and then wore out over time. Once a novel went out of print, you’d have to scour used bookstores or online book resellers to find a moldy copy. The first weeks and months of release were everything. Books were disposable. They disappeared.

The ebook and the print-on-demand paperback are to novels what the internet and blogs became to fanzines. Books are now preserved for all-time. It’s ironic, I think, that the company most responsible for preserving the written word with both Kindle ebooks and Createspace print-on-demand paperbacks is seen as a threat to reading and writing. It would be like accusing the internet of getting in the way of connecting people and aiding in the exchange of thoughts and ideas.

Some people seem eager to get back to the grand old world of limited-run printouts stapled together and scurrying away on a breeze. These are the people who profited the most from that scheme, the middlemen and the 1% of authors lucky enough to be included. Clay Shirky nailed it when he posited that the old guard is terrified of the popular acceptance of reading. The fringe has the potential to go mainstream, which will mean more people getting lost in books, more writers earning a living, a growing culture of literature, and a widening of voices and genres. Those who valued their participation in the rarefied airs of literature’s fanzine days are understandably disturbed by this. Democratization is almost always resisted against by the chosen elites.

Ignore the naysayers, for they are on the wrong side of history. The changes taking place have massive and positive implications for writers. Every book you write will be in print for the rest of time. They won’t grow old. They won’t grow dull. They are no longer like razor blades. Every undiscovered book was launched today. They will launch every day. New readers will come of age; old readers will rediscover a lost love of reading; the next generation of readers are being born right now.

If you take the complaints people make about the self-publishing of literature (the spewing volcanoes of crap and other offenses against people’s artwork and free expression) and apply those same complaints to the internet, what you have is China’s attitude toward the World Wide Web. Do all the unbrowsed websites and blogs get in the way of surfing your way to Absolutely not. But those sites and thoughts are out there, representing the free expression of their creators, and all it takes is one set of eyes to find them, love them, share them, for those sites and blogs to take off.

Write knowing that your works will never expire, and that no one can deny you the right to publication. This was the attitude fanzine authors used to stoke their passions for over a century (and still). It’s the power of this democratizing force. Books are now forever; they remain fresh; they’ll never go out of print. It’ll be decades before most people adequately appreciate this. Get ahead of them by writing today.



48 responses to “Books Were Once Like Razor Blades”

  1. I think that’s what traditional publishing is worried about right now. It’s snowing so hard outside that their “special snowflakes” are a lot more common. They’re just a tiny speck now in the snowmen being built by readers (aka their collection of e-books).

    1. Very well said. It is all fear. The publishing industry, agents and snobbish readers have always treated writing as a secret art that only a few could achieve, now thanks to amazon there are people who have been rejected by these snobs becoming millionaires because they can write. Current authors know the truth, the secret is to do it, write, and there are an aweful lot of people who can do it just as well as they can. They fear competition.

      1. Another part of the problem is that some people think Authors United represents all or many of the authors. A more appropriate name for their group would be 1%ers United. I’d be fine with being referred to as Bricks United or Razor Blades United (as an indie) if Authors United will rename themselves 1%ers United. Sounds fair, right? :-P

        1. It shows the arrogance of them using that name, authors united, one out of every hundred authors thinking they represent the 99% when the 99% are the ones they are actually afraid of. Their biggest fear is seeing my name, or your name, creeping up the best sellers list and they know in the old days the big 5 could stop that. Now, thanks to Amazon, no one can stop us but ourselves…

    2. That’s exactly what it is. It’s snowing more AND the publishers are being exposed for their lack of knowledge in how to actually market and sell books. They don’t know how to differentiate their authors from the rest because they haven’t really kept up with the times and technology. We’ve already heard stories to this effect from prominent authors like H.M. Ward who said she had already been doing everything one publisher suggested to her. On her own. Without their help. That’s what they’re scared of, right there. They’re not as needed and they can’t do much to help authors at this point.

  2. Let the great dying beast thrash around in its death throes. We’ll build a glorious new golden age from its carcass, build our castles from its bones, tan its withered flesh into leather to bind our books, and stretch what’s left into vellum. Let the old world bellow its last gasp.

  3. I remember the old days when someone would tell you about a great book they read, but unless they still had a copy you were out of luck. You could hope the library had one, you could visit the Strand in NYC and hope they had one, but otherwise the book was gone. I am very excited by the idea that books are now forever. In fifty years when one of my grand-nephews tells someone about Wool, they can go get it on Amazon.
    There is a great documentary DVD, published by the enemy B&N, lol, about a book called ‘The Stones of Summer” where a guy had a book since his teen years and finally got around to reading it, he thought it was the greatest book he ever read. It took him a while but he found a few copies, and with a lot of research, found the writer was still alive, and had not written another word since. His book came out just as a big publisher decided to stop doing fiction, and the book died. Thanks to this film maker the book was republished, and it is a good read, but now with Amazon this book will live forever.

  4. Much of the complaining by trad publishers and bookstore owners seems to be fear of change. Sad thing is that complaining and fearing rarely prevents change (if ever) nor does this help oneself to adapt to the changes. Any market is like an ecosystem – if it changes, all entities that/who cannot adapt are replaced.

  5. The idea that books are somehow more special than other forms of entertainment (or even other consumer products) is elitism, and like all forms of elitism it falls apart under even the most basic scrutiny.

    I can imagine that an author who came to prominence in the old system might look at what’s happening now and feel some level of shock or disappointment. How dare these people think they can publish whatever they want! Publishing is a sacred ritual available only to a select few! How dare these retailers attempt to compete on price with my product, er, I mean no… it’s not a product!

    Imagine you’re one of these authors. If everyone can publish AND have a real chance of success, suddenly you’re not so privileged. And if a store can sell your e-book for less than $10, suddenly you’re no longer a purveyor of an ephemeral creation that defies the standard retailer business model. You are not a unique and special snowflake, and that scares you. On top of all this, you see the new model and realize that if you’d gone that way, you’d probably be far better off today (in some cases, not all).

    Regret coupled with the loss of privilege – that’s gotta hurt.

    1. I don’t think saying books are special is elitism. (Books are not all that special as far as products go, though). I don’t think that’s what makes them elitists. The public figures (Robinson, Preston) seem to be very careful about appearing elitist these days because they’re so often accused of being elitist. However, we know they’re elitists from things they’ve said in the past about self-published books being of lesser quality compared to trad pub books (how ironic that now trad pub authors are complaining more about their books having so many typos and problems when printed). Trad pub authors also used to make it very clear that they didn’t consider ebooks “real books”. They used to say that if you weren’t with a publisher, you weren’t a “real published author.” I rarely hear those things anymore.

      1. I find them saying books are of lesser quality funny. True, the physical book might be cheaper, but it is the words i want to buy. If they could save money and charge less printing on toilet paper i would be fine with it, less quality sure, but the quality is in the words. Putting bad writing in gold egded paper doesn’t make it any better than a createspace version of Wool.

  6. The computer scientist in me rebels against the idea that digital media is immortal. I (claim to have) wrote a brilliant novel about 15 years ago. It’s right here on my 3.5″ floppy. I really wished I could read it. I know that I have the correct 3.5″ floppy because I put a paper sticker on it and labeled it “brilliant novel”. So right now the paper sticker is more valuable to me than the floppy.

    You might argue that “modern” technology is more permanent than that 3.5″ floppy. Our Blu-ray devices still read our old CD’s. And, besides, we’re all backing everything up to “the cloud” anyway. But I contend that digital media is by it’s very design and nature temporary. It is highly likely that 20 years from now your media player won’t even read Blu-ray. And the cloud servers you relied on went out of business years earlier.

    Maybe you copied everything to the new media at the appropriate time. But given the enormous volume of data in existence right now, it’s unlikely that everything (or even most things) will actually get copied to new media. Moreover, as time goes by, someone will decide that your “important” data isn’t worth preserving anymore. (You don’t expect to live forever do you?)

    I don’t really think that the longevity of media has that much effect on the current and future publishing models. But the erroneous belief that digital is forever is a bit of a peeve of mine. :)

      1. Don’t worry, the NSA has copies of everything.

      2. Hugh, I think George has a point, to a degree.

        I don’t know how the Internet will evolve, how data storage will evolve, or if we will simply upload all books and data into one big ubiquitous mass of knowledge … do you?

        Books won’t be identified separately as works by their individual creators in that scenario. They will all be assembled into one big “blob” of ubiquitous knowledge that we will continue to develop.

        Resistance is futile, Hugh, you will be assimilated.


        Books will live forever as we proceed in a completely decentralized future, where each person does in fact become an author, and we all share our stories with each other in a harmonious existence.

        Each author will get credit, money may or may not exist in that scenario, and knowledge will benefit everyone all the time. No one will be able to shut off access to knowledge, and we will all write stories for the good of humanity.

        Choose your own adventure, Hugh. :)

    1. “It’s right here on my 3.5″ floppy”
      I just spit out my coffee! You crack me up, George.

    2. I started with 5.25 inch floppies; I wrote a column using a Commodore 128. I still have that writing because I migrated it. I keep double backups.

      Digital data may not be forever, but it can lasts a heck of a lot longer than papyrus. And as for discs, I just stuck a CD into my Blu-Ray player, and it plays. CDs have been areound longer than 20 years, so I would not expect Blu-Ray to vanish by then. But if you are worried about it, or your DVDs, rip them to your hard drives.

      Digital books have better longevity because you can download them almost anytime, anywhere. (Well, as long as the company selling them on the web stays in business, and if not, guess what, authors can migrate their books!) Harlan Ellison has ranted about the extremely short shelf life of most paper books. Books are easier to find, and are not yanked off store shelves so easily nowadays.

      Digital is not forever. Nothing is. But it will keep data around a lot longer than paper used to. Barring electomagnetic pulses, or CDs decaying (yes, that can happen), or TV shows like Revolution coming true, or us not migrating and keeping double backups.

      Or the data distributors being stupid. Nook just decided to not let you download your ebooks to your computer. Ugh. Time to migrate?

      1. “Digital is not forever. Nothing is. But it will keep data around a lot longer than paper used to. Barring electomagnetic pulses, or CDs decaying (yes, that can happen), or TV shows like Revolution coming true, or us not migrating and keeping double backups.”

        FYI: You can buy archival grade CDs/DVDs to save copies of you book/cover files. These CDs/DVDs are designed to last as long as 100 years.

    3. And the cloud servers you relied on went out of business years earlier.

      We can certainly make a good case that everything will disappear if we rely on the most fragile media and presume there is no regular back up and replication of databases to more modern versions.

      BlueRay and 3.5 floppies? I suppose some stuff is on them and has never been copied. But is it reasonable to presume databases of book files will be lost if the company that initiated them is no longer in business? That’s not what we observe. Assets typically flow to the firm that takes over the enterprise.

      We can also observe multiple companies have databases of the same stuff. If we want to make a case everything will be lost, we can take a very low probability situation and ignore all others.

      But your peeve is justified. This stuff will never last forever. Forever is a really, really, really long time, and we are quite right to challenge the literal meaning. Infinity is a pretty high bar. But it is probably reasonable to just substitute “a long, long time” when we see “forever” used in this context.

    4. George, the historian in me laughs at your nitpicking. Sure, forever is an indeterminate thing, and sooner or later the sun will devour the Earth in its dying throes and yadda yadda. But for all practical purposes, data in the 21st century, barring the utter collapse of our civilization, is going to last a freaking long time. Our ability to make effectively infinite copies is what preserves that data.

      Consider this: during the Dark Ages, a lot of priceless Classical knowledge was lost. Then the Carolingian kings financed hundreds of monasteries dedicated to copying the literary works of the past. They made so many copies of what they could find that none of the manuscript they mass-copied by the 10th century have been lost in the ensuing millennia.

      Nowadays, anybody with the tiniest amount of common sense can preserve their work for the foreseeable future (which may not be forever but it;s close enough for all practical purposes). I started writing my first novel on an Apple IIc, and I transferred and converted that precious file a good dozen times in the ensuing decades, and it now sits in my desktop’s hard drive, and also floating around in the interwebbies (as I’ve also e-mailed it to myself multiple times), still not worth publishing (it was a crappy novel, unsurprisingly), but not likely to disappear any time soon. It would have taken you a whole *hour* of your life, broken into a dozen 5-minute segments, to allow your own literary masterpiece to live on. That you didn’t is merely a testimony to your lack of foresight, not the permanence of data in the information age.

      So your argument is that you had to put a smidgen of effort to preserve your writing in a useable form? What, you expected a gaggle of monks to show up at your house and make copies for you?

      Yes, it requires an (increasingly smaller) effort to preserve things, but that’s the nature of reality itself. Only constant energy inputs keep entropy from ruining your stuff, That’s news? I think one’s lifetime, and the lifetime of anyone who values one’s work enough to preserve it (which in many cases will well stretch into centuries), counts as a good working definition of forever.

      1. My previous post was unnecessarily harsh and snarky. My apologies; I’d delete if I could but cannot figure out how.

        1. No, I thought your comment was brilliant!

    5. True only to a small degree. I can go to ebay right now and buy a drive to read your floppy disk, and the information on the floppy is still valid and readable. Computers will always communicate with ones and zeros.
      If the cloud changes, it will do so to adapt and it will involve converting old technology into new. You could have put your book onto cd, then dvd, then blue ray, then on a flash drive, and in the cloud…. the book would still be the same book, still readable after all these years, and for the future.

    6. Er, no. You’re right in a lot of your points, but not your conclusions.

      The longevity of media makes an enormous difference in how it’s published. Right now, book publishers assume that a book has as much as a 6 month life span. That’s a world of difference from even a 6 year life span, and I think you’ll give any digital book at least 6 years to live, right?

      As long as the author is even moderately cautious, they can preserve their work for the length of their life. After that, it’s about 70 years until it enters the public domain. If you want, you can stipulate in your will that it enters the public domain on your death, or you could release it while you’re still alive.

      Yes, doubtlessly many books will be lost forever 100 years from now. Doubtlessly many will be deemed unworthy of preserving. That doesn’t speak to Hugh’s point. I can appreciate that you’re trying to get the details straight, though.

  7. … Fanzines were read and then lost, discarded, recycled, forgotten. They had a limited lifespan and a limited audience. They were as disposable as razor blades.

    Don’t think that fanzines were especially lost or discarded any more than other inexpensive publications like the pulp novels that they were talking about. In all cases, there were people and libraries carefully collecting favorites to savor or share with future readers. Hell, even Lucasfilm was paying for and collecting the fanfiction stories (though not the Lucas-forbidden risque stories) that were being written in the 80s and still has them in their library.

    You can even find copies of “classic” fanfiction zines from the 80s in markets like eBay. Yes, they are now rare enough to be in some sense collectible, but they haven’t disappeared.

    The ebook and the print-on-demand paperback are to novels what the internet and blogs became to fanzines. Books are now preserved for all-time.

    Yes, certainly the ebook and print-on-demand paperback are the successors to printed novels, but they are no more permanent than web sites or blogs and fanzines are. Just as it takes someone to maintain a novel in print, it will take Amazon or some other market being willing to pay the (admittedly vanishingly tiny) cost of maintaining the files and databases pointing to those publications. Though we can’t see any reason that Amazon might prune a publication from their lists, that doesn’t mean that it might not happen. Or the author could withdraw their ebook (happens all the time) and it would fade like an odor on the breeze.

  8. Category romance writers barely get thirty days of shelf space then they’re carted off so the next month’s editions can go out. I’ve moved on now and write another genre but I’m thrilled with the fact my stories can exist longer than the expiration date of a carton of milk.

  9. “Get off my lawn!”

    That’s what I hear every time one of the Special Snowflakes begins to speak. The simple fact is there are lots of people out here in the world who have good stories to tell. Far more than even a Big 100 could ever hope to publish. The Special Snowflakes’ market share is shrinking and they are upset and scared. They’ve wanted to believe for so long that their creations were extraordinary, but we’ve discovered the only thing extraordinary about so many of them was luck.

    1. Smart Debut Author Avatar
      Smart Debut Author

      Whenever I hear Special Snowflakes and other legacy publishing mouthpieces moaning about “culture” and “literature” and “bookshops” when what they really mean is “Get off my lawn!” I just grin.

      It ain’t your lawn anymore, motherfucker.

    2. They remind me of golf courses, private ones going broke or barely hanging on. Then they see public golf courses opening, they see all the people who can swing a nine iron as well as they can, or better. They see all the money being made on the public courses. So they panic, because no one cares about their private club anymore, we can all play golf, they just don’t make as much money as we do, lol. They walk around in their funny pants and hats, screaming this is what you must wear to play golf, if you don’t wear funny pants you are not a ‘real’ golfer, while we in our jeans score hole in one’s…….
      That is Authors United.

  10. Re: Alan Tucker. Not just lucky, but deemed worthy by the exclusive publishing industry and its favoritism of acceptable themes, genres, and ever changing idiosyncratic preferences, the result of a highly isolated and neurotic group of people the world has ever known.

    Re:Hugh Cowley: Of course the industry is afraid of the popular reading movement. God forbid, the readers should decide for themselves what makes a great story and whom the best authors are. Publishers are afraid of this movement for no less reason that that of the Catholic Church upon learning that Gutenberg had printed the Bible.. They knew they were going to lose control of the image of God, and of their infallibility in their absolute pronouncements regarding our relationship with God. The only difference in this case is that publisher’s god is their money (hence existence), while the medieval church’s God was control (the control of everyone).

  11. Some excellent points, Hugh–but, about this permanence thing. Surely, as a member of POSTAPOC, you of all people realize that if and when the lights go out, so do the ebooks. Even short of that, ebooks offer those with the magic keys an ability previous censors never dreamed of–the power to erase your book from existence, on every connected device, everywhere. Or to simply erase all of the books on your device. The Great and Powerful ‘Zon has–in a limited number of instances–done both. (Remote deleting Orwell’s 1984? You can’t make this stuff up…)

    The files may or may not be permanent; the ability to read them is not. On the bright side, that’s one more reason to buy hard AND ecopies!

  12. I was an intern at Putnam’s in the late 80s. Do they really think that back in the “good old days” that books weren’t considered commodities by the publishing houses?

    Yes, there was a special snowflake moment that occurred between editor and author as the book was being crafted, but once the manuscript was finalized, there was no magic about the life of a book.

    Whether it was resale, collections, re-issues, pulping, stripping, or just being given “out of print” status (which meant they were actively *removed* from store shelves), books were treated like razor blades at every step after the first one.

    Even as the authors argue against Amazon, I can’t help but wonder what it they’re arguing for. Do they really want complete capitulation by Amazon to the publishers on every level? Are they demanding the return of a “bright shining line” between tradpub and indie so the upstarts can no longer appear on their NYT best-seller lists? (What about the publisher owned vanity presses?)

    How is it that authors are arguing about something that the authors has neither control over, an actual understanding of, or a direct financial interest in?

    1. Yes, the disconnect between Author’s United and reality is nothing short of amazing. Not just books, but *authors* have been treated as fungible widgets for decades, a process that has gotten worse as the old publishing houses got bought up by soulless corporations that make the ‘Zon look like a feel-good co-op run by gentle hippies. Trad publishers spend their days looking for the next King or Patterson or Rowling, discarding any less marketable and profitable candidates with no more care than we’d give used plastic forks. Successful authors basically get told by publishers to write pretty much the same book as their last best-seller, with the serial numbers filed off; they call that “nurturing.” And yet Amazon is evil for pushing back on book pricing. The horrors.

      Then again, Snowflakes United also live in a universe where beginning authors get a year’s salary worth of advances on the strength of their ideas, so they can take time off work to write their books. It must be nice living in the same neighborhood as the lost boys and Shrek.

  13. Hear, hear, Hugh Howey. I only have one thing to contradict. “They [ebooks] won’t grow dull.” Some do grow dull. Some started out dull! May you never write a dull one! ;-)

  14. Without paper, the snowflakes know they can’t compete.

  15. The publishing revolution has already happened, some people, mostly in the ‘old guard’ just haven’t realized it yet.

  16. I played baseball all the way to the collegiate level. I remember one time when I was about 8 years old I was bitching to my dad about how many kids came out for the team and that I might lose my starting spot. He said, “Well, I guess you better stop being a pussy and go work harder than them.” Maybe I should send ol’ pops to chat these clowns up.

    1. Very well said, and right on the money.

  17. Ebooks are not forever, but they sure are for a very long time. The book I published years ago still shows up online to embarrass me. I love it as it represents the best book I could’ve produced on the wrong side of an education and professional training. But I distance myself from the book (despite my love for it) as I’d hate for my current readers to spend money on it expecting the same quality they’re accustomed to. Fortunately, it’s mostly out of print and difficult to find and I buy up used copies when I find them:)

    1. At least you have something published! Don’t buy up all those used copies and stash them away – promote them! You’ll be surprised how many readers enjoy reading the earlier works of authors. I am a HUGE Michael Crichton fan and after reading Jurassic Park and Pirate Latitudes (among the half dozen other of his meticulously researched novels) I was thrilled to learn about his earlier works from his med school years. Before long I was just as eager to pick up the next “high octane” adventure story as I was to dive back in with his more famous dinosaurs. And I expect the same with Mr. Howey. I blew through the Silo series this past week or two (I know, I’m wicked late to the party) and am more than ready and willing to see what Molly Fyde is all about. So just remember – good or bad – your readers are probably equally excited to pick that book up as you are to hide it away.

  18. […] That’s the self-publishing  author-turned-publisher Bob Mayer in a blog post at Digital Book World (DBW), The Content Flood And Authors Whining. The “authors whining,” Mayer tells us, are the writers of the Authors United group of traditionally published protesters of Amazon’s negotiating tactics. Authors United’s most vehement detractors are other writers. Criticism of them has exposed a bitter rift in the author corps. You can learn more about this in the author Hugh Howey’s recent Snowflakes United and Books Were Once Like Razor Blades. […]

  19. […] of this is uncanny. After hearing from Snowflakes United that books are not like razors, and then blogging about how they used to be very much like razors, we have a story in the New York Times today about razors […]

  20. Enjoyed reading all comments, re computer scientist who takes double backups, don’t believe it, no techie I ever met takes backups !! but otherwise look how all the comments map into the life that is Dust. Rock on Hugh

  21. Thanks for this piece Hugh. I appreciate you always looking toward the positive.

  22. […] become a big fan of Hugh Howey.  Here’s he referring to issues around self-publishing (the route I’m […]

  23. […] That’s the self-publishing  author-turned-publisher Bob Mayer in a blog post at Digital Book World (DBW), The Content Flood And Authors Whining. The “authors whining,” Mayer tells us, are the writers of the Authors United group of traditionally published protesters of Amazon’s negotiating tactics. Authors United’s most vehement detractors are other writers. Criticism of them has exposed a bitter rift in the author corps. You can learn more about this in the author Hugh Howey’s recent Snowflakes United and Books Were Once Like Razor Blades. […]

  24. […] democratized publishing – you wrote something? you want to publish it? Done! And guess what: it will now be around forever! – it has also democratized author earnings. Check out the latest report from Howey and his […]

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