Thoughts on publishing today and in the 90s

by Ken Harrison

I started writing as Keith Wilkins for extra cash back in the ’90s when you could make a quick buck writing short stories for porn magazines. I also wrote book reviews for a local LGBT newspaper, Bay Windows, but short stories paid more. I was a regular contributor to such magazines as In Touch, Indulge, Blueboy, and Mandate. My fiction appeared in other magazines here and there, but those were the ones that published the bulk of my stories. Let me tell you, it was the best part-time job I ever had.

It wasn’t until I published my first short story collection through Leyland Publications, Daddy’s Boys, that I used my full name, Kenneth Harrison. My publisher was the one who talked me into using my real name, and I’m glad I did. These days, I use Ken Harrison, which is what people actually call me.

Although publishing in the ’90s was far from perfect, a part of me still longs for it. I don’t think anybody pays for 4,000 word short stories and book reviews anymore. And I miss LGBT bookstores, which was where I often did book signings. A book signing consisted of me reading from the book I was promoting in front of a group of people, answering questions, and signing copies. They were always fun, especially when you got a good crowd.

It took a lot of planning to have a decent turnout for a promotional event. You had to call local LGBT newspapers and let them know you were doing an event, then try to get somebody to give you a write-up, an interview or anything to help promote it. The bookstore would always have flyers, which was all you could really count on for advance notice. Anything you got from local newspapers was an added bonus.

The internet was new back then, and I had to teach myself HTML to put up a website. My website listed events, any new titles I had, and my bio. There was even a bibliography of where all my short stories had been published. I wish I could find the files for it, they’re on a 3.5” floppy disk packed in the attic. That’s right, they’re lost.

Self-publishing back then was a tedious process that involved having your manuscript laid out on special paper using a typewriter, having to find a distributor willing to take a chance on your book, then trying to convince bookstores to carry it. And if you couldn’t find a distributor, which was often the case, you had to peddle your book to independent bookstores and hope for the best. The process was so exhausting that very few people tried. Remember, desktop publishing was still in its infancy, and the only page layout program out there was Quark Express, which was used mostly for magazines and advertising.

After my second collection of short stories, Young, Hung and Ready for Action, I wanted to do something new. My publisher had introduced me to his distributor, Ron Hanby, back when I was promoting Daddy’s Boys, so I talked to him about self-publishing. Ron then hooked me up with a printer and binder, McNaughton & Gunn, who gave me pointers on how to use desktop publishing, which was starting to become more popular.

For my first book, I decided to do another collection of short stories, this one titled Ten Thick Inches. I designed the interior in Word and the cover in Illustrator. The printer explained how to use Adobe Acrobat to convert it into a PDF file they could print from. Once the book started making money, I picked up a copy of InDesign, which was a new program back then, and Photoshop. Both programs were expensive but made my life a lot easier.

The first pressing of Ten Thick Inches was 2,000 copies, which was a very small book run back then. My distributor bought a chunk of them, and the rest were stored in my second-floor apartment. That’s right, a freight truck pulled up to the apartment building and I had to carry cases of books up to the second floor and find places to store them. They were in my bedroom, my office and the kitchen. Once they were gone, I had to do another pressing and the entire thing started again. Those cases of books were heavy and left my arms bruised.

During my fourteen years as a publisher, I worked with a lot of authors, taught myself CSS, e-book coding and how to design book covers in Photoshop. I also saw the publishing industry evolve into what it is today. A lot of the face-to-face interactions are missing, and I do miss the bookstores, but the business is still challenging and rewarding.

I closed the publishing company in 2015. Shutting down the business came with a lot of heartaches, but it had to be done. I had never grown the business enough to compete with the new crop of publishers that had sprung up during the e-book boom, nor did I think I wanted to. My life during those fourteen years had some major ups and down, and I had come out of it sober and a bit worn.

I spent 2016 in a funk. I didn’t want to do anything that reminded me of the publishing life I’d left behind and had no idea what to do with myself. Most of my time was spent trying new projects and not having them work out. I was so down that my boyfriend, now husband, was concerned for my mental health. It wasn’t until I had an idea for a story and started writing that I began feeling better about myself. Although I didn’t want to go headlong into publishing again, I knew I had to do something that involved writing. That’s when I started to get serious about my blog, Books & Bytes.

Despite all the changes in the publishing industry, it’s still not easy to get published and takes a lot of work to self-publish. Bookstores and local newspapers have been replaced with blogs, pressings are now on-demand, and everything is laid out with computer programs. It’s a whole new world, and I sometimes look back at the way it was and how it is today and feel as if I’ve lived the best of both.

Ken Harrison is an author living in Rhode Island with his husband, who is an avid reader. Ken’s most recent published work is Linear Park (Dreamspinner, November 2017). When he isn’t writing, he enjoys cooking, web design, blowing bubbles in the park, dressing up in costumes, and entertaining. He believes that the only thing better than telling a good story is watching people enjoy his food. Ken can be found over at his blog and on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Pet spotlight: Zachary

Ken and Zachary

20 thoughts

  1. Thanks for sharing, Ken. I was one of those few people who began self-publishing in the mid 90’s. It was tough. I took a course on how to learn Pagemaker, which was arduous. I went on to traditionally publish with another publisher, and am now doing both. Things are easier for me technologically, but it’s much harder to find a distributor and to see my books in the chain stores like I used to. In the 90’s we had about 90 independent bookstores, and I worked with many of them. By the time I self-published gain in 2008, nearly all were gone because they couldn’t compete with the new Chapters chain. It’s a different world, but I’ve found that adapting to change really helps keep me in the game.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As much as publishing has changed since the 90’s, I’m encouraged to see how accessible its become in the last decade. More and more people have direct access to seeing their dreams turn to print–not all should, but the opportunity is there. I feel in my heart of hearts, like anything else, it may seem as if you’re swimming in an overcrowded sea of fish, if your writing is good enough to make you stand out, you’ll get discovered.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. First off – I love Rhode Island. I’m from Western Oregon and I had the pleasure of visiting your state a few years back. The east coast is great.

    Your column makes me wonder what people will say about today’s world 20 years from now.

    Right now there’s a younger version of you and me just getting their feet wet. I wonder if they will miss these times like you miss yours. I too sold a handful of short stories but I moved on to other things and have now returned. Funny how we make a full circle in life, sometimes by way of a crooked line.

    Thank you for sharing your life and your thoughts. It’s always fun to look back. It’s crazy, but when I think about the ’90’s it doesn’t seem that long ago but it is. I guess it all comes down to how we see things.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I wonder what’s going to change for these new young people, Bryan. And I agree, it’s always amazing to think about how long ago things were. It feels like yesterday.


  4. Too much personal information. Unnecessary and unwanted. What began as an informative piece about writing and publishing then became a platform to promote relationship choices. Considering the proliferation of human trafficking in our world, we should remember that much of this terrible abuse is the result of the porn industry.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I loved this story. It’s inspiring to see how writers, even back in the days, had to hustle to get things done. It makes me feel grateful for the resources we have today, but in some ways I envy the times Mr. Harrison reflected on. Good stuff.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I’ve always wondered how people went about self-publishing in the 90s. I found a book in a local indie bookshop a few years back that was self-published around then by an author who is now signed and has had all his books republished.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. As a youngster I always enjoy a good story about the good old days and this one takes the cake. It always fascinates me to learn how things were done back in the day and how things have evolved. I hope you’re doing well now Ken. Where can I lay my hands on your previous work?

    Liked by 2 people

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