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Tailwinds: Dan Poynter, “Godfather” of Self-Publishing, Remembered

danThere are many who might never have become publishers but for the influence of Dan Poynter, former president of the Publishers Marketing Association (now IBPA) who died on 2 November 2015. His life had a profound impact on the history of the written word, a story which I am honored to share here.

I first met Dan back in 1999, when eBooks were considered a disruptive new technology and indie publishing was often confused with vanity presses. That year, I approached him about adapting his booklet titled Book Marketing: A New Approach for the emerging book technologies of the new millennium. Dan didn’t know me at all, but gave me a chance: “I think you’re right that eBooks will be an important part of the book world soon,” he said. “You write the adaptation and let me review it before it’s published,” he said. “If it’s effective, I’ll even help you publicize it.” And he did.

Dan’s flagship book, The Self-Publishing Manual, had sold only a hundred thousand copies or so at that time, but was already considered the ‘bible’ of the nascent indie publishing movement. By 2007, the 16th edition and its antecedents had been read by nearly a quarter million writers who wanted to publish their work independently. It — and 120+ more titles Dan wrote subsequently — guided countless authors in getting published.

Dan became an author and publisher by accident. An avid skydiver, Dan noticed a paucity of guidebooks about parachuting… so he wrote one by himself. In 1972 he released The Parachute Manual—A Technical Treatise on the Parachute, which sold like hotcakes at airports, flight schools and other aviation-related outlets. It was followed by The Skydiver’s Handbook (1978), still a classic in its genre today. Dan didn’t consider himself a publisher; he felt that he was simply filling a need.

On a whim, Dan attended a conference for publishers in the 1980s, and suddenly realized that he was one. But he was puzzled by the ‘architecture’ of the traditional book world. Why do writers rely on publishers when it’s so easy for them to publish their own books? Why do publishers rely on wholesalers and distributors? Why do wholesalers rely on bookstores? Dan had already successfully bypassed all these middlemen with his skydiving books, and decided to share his experience with others… by writing The Self-Publishing Manual. Thus the indie publishing movement was born.

Within a few years, the success of his book made Dan a tremendously popular public speaker on the subject of self-publishing. His workshops and seminars took him across the US and around the globe, often logging more than 100,000 frequent flyer miles per year, spreading the gospel of indie publishing. Dan was quick to steer writers away from vanity presses that charged unwitting authors inflated fees for services that many writers are able to complete on their own. He was a pioneer of eBooks, which eliminated costly over-printing, shipping and warehousing expenses, and unsold copies. He was also an early adopter of Print-on-Demand book manufacturing technologies for the same reasons. “Don’t die with a book inside you, waiting to get out,” he preached to countless writers.

By the turn of the century, a true boom in self-publishing resulted, with more than 50,000 new books published each year by their authors… a number which had grown tenfold by 2015, driven largely by the technologies Dan helped pioneer, and his vision of helping writers reach readers more directly, bypassing literary agents, publishers, wholesalers and retailers in whole or part.

In addition to our collaborations in publishing, Dan and I shared a passion for aviation. In many workshops, he would display a slide of himself standing at the North Pole holding a copy of The Self-Publishing Manual. The audience would usually gasp. Then Dan would casually add, “By the way, this photo was taken 10 minutes after I parachuted to this spot from 10,000 feet.”

Dan’s insights helped countless writers to take the leap into self-publishing over the years. His decades-old vision of a leaner, greener more egalitarian book world is now a fait accompli — yet his impact lives on as indie publishing today is rapidly supplanting the old way of doing things in the book world, for which we can all be grateful.

Join me in wishing my mentor tailwinds in his final flight.