THE ROAD TO VIDEOGAME HISTORY – Part 3

Based on the responses that I received from readers of The 2600 Connection, I knew that people wanted to read my books. My task was to figure out a way to get them to these readers.

The 2600 Connection was a fanzine, an amateur publication that had been produced by a fan of the Atari 2600 named Tim Duarte. I soon learned that there were dozens of videogame fanzines produced by enthusiasts and I decided that if people didn’t mind reading these staple-bound publications that were printed on copy machines, perhaps they wouldn’t mind reading books produced the same way.

I had a Smith-Corona letter quality printer that I used with my Atari 800 but I can’t recall if I used it with my PC. I believe that by the time I was ready to format my book, I must have purchased a laser printer for it (my Atari 850 Interface Module is still connected to the Smith Corona printer after all these decades which seems to bring credence that it wasn’t used with the PC). But the Smith Corona, which used print wheels, couldn’t be used to print the book the way I wanted to format it anyway. Professional Write had the ability to print in portrait and landscape mode. Landscape mode allowed me to print the book with two pages printed on every sheet of 8½” x 11” paper. Instead of having to print 152 sheets, I only had to print 76.

Smith Corona TP-1 letter quality printer

PHOENIX PREVIEW EDITION

The office I worked in had a dedicated room that housed a large, unguarded copy machine. I spent my lunch hour one afternoon printing out 50 copies of the booklet. Since the book was printed on both sides of the paper, each booklet consisted of only 38 pages each. I then took them home, folded them in half, stapled them along the fold, and voila, a printed copy of Phoenix: The Fall and Rise of Home Videogames was born.

The Table of Contents showed that there were 22 chapters with the last three being 1993, Multimedia and Virtual Reality. In the TOC these three chapters had XXX instead of page numbers and none of them were included in the book.

I decided to sell the booklet for $14 which included shipping and so I rented a Post Office box that people could send their orders to. I then sent “review” copies off to as many fanzines as I could find. The quality of these fanzines ranged from poor to professional but many of them enthusiastically reviewed the book. Many of the reviews can be found here.

Review from the Good, The Bad and the 8 Bit – Summer 1994

Following the publication of the reviews I didn’t receive any orders. I knew that the subscription bases of these fanzines were small, but I figured at least one person would buy the book. Upon investigation I noticed a piece of clear tape at the rear of my post office box. This was used so mail wasn’t inadvertently placed in unrented boxes. The tape was supposed to be removed when the box was rented. In my case no one removed the tape so any mail I received was just returned to the senders. I wanted to sue the Post Office for lost revenue but I couldn’t for two reasons. One, I couldn’t prove how much revenue I lost, if any, from their error. And the second was simply the Post Office cannot be sued. They could screw up as much as they want and they can’t be held responsible for their mistakes.

After they removed the tape and a few orders began trickling in, I couldn’t fill them immediately as a new occurrence had transpired.

One of the fanzines, Paradox, mentioned my book in its May 1994 issue. Shortly after its publication, one of its founders, Chris Johnston, informed me that he became a staff writer with EGM2, a spin-off of Electronic Gaming Monthly (EGM).

At the time EGM was the number one-selling videogame magazine in the world. Rather than turn it into a bi-weekly publication, EGM2 was launched as an extension of EGM, and was published two weeks after its sister magazine. The second issue of EGM2, dated August, 1994, featured the first professional announcement of Phoenix, written by Chris.

So now I was in a quandary. I had planned to release Phoenix in an amateurish format because the fanzines supported it. But now that it was mentioned in a professional magazine I had to up my game.

PHOENIX: The Fall & Rise of Home Videogames

I decided to venture into the world of self-publishing. While it is a very common way of producing books today, thanks to companies like Amazon and Blurb, it was much different in 1994. Even then it was not a new phenomenon. Writers have been self-publishing for centuries and among the most famous of them were Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. But in 1994 it still wasn’t a common thing and so I began going through my latest issue of Writer’s Digest for help. Apparently there was a book out by Dan Poynter called The Self-Publishing Manual which was the Bible of self-publishing. I immediately hurried to Waldenbooks to purchase a copy and quickly read it from cover-to-cover.

The first thing I needed to do was create a company. I came up with the name Rolenta Press, which was a combination of mine, my wife’s and my son’s first names. I registered this name with the County of Union, New Jersey. Once the name was in place I purchased a range of ISBNs (International Standard Book Numbers) from Bowker, the company that assigns them in the United States. The number for Rolenta Press was 0-9643848. I felt like a real publisher now.

The missing chapters from the Preview Edition were completed and included in this version. And as a thank you to the magazines and fanzines that supported me, I included a list of them. I also included a bibliography of all the source material that I had used, a subject index and an alphabetical list of titles of all the games mentioned in the book.

The Self-Publishing Manual suggested including coupons in the back of the book so readers who might have borrowed it could easily order their own copies. I followed this suggestion and made up a price of $19.99 plus $2.50 for shipping. Meanwhile I accepted any $14 order that I received since that was what had been quoted in the fanzines and EGM2.

Next came the cover. In the twenty-five years that had passed since I created my Antman comic books, my hidden talent for art still hadn’t emerged. So I created a plain tan cover that just had the word PHOENIX in “fancy” type and my name. For some reason I can no longer recall I selected the Cassia font for the subtitle, “The Fall & Rise of Home Videogames”. I also used that font for the name of the company and have continued using it into the present.

 The back cover looked much more professional. As per The Self-Publishing Manual I included testimonials in the form of edited reviews from seven fanzines and Chris Johnston’s EGM2 piece.

With the formatting of the book completed, I next needed someone to print it. The back pages of Writer’s Digest featured a classified section and one segment of it was book printers. I jotted down a few of them and sent away for sample copies. I was most impressed by Morris Publishing of Kearney, Nebraska. So I printed out my book and sent it off with an order for 1,000 copies.

The shipment of fifty boxes, each containing twenty copies of my 310-page book, arrived in December, 1994. Despite the simplicity of the cover, to me the books looked beautiful and professional.

I then went to the task of shipping all of the books to everyone who had bought one in the order of how I received them. I also sent sample copies out to magazines and they were enthusiastically reviewed. Some of those reviews can be found here.

I had always thought that the hardest thing about publishing a book was getting the book published. I soon learned that that wasn’t the case. The hardest part was getting the book distributed. I managed to sign on with one distributor who dealt with the library market but I couldn’t get anyone to get it into bookstores. Even my own local bookstore wouldn’t carry it. In hindsight it’s easy to figure out why. This was a book that dealt with a topic that every publisher I queried said nobody would be interested in. Add to that a bland non-eye-catching cover and you have a book that was deemed non-marketable. However, as Dan Amrich, who would later be an editor with Gamepro, stated in his Flux magazine review, “It’s still one of the only books out that even attempts to summarize the history of home gaming. Warts and all, it’s a good read.” Actually it was the only book out there that exclusively covered the history of videogames. And it was only a matter of time before knowledge of its existence spread by word-of-mouth.

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