Now and the Future
For PUB 401, Fall 2011
Word count: 1,977
Earlier this year, The Atlantic featured a short article titled The Big Authors Begin to Bolt in which it was implied that popular authors are opting out of working with conventional publishers and pursuing the path of self-publishing (Sullivan, 2011). With the advent of technology and its fusion with the book industry, self-publishing has become something of a phenomenon and it is not hard to see why; choosing self-publishing enables greater control for the authors and, considering that conventionally published books take a year or more to be launched, a simpler market cycle. That simplicity seemed to be the beauty of self-publishing; if the author wanted to write something and get it to an audience hassle-free, she could do it here and now. The book marketplace is increasingly being flooded by do-it-yourselfers who are clamouring to succeed and consequently, many are wondering if the sweeping digital revolution signals a future that is dominated by these self-published writers who are beginning to colonize the ebook market. Although it makes sense for some writers to self-publish, taking a closer look at sustainability of the trending market, changing role of the writer as a marketer and finally brick-and-mortar publishers’ monopoly of the distribution channels reveals that it is too early to predict the fall of the legacy model.
There is a pervading sense of concern for quality and quantity in the scope of self-publishing in the digital world. First of all, there is the obvious point that authors who choose to bypass the conventional industry model of working with a publisher does not experience the benefits of in-house professionals whose experience and recognized skills greatly contribute to the quality of a manuscript. By definition, self-publishing bypasses any kind of quality check or standard. With the help of self-publishing sites such as Amazon, Createspace, Lulu and PubIt! from Barnes & Noble, documents of any genre and any content can be transformed into a visible, sellable book; while it is true that many individuals who self-publish are credible writers, countless others with no background of writing embark on self-publishing in hopes of selling a handful of copies, or even becoming an unexpected sensation. Although many self-published authors hire freelance copyeditors or graphic designers, the nature of the freelancing industry makes finding the right professional a daunting task, something that may never be accomplished successfully. As a result, although many self-published works are brilliant, a lot leaves the readers lamenting at quality.
Besides aspiring self-publishers who write for literary merit, there are individuals who self-publish purely for profit. In other words, self-publishing mechanisms are so easy to use that anyone looking to make a buck or two could “publish” anything for the possibility of making a buck or two. Consider the genre of how-to; by thinking of what they think people will want, spammers can put together some information, put a cover, and self-publish it to call it a book that can be bought by the digital audience. Creating such spam materials also incurs extremely little or no cost at all, and considering that Amazon pays authors 70 to 35 percent of revenue for ebooks depending on the price, spammers can easily profit despite selling very little (Barr, 2011).
According to Reuters (Barr, 2011), fewer than 33,000 non-traditional books were published in 2010 while over 215,000 traditional books from publishing houses came out from U.S. alone. The trend of non-traditional books has increased dramatically while traditional book publishing experienced less notable increase; 2009 saw the publication of 1.33 million non-traditional books and 302,000 traditional, while in 2010, almost 2.8 million non-traditional books and 316,000 traditional books were published in the United States (Barr, 2011). This influx of books online has two implications that can seriously hinder the future of self-publishing online. First, there are simply too many books and without proper quality control, readers are left to sift through millions of 99 cent “books” to find what they really want. Secondly, easy self-publishing has made a writer out of everyone and while the model may help writers who could not impress agents and editors, it also pits these unknown writers at a disadvantage by creating a market that is too competitive. In this trending ecosystem where there are too many books and writers of which many are mere spammers, serious upstart writers must fight for readers.
Interestingly, advent of technology that created this troubling competitive ecosystem in the first place is also a key for writers, whether self-published or not, to distribute and promote their work. This is especially true for self-published writers who have no access to conventional marketing and distributing streams that come with working with a brick-and-mortar publisher. Although many self-published writers depend on recommendations and viral marketing, some of the most successful self-published writers can credit much of their success to their own marketing abilities that created a brand out of themselves.
According to Andrew Sullivan (2009) who managed The Atlantic’s The Daily Dish from 2006 to 20011, “[a] brand is someone you would read regardless of the subject.” An upstart self-publishing writer without a publisher or an agent to work with is a one-person business; although she is free to hire a freelancer to help with marketing or distribution, that is extra cost in an already risky position. The writer must go outside her traditional boundary as an author whose primary role is to write; she must enter the foreign territory of marketing in order to reach her readers who will pay for her work and justify her career as a writer. For example, Andrew Sullivan has been encouraging his readers for several years to send him pictures of what they see from their window and compiled that into a book which others can buy online (Sullivan, 2006; Phillips, 2009). The price of the book depends on when the order is placed because it costs more to operate smaller print-runs. However, blogger Betsy Phillips (2009) argues that Sullivan’s self-publishing project works because Sullivan is a successful marketer for himself; besides having more than 3,500 Twitter followers, Sullivan regularly wrote for The Atlantic, appears on Bill Maher, and writes one of the most popular blogs on the Internet. His career as a self-publisher was successful primarily because he brought his already-existing large audience with him.
Whether it is through blogging, tweeting or using other methods of social networking, it is important for writers to build their personal brand to create the buzz that will help readers distinguish the respective writer from a clamoring fray of writers in the digital world. Amanda Hocking who is wildly successful notes that her career as a paranormal romance series writer only started taking off once she marketed herself by contacting book bloggers, catapulting her sales from $362 to $3,180 in a single month (Hocking, 2010). She has created a loyal base of followers since then and maintains an active blog, Facebook, and Goodreads, and averages at approximately 9,000 ebook sales per day (Saroyan, 2011). This evident need for self-promotion implies the changing role of an author. Amanda Hocking is without a doubt a successful self-publishing author and also a very good marketer, but surely her situation is not common or otherwise a lot more self-publishing writers on Internet will be experiencing the same sensational success. As well, it can be said that Andrew Sullivan was successful in his venture because he already had an existing audience. Much of successful self-publishing career relies on successful self-branding, but it is questionable whether all self-publishing writers will be able to fulfill this requirement for versatility to a degree of successfully being able to reach the digital audience while being faithful to their primary role as a writer. Amanda Hocking summarized her situation upon her decision to sign with a major publisher. “I want to be a writer,” she said. “I do not want to spend forty hours a week handling e-mails, formatting covers, finding editors, etc. Right now, being me is a full-time corporation.”
Without a doubt, ebook sales are increasing. During the period of January 2009 and August 2009, the revenue from ebook sales was $89.8 million, whereas the same period in the year 2010 showed sales of $263 million (Scribd, 2010). That is a staggering 193 percent growth in just a year- perhaps the only significant growth within the publishing industry. This impressive figure has still mostly been growing since August 2010. However, this digital trend does not necessarily spell the end of traditional print publishing industry. Despite ebook’s impressive growth, ebook sales in 2010 comprised only 9.03 percent of total revenue in publishing industry (Scribd, 2010). The reality is that even now, most of the industry revenue comes from brick-and-mortar bookstores.
Self-publishing industry has come a long way since the days when it was simply referred to as “vanity publishing”, but the reality is that it is still attached to a certain stigma that makes it difficult to be sold in bookstores. Although self-publishers may have largely colonized the ebook market, conventional print publishers as a whole still hold the monopoly on the ability to reach wider group of readers (Shatzkin, 2011). This is not uncommon knowledge; previously discussed successful self-publisher Amanda Hocking has recently signed with Macmillan’s St. Martin’s Press for her next series. According to Hocking (2011), her decision to sign with a publisher was influenced by her readers’ inability to find her books at bookstores. Similarly, popular self-publishing writer Barry Eisler decided that working with Amazon’s publishing program suited him more than working independently. Although self-publishing as a career option has largely improved, working with conventional print publisher will grant more exposure, and this heightened visibility has high potential to increase both print and ebook sales for these self-publishers (Hocking, 2011; Shatzkin, 2011). The trend neither makes nor breaks the conventional publishing model; whereas it is true that self-publishers are gaining more presence in the digital world through proliferation of ebooks, prominent self-publishing writers are spilling over to print to gain more visibility and career stability as a writer.
Self-publishing is not without benefits; it gives the writer better control over the publishing process, allows more prominence in the increasingly digital world, and delivers the writer an increased share of each profit. The wave of self-publishing in the digital age is real and it poses a threat to the conventional print publishers whose model of business has remained long remained unchanged. But few points must be considered before determining the end of conventional brick-and-mortar publishers. The easiness of ebook self-publishing has given rise to writers whose vast majority of work has been published without adequate quality check, as well as spammers whose primary aim is to gain profit by intentionally publishing poor-quality “books”. This raises serious concerns for market sustainability in the ecosystem of self-publishing; continuing influx of poor-quality materials coupled with no adequate means of quality control by gatekeepers such as Amazon or Barnes & Nobles’ PubIt! poses serious danger that readers will be left to sift through millions of ebooks in search for a product they want. Self-publishers need to be wary of marketing tactics to succeed in this market, and many are catching on. On the contrary, this acknowledgement of the author’s changing role as both a writer and one-person business promoter is threatening to downplay the author’s primary role as a writer. Finally, working with a conventional publisher allows access to wider distribution; majority of readers still depend on physical bookstores to get their books, and notable self-publishers are catching on and making a transition to print by working with publishers who regard these writers’ self-publishing history as a kind of career portfolio. The legacy model will not yet fade away and it has power to stay, but publishers must recognize their own shifting roles in the changing ecosystem and possess the willingness to be flexible with the business model that they have long held onto.
Barr, A. (2011). Spam clogging amazon’s kindle self-publishing. Reuters, Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/06/16/us-amazon-kindle-spam-idUSTRE75F68620110616 Accessed Sept 30, 2011.
Hocking, A. Aug 27, 2010. “an epic tale of how it all happened.” Amanda Hocking’s Blog (blog) Blogpost. http://amandahocking.blogspot.com/2010/08/epic-tale-of-how-it-all-happened.html Accessed Sept 29, 2011.
Hocking, A. Mar 24, 2011. “The Blog.” Amanda Hocking’s Blog (blog) Blogpost. http://amandahocking.blogspot.com/2011/03/blog.html Accessed Sept 29, 2011.
Phillips, B. (2009). Eat me, Jonathan Safran Foer: ostensibly a post about books, Nashville Scene, Retrieved from http://www.nashvillescene.com/pitw/archives/2009/11/24/eat-me-jonathan-safran-foer-ostensibly-a-post-about-books Accessed Sept 30, 2011.
Saroyan, S. (2011). Storyteller, New York Times Magazine, Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/19/magazine/amanda-hocking-storyseller.html?pagewanted=1&_r=3 Accessed Sept 29, 2011.
Scribd. (2010). AAP reports publisher book sales for August: Year to date e-book sales comprise 9.0% of trade book sales. Retrieved from http://www.scribd.com/doc/39323406/AAP-Reports-Publisher-Book-Sales-for-August Accessed Sept 23, 2011.
Shatzkin, M. Jun 26, 2011. Would million e-book selling author John Locke be better off with a publisher? I think he very well might…. The Shatzkin Files (blog) Retrieved from http://www.idealog.com/blog/would-million-ebook-selling-author-john-locke-be-better-off-with-a-publisher-i-think-he-very-well-might Accessed Sept 28, 2011.
Sullivan, A. (2009). Self-branding and writing, The Atlantic, Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/daily-dish/archive/2009/02/self-branding-and-writing/206171/ Accessed Sept 30, 2011.
Sullivan, A. (2011). The big authors begin to bolt. The Atlantic, Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/daily-dish/archive/2011/03/the-big-authors-begin-to-bolt/173826/ Accessed Sept 28, 2011.