Self-Publishing 2.0

Historically, self-publishing has been of little importance to the publishing industry. Editors and authors alike have regarded self-published works as amateurish and culturally insignificant, with few exceptions. Even today, with self-publishing on the rise, well known authors are not afraid to speak out against the practice. Only three months ago, bestselling thriller novelist Sue Grafton said in an interview with her local newspaper that self-publishing is “as good as admitting you’re too lazy to do the hard work”(1). Later in the interview she indicates that self-publishing is disrespectful to traditionally published authors and that self-published authors are wannabes. Luckily for the millions of motivated self-publishers out there, this mentality is slowly falling to the wayside.

Before the internet and electronic reading devices, an author who could not get a professional editor or publisher to vouch for their work, had little hope in creating success for themselves. Today, we find ourselves immersed in a very different literary climate and it has only been in the past couple years that the publishing industry as a whole has taken notice. In the past six months alone, big name publishing houses like Penguin and Simon & Schuester have indicated interest in the self-publishing boom by purchasing or starting vanity press imprints. Online retail giant, Amazon has made huge waves with its online self-publishing platform, CreateSpace, which allows authors to instantly publish their works to the Kindle. The book distributor giant, Ingram, has made similar efforts with is print on demand service, Lightning Source.

There are countless reasons why self-publishing is on the rise and the once antagonistic attitude surrounding the practice is beginning to fade. Among the greatest influences to this trend, are the advent of new electronic publishing platforms, the wider distributing and acceptance of electronic reading devices, and the widespread use of social media. These new technologies paired with the shortcomings and poor business strategies of the major players in the traditional publishing industry have inspired authors across the globe to reconsider the benefits of self-publishing. Many authors have decided they are better off taking sole responsibility for their work and publishing schedules. However, with the increasing prevalence of vanity publishers, print on demand, online retailers and other services catering to debut authors, the concept of a self-published work is becoming decidedly less clear.

By definition, a self-published author is a person who takes private responsibility for the reproduction, marketing, publicizing, and distributing of their own written words. Contrary to what is regularly advertised online and in magazines, nobody can self-publish for someone else. Authors can, however, hire individuals or companies to help with certain aspects of the publishing process. The practice of hiring professional help by authors is fundamentally different from traditional publishing. When an author hires outside assistance, they maintain creative control over their works, this is not the case in traditional publishing. Maintaining creative control is paramount to the practice of self-publishing. These hired experts can range from designers, copy-editors, proofreaders, and even ghost writers. Companies that offer these services, commonly advertise them as publishing packages. These companies are known as vanity or subsidy publishers, though they regularly claim to help authors self-publish, which is misleading. These publishing packages offer a set amount of help for a set amount of money, often compromising the author’s creative control. To truly be self-published, an author must foot all of the effort themselves, and the bill while maintaining creative control over their work. Despite the heavy amount of time and effort required by the author, self-publishing, whether true self-publishing or self-publishing with the aid of vanity presses, has gained new strength in the past couple years and shows very little indication of slowing down.

The publishing ecology today is astoundingly different than it was ten years ago, yet much of the traditional publishing industry has failed to recognize these changes, let alone act upon them. Dan Poynter is a self published author of over one-hundred books and a strong advocate for self-publishing. In his book, Dan Poynter’s Self-Publishing Manual Vol.2, he argues that traditional publishing houses are doomed to succumb to the digital era much like traditional television stations, radio stations, and music producers. He writes, “the major publishers will still be there, in a humbled, slimmed-down fashion, but they won’t matter nearly as much as they once did.” Mr. Poynter, like so many other advocates for self-publishing, believes that we have entered a new stage in the production and distribution of books. Just as amateur videos and music can be easily published online, up-voted or down-voted by internet users into either fame or digital purgatory, books are becoming a new digitally published phenomenon. The current movement away from traditional publishers and toward self-publishing is largely due to this online culture. As authors learn to use the internet and publishing software in new ways, the advantages of self-publishing become prevalent.

Web 2.0 is a phrase coined by O’ Reilly Media in 2004 to describe a shift in how the internet is used. Whereas Web 1.0 was largely based upon users posting information to the internet so that other users could view it, Web 2.0 describes a shift to an interactive web experience. This second generation of web-based services includes all social media and internet social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.). Since around the year 2000 (see figure 1), Internet activity has shifted toward word, video and picture sharing sites as well as online collaborations and wikis. Online collaboration and sharing among users has skyrocketed in the last decade, redefining what the Internet is and how it is used by the world. With sites like Youtube and Flikr, it is obvious how Web 2.0 has changed the publishing and distribution of photographs and videos, but how it has impacted the distribution of writing, especially novel length writing, is still vague to most consumers. As of today, novels aren’t shared, approved or disapproved by the use of a button on the same scale as photographs and videos, but why not?

By now, most readers are aware of electronic reading devices. Many large book retailers and electronics manufacturers have an E-reader on the market today (Amazon’s Kindle, B&N’s Nook, Sony’s Reader), but these devices are not the only reason, or arguably even the primary reason, as to why books are taking giant leaps towards digital publishing and self-publishing. The nature of the web has had a profound impact on how the world interacts with the written word. Any book must go through at least four stages: creation, production, distribution, and promotion. It is no doubt that E-readers have revolutionized the distribution aspect of book publishing, but it is the nature of Web 2.0 that has revolutionized every other aspect of publishing. A novel can currently be created, edited, designed, produced, published, distributed, and promoted with nothing more than a laptop and an Internet connection.

Web 2.0 has revolutionized self-publishing much in the way Ebay revolutionized the garage sale. Before Web 2.0, few authors had the capital to finance their own projects or the means to market them to a national audience, let alone a global audience. Today, the social networking sites that are driving the new generation of Internet are making nearly all aspects of publishing very affordable and relatively simple. More and more debut authors are realizing that the combined powers of Web 2.0 and electronic readers offer them more exposure than any traditional publishing house ever would. Nearly every aspect of book publishing has been simplified and made mostly affordable by the nature of Web 2.0. This is where the true success of the self-publishing movement lies.

Dan Poynter explains the relationship between Web 2.0 and self-publishing as an advantageous marketing technique because it allows authors to, “put your ideas in your audience’s hands…without the mediation of a jaded, over-commercialized publishing industry” (20). For an author to directly market to his readers for free and without leaving the comfort of his desk is an advantage that traditional publishing simply does not offer. Try to convince one of the big traditional publishers to run a press release in your local newspaper and you are likely to be denied your request. On the other hand, if you are solely in charge of your books marketing and promotion, what is to stop you? Even if that blurb in your local paper only sells two additional books, that is two more books than you would have sold through publishing with a traditional publisher. Similarly, should you publish your book through a major traditional publisher, you may, if you are very lucky, get a review in a major newspaper like The New York Times. It all sounds glamorous until you realize, as Mr. Poynter discusses, that NYT readers are not looking for your book when picking up the morning paper. The New York Times‘ readership is not likely to be your book’s target audience, so why waste the money and effort to get your book reviewed by them?

Poynter explains his marketing and promotions technique for the self-publisher by using one of his own books as an example. He brags that when he sends a “new skydiving book to the fifty-four parachute magazines and newsletters around the world, all fifty-four review it. That is a hit rate of 100 percent” (109). Obviously, skydiving books cater to a niche audience, so why not market directly to that niche audience? The way the internet works today, it is not very labor intensive to promote anything. The power of word-of-mouth promotion has been so amplified by social media and the nature of Web 2.0 that authors have never been so well equipped to reach their audiences.

Much is to be said about the power of a global market paired with direct marketing in regards to self-publishing. If fact, this is one of the largest advantages self-publishing currently has over traditional publishing. The ability of self-publishers to successfully and directly market to several niche audiences across the globe will someday be crippling to traditional publishing. In October of 2004, Chris Anderson published a fascinating article on called “The Long Tail.” Essentially, the phrase ‘the long tail’ describes the remarkably enormous market for media products deemed unprofitable by brick and mortar stores. This enormous market is easily tapped into by web-based companies. The widely known company, Netflix, has built an extremely successful business by catering to the consumers of so-called unprofitable movies. The long tail is essentially the shallow but endless pool of little known and lightly consumed titles. Anderson explains Netflix’s success in this way;

It doesn’t matter if the several thousand people who rent Doctor Who episodes each month are in one city or spread, one per town, across the country – the economics are the same to Netflix. It has, in short, broken the tyranny of physical space. What matters is not where customers are, or even how many of them are seeking a particular title, but only that some number of them exist, anywhere” (3).

Whereas a brick and mortar store could not afford the shelf space to stock a book, CD, or DVD that only sold one copy a year, online retailers have no problem doing so, in fact they are making a killing off of it. This business model of marketing directly to niche consumers has incalculable benefits for self-publishing authors. Because digital books have broken into the industry in a major way, authors can now find an audience anywhere. This is where E-readers show their true value. The more Kindles, Nooks, Sony Readers, Kobos, and Pocketbooks being used in the world, the more niche occupying consumers there are in the digital world for self-publishing authors to inexpensively and easily target.

In the spring of 2007, Michael Jenson wrote an article in The Journal of Electronic Publishing called “The Deep Niche,” in which he translates the advantages of Web 2.0 marketing and Anderson’s ‘Long Tail’ into business terms regarding electronic publishing. In his article, Jenson details how the breadth of audience members offered by the internet today fundamentally changes the publishing industry. He explains;

On any given day, there’s a huge number of men worldwide who for the first time in their lives are interested in Viagra, just as there is a minuscule percentage of the entire Web world who are interested in the aerodynamics of the Frisbee, just for this month. In an always-on broadband world of information abundance, that means that these people can explore these new interests instantly. This is the “deep niche”: the percentage of people who, on any given day, because of a passing fancy, or a new career, or a new experience, are interested in (and potentially willing to pay for) affordable high-quality content” (1).

These deep niche consumers are the driving force for many self-published authors. They represent a market that is currently ignored by most mainstream publishers similar to the way Blockbuster ignored DVD’s that failed to rent a certain number of copies a week. If traditional publishing houses do not want to suffer a fate similar to Blockbuster’s, they must start considering the ‘long tail’ and the ‘deep niche’ as legitimate markets. Jenson urges fellow publishers to view the Web 2.0 differently, “The deep niche… is something that publishers must acknowledge, and accommodate in our business plans, if we are to sustain ourselves. The Web is not merely a threat to publishers—it can also be the means to connect to the people we most want to reach: the interested reader” (3). This deep niche audience is a gold mine of consumers, it is simply a gold mine that is spread thinly across billions of people in hundreds of countries, making it a difficult target for traditional publishers of print books. Fortunately for self-publishers, the Web 2.0 paired with E-readers and online publishing platforms, makes it easy to consolidate these flecks of gold dust into a single revenue stream.

The most successful combination of online retail, electronic publishing and E-reader distribution is without a doubt Amazon’s Kindle paired with their subsidiary CreateSpace. The highly successful Kindle, and the CreateSpace publishing platform that Amazon has latched on to it, serve as a primary example for how E-reader’s have contributed to the self-publishing boom. Aside from the technological advantages, CreateSpace offers its authors up to 70% of royalties compared the the 8-12% that traditional publishers frequently offer. Amazon was among the first to capitalize on the benefits of catering to deep niche consumers. Today, Amazon reports that it is now selling more electronic books than print books. They first announced this sales fact back in 2011. The Washington Post reported in May of 2011, “The online retailer began selling electronic books for its Kindle in 2007. Since April 1, 2011, it has sold 105 Kindle books for every 100 print books, hardcover and paperback. And that figure excludes free Kindle books (1). This is a serious game changer. If the primary online retailer of books claims to be selling more e-books than print books, the publishing world had better listen. What this means for self-publishing is that the largest expense that has typically held self-publishing back, the printing and distribution of books, is dramatically decreasing in relevance to the success of a book. Books can now be sent straight to the consumer instantly and for free.

One of the biggest challenges of self-publishing is the fact that the author must front all the necessary funding for their books. This holds true whether they choose to do everything for themselves or hire others to help. As e-book sales continue to rise, online publishing platforms like Amazon’s CreateSpace will become increasingly available and wildly affordable. These services make your book instantly available to millions of E-reader owners, causing the expenses tied to publishing your own book to quickly disintegrate. But how big of an audience is this really? According to the PEW Internet and American Life Project, “The share of adults in the United States who own tablet computers nearly doubled from 10% to 19% between mid-December and early January and the same surge in growth also applied to e-book readers, which also jumped from 10% to 19% over the same time period” (1). These statistics are from the 2011 holiday season. Nearly one out of five American’s now own some type of electronic reading device. Just weeks ago Amazon claimed that the Kindle saw the best sales ever over the 2012 Thanksgiving weekend. Some reports claim that Kindle sales doubled again from last year. Pair these numbers with the fact that the nature of Web 2.0 allows you to directly market to billions of internet users, and self-publishing quickly becomes a mentionable enterprise. Should these sales trends hold, it won’t be long until E-readers follow the television and find their way into 99% of all American households. As promising as this sounds, self-publishing still isn’t making the wakes you would expect. Yes, there are some astounding success stories out there, but they do not represent the typical self-publishing experience.

Despite the growing markets and dropping expenses for self-publishing, authors still face a number of barricades between themselves and publishing success. A survey conducted earlier this year reports on more than one thousand self-published authors. Alison Flood, reporting for The Guardian, explains that the survey shows that half of self-published authors are making less than $500. The survey also shows that the average amount earned by self-published authors is about $10,000 dollars. However, this average income is largely skewed by the small percentage of top selling self-publishers who are making millions. The survey also made a few other surprising and interesting finds, Romance authors earned 170% more than their peers, while authors in other genres fared much worse: science-fiction writers earned 38% of the $10,000 average, fantasy writers 32%, and literary fiction authors just 20% of the $10,000 average” (1). This survey, conducted by the Taleist website, provides some fascinating insight into the ecology of the self-publishing realm. Perhaps the largest question that this survey raises is; what are the successful self-publishers doing right to see such great returns? Similarly, what are more than half of self-publishers doing wrong to make less than $500 on their title? The survey clearly shows that the topic or genre of the work can make an enormous difference to a book’s success. It turns out there are many other important factors. “Self-publishers who received help (paid or unpaid) with story editing, copy editing and proofreading made 13% more than the average; help with cover design upped earnings by a further 34%” (1). The survey also found that an overwhelming majority of the authors viewed themselves as successful and that more than half of them plan on self-publishing again. While many may view the fact that the top authors are making the majority of the money as a deterrent, these numbers are quite common in many industries. It is called the 80-20 rule or the Pareto rule, and it is explained in depth by Anderson in his article, “The Long Tail.” If this ratio of authors to income is a normal industry occurrence, then there must be something that top authors are doing better than the rest, and their success can not be attributed to the prestige of their publisher if they are self-publishing.

Don Poynter, the self-publishing guru and author of over a hundred books, suggests that if a self-published author fails to find success, it can be traced back to one of a few typical mistakes. Poor writing aside, the first and most obvious mistake made by many self-publishers is the lack of structured planning. Poynter states, “One of the largest pitfalls in small publishing is the lack of sufficient planning, especially the first time around” (138). For many self-published authors the process of publishing becomes a learn by trial-and-error experience. Perhaps this is why so many authors in the Taleist survey viewed themselves as successful and plan on releasing more books. Even if an author’s first book fails to sell, if that author learns a valuable lesson about how to optimize their publishing experience, that first book may be of value still, if only to the author. This learning experience has to be more valuable than a pile of rejection letters from traditional publishers. Poynter also attributes many failures to the fact that the author likely skipped one of the four major steps to publishing. He argues, “When a book fails to sell…it was written, manufactured, perhaps distributed – and then the author became distracted. Or the author lacked persistence and failed to follow through” (15). After all, not every author can be expected to understand the inter-workings of the industry. The findings of the Taleist survey only reinforces the fact the many self-publishers don’t have the understanding or the tools to carry out every single aspect of the publishing process by themselves. It is expected for authors who sought outside professional assistance to be met with more success in sales. A few truly self-published authors have been met with unbelievable success, and more often than not it is because they fully understand and utilize the benefits Web 2.0 offers to marketing and self-promotion.

Hugh Howey is one of these authors. Howey is a self-published science-fiction author whose Wool series have found tremendous success through Amazon’s publishing platform, CreateSpace. Howey’s books have regularly appeared on Amazon’s featured writers lists. Just earlier this fall, Howey discussed his books’ success with CNN’s John Sutter. Interestingly enough, Howey explains that he didn’t put much effort into his first book, assuming it wouldn’t sell anyway. He credits the self-publishing platform for his success, maintaining that his books likely would have never been published without it. In October of 2011, Howey’s sales started to explode. He explains his reaction to CNN, ““I was taking screenshots and posting them on Facebook,” he said of the moment when the books started appearing on Amazon’s top-100 lists… “I was kind of bewildered by the whole thing””(1). Today, Hugh Howey has a personal website that tracks his progress on all of his writing. He also posts to his website regularly, treating it more like a personal blog and medium for interaction with fans than a mere author biography page. Hugh Howey has embraced Web 2.0 as a personal marketing and promotions machine, and because of his constant upkeep, he is able to target deep niche consumers on a daily basis. In a recent post, Howey sums up his successes in publishing, “One year ago, I was shelving books, arranging displays, dusting a bookstore, and writing in the mornings and on my lunch breaks. Cut to a year later. Ridley Scott and Steve Zaillian option the film rights. 20 foreign countries pick up WOOL. Random House in the UK and Australia. #1 on Amazon. #11 on the New York Times list” (1). Could this level of success, or more importantly this speed of success have been accomplished through traditional publishing avenues? Traditional publishers take months upon months, sometimes even years, to reach a pub date. Whereas, self-publishers like Howey can analyze their personal markets and followings through their interactive websites and social media sites, constantly keep their readers informed on their progress (down to the word count), and then instantly publish and distribute.

Without a doubt all businesses and industries tied to the world of books should be watching the trends of self-publishing very carefully. Many are viewing this trend as a complete shift for the publishing industry all together. As Web 2.0 and self-publishing platforms grow stronger, more authors, bloggers, and writers are becoming aware of the faults in traditional publishing. Bernard Starr, a professor at CUNY and a contributing writer for Huffington Post, makes apparent the shortcomings of traditional publishers in his article, “The New Vanity Publishing: Traditional Publishing.” He writes, “Fact is that authors no longer need a publisher. And more and more writers are awakening to the realization that if you are not a high-profile author who can command large sales, a traditional publisher will do little for you beyond editing and printing your book” (1). This is grim news for debut authors. Many debut authors today find themselves in the middle of this dynamic shift in the publishing world. They currently have the choice of pursuing the traditional publishing route and facing countless rejection letters, or pursuing the self-publishing route and facing the lingering stigma of many established authors and editors.

The stigma that self-published works are of poor quality, and the products of lazy writers will doubtless continue to fade with time as the market is continually flooded with more electronic books and more self-published authors. After all, even self-published authors have access to professional assistance with their books as subsidy publishers and vanity publishers gain recognition as viable options. Starr suggests that traditional publishers risk losing their reputations as the guardians of great literature if they continue to heavily cater to big name authors and celebrities, effectively ignoring new voices and talents. He explains,

“Unless an author receives a hefty advance of $100,000 or more most publishers will do virtually no promotion, leaving it to authors to create and exploit their own platforms via social media and networking connections, workshops and webcasts. So when you go the traditional-publishing route, you may well find yourself self-publishing without the benefits of self-publishing” (2).

This is a reality that more and more authors are becoming aware of and considering when deciding on their methods of publishing. Hugh Howey, for example, with his tremendous success to support him, maintains that, “The stigma is gone… Publishers will pick up a self-published work if it does well. Readers are really just interested in good stories” (2). 

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