In 2011, Bowker (the agency responsible for assigning ISBN codes to all the books in the US) reported that approximately 43% of the books printed for the year were listed as being self-published. They also noted a rise in the listing of ebooks that are self-published, but because not all outlets require an ISBN (and Bowker only counts the ISBNs) the number was likely much higher than they recorded. It’s estimated that in 2008, ebooks accounted for 1% of all published books, but by 2014 that ratio rose to nearly 35%.
Why the sudden increase in self-publishing? In past years an author would write their masterpiece, then search out an agent; or cold contact a publishing house, praying to get someone to notice their work and want to buy it from them. A very small percentage of authors ever made it past the submission stage. Rejection letters would pile up over the years while waiting on a publisher to take notice.
Then along came companies that offered print on demand (PoD) publishing. For no cost to the author, they would accept manuscripts and print them as their customers ordered them. They accepted anything that fit within their standards of “good taste”. If it didn’t sell, it was no problem to them. Sure the books cost a little bit extra so these companies could skim off the top, but you could publish it yourself at no cost to you.
Then, to make things even easier, along came the e-reader, and digital libraries hungry for content to offer their customers. Amazon and the iBookstore, and even Barnes and Noble, all opened their digital warehouse to independent publishers. Ebooks were even cheaper to produce on demand, and with a typical 30% cut taken off the top, they were even more profitable for authors as well.
Now anyone can be an author with very little cost to themselves.
What does this mean for publishing?
Setting aside the extensive debate about whether ebooks are going to make printed books obsolete, and the belief that self-publishing is driving up the price of books coming out of traditional publishing houses, there are two huge consequences. One of them is primarily positive, and one is very potentially negative.
First, the bright side. Because self-publishing is now viable, there are thousands of new authors who can get their voices heard. There are thousands of stories that can be told. Genres have expanded and are bursting at the seams. There is something out there for everyone’s taste, no matter how obscure. No longer is the reader subject to popular marketing and what the publishing house thinks they want. Opportunity is spread out wide before every writer, waiting for them to grab hold of their dreams.
But with every bright side, there’s a shadow. It used to be that for every successful author there were a thousand that were rejected. Some of these may have been brilliant works, but many were just not good enough. With self-publishing, anyone can be an author. There is no quality assurance process for ebook creation. There is no editor sitting behind a desk dropping manuscripts in the trash. It’s up to the reader to sort out what is quality and what is crap. It’s given rise to the review system, bringing an entirely new barrier into publishing that doesn’t happen during printing… but during marketing.
So what does this mean for you, as a potential author or independent publisher?
It means that instead of worrying about getting your book created, you have to worry about selling it. You can print (or digitize) anything, but your success depends on being able to get people to read and like it.
Self-publishing is putting responsibility for an author’s success directly in the hands of the author. There are opportunities popping up like never before, and they are more slippery than ever before. Make sure, when you make the choice to self-publish, that you go in with your eyes open.
For more info on self-publishing and what it entails, you can visit www.selfpublishedauthor.com, a site created by Bowker to help the independent author. There is great information there and a list of other useful links so you can do your own research into the world of publishing.