As more and more aspiring authors debate over traditional versus independent publishing, I am weighing in this debate by exploring the pluses and minuses of each option. Herein I will consider the relationship between author and publisher from a historical perspective, I will look at self-publishing from a business and marketing standpoint, I will share statistics and trends, and I will mull over the future of publishing.
Over the past five years or so we’ve talked extensively about self-publishing given tremendous opportunities created by digital technology, but self-publishing is not new. Shortly after the invention of the printing press in Germany in 1450, German painter Albrecht Durer self-published an illustrated book called The Apocalypse, as reported by Hyperallergic and other sources. As a side note, Durer’s godfather, Anton Koberger, one of Germany’s most successful publishers around that time, published The Nuremberg Chronicle in 1493 – that book is on display at Vassar College through December this year.
To resume, artists and writers with entrepreneurial spirit have always existed. In the 17th and 18th century Europe self-publishing was fairly common; self-publishers were using subscription models to hook new readers. But moving forward into the 19th century, the advent of newspapers and magazines changed again the way publishers were doing business, by enabling them to publish short book excerpts and popularize novel ideas. It’s worth mentioning the essay published in October this year by The Economist magazine From Papyrus to Pixels: The Digital Transformation Has Only Just Begun, a piece musing over the past and future of publishing from different perspectives.
Granted, the relationship between authors and publishers hasn’t always been a rosy one: in 1849, for instance, Thoreau had a hard time finding a publisher for A Week on the Concord and Merimack Rivers, as reported by Brain Pickings; eventually, he paid out of pocket to print 1,000 copies – only 300 would sell. In 1845 Edgar Allan Poe only made $20 for the publication of The Raven, despite the instant success of the poem. Meanwhile, in 1855 Walt Whitman decided to self-publish Leaves of Grass – Whitman only printed 800 copies, and although the sales weren’t great, the author wasn’t discouraged. Today, we’re looking at traditionally published authors like David Mamet, who is considering self-publishing, and also at successful self-published authors like Bella Andre, who sold millions of copies of her novels, and made The New York Times Bestseller List.
Self-Publishing Is a Business
Self-Publishing is a business. Writers who self-publish are also publishers, marketers, and business managers. Publishing a book is very much like a start-up – it involves everything from product development, the book, to knowing the technology that’s involved, resources that are available, project cost, market research, branding, distribution, sales, and taxes. Successful self-published authors understand the book market – they know what people read, and how they read, know who their competition is, know how to price their books, know how to promote and distribute; they can compare different publishing models, and make a profit. In sum, authors who self-publish are more than writers – they are also entrepreneurs.
Self-publishing and book marketing go hand in hand, because authors who self-publish have to market their books, and build name recognition. Therefore, in addition to being writers, authors today are also performers, communicators, and brands. In that sense, I’m quoting Helmut von Berg, a publishing expert, who said for Publishing Perspectives in January 2013 that: “publishing of the future is networked publishing.”Also Seth Godin, who just published a CD of his bestselling book Tribes, emphasizes the importance of having a tribe, when it comes to marketing and sales: “All those blogs and social networking sites are helping existing tribes get bigger and enabling new tribes to be born.”
Trends and Statistics
In 2013 there were a total of 458,564 self-published titles, an increase of 17% from 2012; broken down by format in 2013 self-publishers published 302,622 print books, an increase of 28.80% compared to 2012, and 155,942 e-books, a decrease of 1.60% compared to 2012. The source is Bowker Market Research.
In 2013 self-publishers preferred print to digital, a remarkable finding, considering how much easier it is to self-publish digital rather than print content. The ratio print to digital was 60 – 40 in 2012; in 2013 that changed to 66 – 34 print to digital.
Also, another exciting trend, in October 2014 Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest book festival, expanded its successful self-publishing German-language arena to include English-language books; the fair hosted this year a two-day intensive program dedicated to self-publishers, thus acknowledging the increased importance of independent publishing.
The Future of Publishing
In recent years we’ve seen a constant increase in self-published titles. But traditional publishers are no stranger to this market either: in 2008 HarperCollins created Authonomy.com, a site dedicated to independent authors; in 2011 Penguin U.S. created a similar site called Bookcountry.com; in 2012 Penguin acquired Author Solutions, one of the biggest self-publishing conglomerates; also in 2012 Simon & Schuster partnered with Author Solutions to create Archway Publishing. Furthermore, in 2013 Bowker, the agency that issues ISNBs in the United States, in existence since 1868, created a site called SelfPublishedAuthor.com, providing resources for authors contemplating independent publishing. In sum, traditional publishers appear not only to have been embraced self-publishing, but also to profit from it.
Pundits looking at traditional publishing models ponder over what changes the future might bring. And editors working in big publishing houses already moonlight as freelancers for independent projects. Meanwhile, Penguin UK is offering online writing courses, thus this major company becomes more than a publisher, and enters the realm of instruction and education. Other pundits wonder whether traditional publishers would unbundle their services, and thus offer authors just what they need, whether be editorial services, design, marketing or distribution.
In conclusion, should you self-publish or look for a publisher? The answer depends on a whole range of factors. It’s important to look at both options, and assess pluses and minuses. Ultimately the decision will depend on the goals and needs of each author, and the nature of each book project – some projects are more complex than others from an editorial, legal, or financial standpoint. Your choice.
© 2014 Simona David