New York times Article: Motoko Rich

This is a reprint of a posting from last year.

The point may soon come when there are more people who want to write books than there are people who want to read them.”
New York Times, January 27th, 2009.
This is an opening quote from an article about self publishing in the New York Times this week by Motoko Rich about the rise in self publishing. It is true, interesting and nice to see such a well established newspaper cast a cursory eye over an area of the publishing business which has long exploded into life. But perhaps it is actually no real news to anyone who has entered the world of self publishing already, whether taking on every facet of self publishing, from designing their own interior and cover layouts for a printer, getting quotes, and ultimately promoting and marketing their own finished book to the trade and customer, or contracting the multitude of author service companies available, from AuthorHouse, Lulu, Xlibris, Infinity, and even Amazon’s own self publishing program through companies like Booksurge and Createspace.
The fact is that every author who published a ‘Self Made Entrepreneur’, ‘Get Rich Quick Business Plan’, ‘Diet for a Heavenly Body Program’, and ‘Find Your Way Through Spiritualism to a Heavenly Pathway’, ‘How to Become a Millionaire’, ‘Collected Sermons by the Evangelical Reverend Jones’, ‘Become a Success by Winking at Everyone’, ‘Farm Peanuts and Become the Next President’, have all being plying this kind of publishing method for the past twenty years. With print on demand technology, gone are the days when your living room, spare bedroom and garage were filled with boxes of unsold books.
“The trend is also driven by professionals who want to use a book as an enhanced business card as well as by people who are creating books as gifts for family and friends.”
New York Times, January 27th, 2009.
Pretty much since the internet strolled in to our homes some years ago, ordered a pizza, slumped down in dad’s best chair, and announced it was taking up residence and staying for good, this kind of publishing has been a mainstay in our lives.
The very heart and soul of writing is the honest and brutal fact that ‘everyone has a book in them’ and that’s exactly where it should stay, or is it? The companies who offer the self publishing services I mentioned above to would-be authors don’t agree. There are many more companies as well. They are popping up ten-to-the-penny at the moment. Some last, and others are gone within months, leaving authors disconsolate, bitter and lost in the quagmire of the publishing world. There are of course a few, who for a fee will offer an author the promotional and marketing services so desperately needed to launch a worthy book. Some like Book-pro and Booklocker will screen incoming manuscripts and reject them if they do not believe the author or the book have the necessary will or market to succeed reasonably well. Others, at the medium to low end, are simply printers masquerading in the guise of publishers. Open your next Sunday newspaper or magazine digest and you will see the back pages proliferated with small ads for these companies. ‘Seeking New Writers’, ‘Want to be Published?’, ‘See your Book in Print’; the tag lines are endless.
“This month, the company [Author Solutions], which is owned by Bertram Capital, a private equity firm, bought a rival, Xlibris, expanding its profile in the fast-growing market. The combined company represented 19,000 titles in 2008, nearly six times more than Random House, the world’s largest publisher of consumer books, released last year.”
New York Times, January 27th, 2009.
There is the key to the success and explosion of self publishing companies. The business model is based not on finding a ‘best seller’ to finance smaller selling titles on a publisher’s list of titles, which is the basis of a tradition publisher like Penguin, HarperCollins or Random House, but rather, upsell an author package to 10000 authors in a year worldwide (that’s 10000 x anything from $500 to $2500) and you have a very serious business going. Even at $500, you’re looking at $5 million, with a potential of anything up to $25 million. Yes, many large self publishers like iUniverse, Createspace and Wordclay have invested considerable amounts of money online in making it easier for authors to ‘load up’ their magnum opus, but the returns to the publisher far outweigh their investments. To the average author using these services, on the best and most advantages figures, they might sell 100 to 200 copies of their book, showing a modest and minimal profit. Lulu, another large and successful author self publishing service, when averaged across all titles published, clocks in at less than 2 books sold per author! So where exactly is the kudos in self publishing?
Many within the tradition publishing trade would scream ‘Vanity’, a self rhetorical examination of our own value and personal journey, and the greatest thinkers and writers among us would scream, ‘but that’s how I started’. Many self publishing companies are expert in spinning the marketing lines of how Poe, Joyce, Whitman, Wilde etc., ad nausea, and many others started on the ‘self publishing’ ladder, but, at best, when properly researched, their stories are romantic, fanciful, and very much from a world of publishing when the average man in the street hadn’t an arse in his trousers – no more than the education to read but a handful of words from a printed page. Literature was not for the common masses and, sadly, this is the world traditional publishing is steeped to its gills in. Today, for the common man and woman, the exact opposite is true. In spite of our recessionary times, more books are being sold and read than ever before in history. Book retailers cringe at the discounts they are passing on to the buying public. Distributors and wholesalers cringe at the returns that land back on their doorsteps month after month. In part, the written word has imposed itself into our very being, from emails; from mobile phones and text messaging, twittering to its heart’s content like an innocent songbird; the explosion of chat and forum networking across the globe; human speech presents itself as a few simple words, and the words come so easily and cheap now. The written ink upon parchment paper is no longer as sacred.
“Vanity presses have existed for decades, but technology has made it much easier for aspiring authors to publish without hefty upfront costs. Gone are the days when self-publishing meant paying a printer to produce hundreds of copies that then languished in a garage.”

New York Times, January 27th, 2009.
Print on demand technology has its origins in the banking industry. It was the efficient method chosen to print statements from an electronic file, and so the whole print industry saw a new purpose. With more sophistication and technique, we had the printed book, one by one, at a quality that now rivals offset print methods. And with no inventory storage expenses and at a cost which will no doubt soon cross swords with traditional press machines, even the cumbersome and traditional publishing companies have embraced it for re-issuing small runs of back catalogue titles which before would never have seen the light of day. But it is not just the technology which has infiltrated the traditional publishing companies – recessionary times aside and the need for a dollar to stretch further – the whole way publishing has worked for nigh on two centuries is also changing.
It is hard to say right now where traditional publishers find themselves in this sea of uncertainty. Paper costs steadily rising, profit margins of retailers growing smaller, and the very source of the written word, the author, finding more discriminate and direct ways to bypass the publisher to reach their reading masses. Will we see the grand publishing house reduced to being a mere media/promotional outlet for the author? The publishing terrain is uncertain. Companies who were printers now call themselves a publisher, that is, in practicality, and not necessarily reality. Few will and probably can ever step up to the mark and call themselves publishers in the sense of what a traditional model of a publisher amounts to. Publishing is about risk investment, whether for the publisher or the author themselves. Even publishers now expect more input and a populist ‘hands-on’ profile from their authors regarding promotion than ever before. The agent is expected to delivery near perfect manuscript to the publisher at the very time when we hear the same publisher casting out its editors into oblivion.
Motoko Rich, in his New York Times article, very much highlights the rare successes of self published authors managing to get picked up by large publishing houses. This may remain the same for self published authors for the foreseeable time, but through the global advance of the internet and the slow but steady increase in online book sales, self published authors are coming up with more and more avenues to circumvent the traditional publishing path to success. The mainstay of self publishing companies will always be an author paying the package fee and then buying their own books to sell on to family and friends. It is the authors who take on self publishing in its truest sense, that is finding an editor and printer, setting up their own imprint, obtaining their own ISBN’s and promoting and selling their own books with professionalism, guile, perseverance and ingenuity who may one day change the way books reach the light of day and the buying public.
In time, the way authors see their work reach the reading public; the control they have upon it when they set it free; the way the written word is dispensed in format, and the methods we use to propagate it, sell it, digest it; may change, but the power of the written word will always remain sacred; it is up to us all how we truly value and treasure it over the next two centuries.
You can read Motoko Rich’s New York Times article in full at the link below.

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