Publishing & Self-Publishing in 2010

I read quite a lot each day about the issues going on in the publishing world, but in particular about self-publishing and the part it now plays within the industry of book publishing. Note the subtle emphasis on the word within. Say nothing—keep it under your hat—just maybe they, the industry, won’t notice! What is significant today is much of what appears in trade magazines, news services, publisher and writer blogs, as well as the wider media dealing with the latest technological and digital advances in publishing is just as relevant to independent and self-published authors as it is to the most seasoned publishing houses or bestselling authors. I would go further and suggest the challenges facing publishing houses—trade and independent—in the current economic climate are what self-publishing authors experience in their microcosm world of publishing. Make no mistake—self-publishing a book is a business decision and slowly but surely authors entering the field are realising this fact.
Self-published authors have long been dealing with the commercial dilemmas of e-book platforms and formats, targeting, and crucially, engaging their readership with carefully but aggressively led viral marketing plans. What self-published authors are quickly learning, particularly authors of non-fiction, is that the paper product of book is not necessarily always the primary selling point. It can often simply be a promotional tool used to present an idea, service, strategy or philosophy.
The core focus of POD, Self Publishing & Independent Publishing has always been to look at global publishing from the perspective of the author considering the possibility of publishing their book outside of the mainstream channels—that is—sans literary agent and even the sniff of a publisher or small press of any kind. I’ve never seen self-publishing as some form of compartmentalised oddity on the soles of the publishing industry’s shoes or the guy who hawks folded and stapled A4 sheets of verse through the pubs of Ireland. This romantic notion of bard with verse may have once been the view of self-publishing in its bad old days of vanity publishers, but it no longer reflects a burgeoning industry within a larger industry.
Though our pub crawler with his sheets of stapled verse may consider himself as published and legitimate an author as Joyce, Yeats, Hemmingway, Pynchon or Picoult, the fact is, the self-published fraternity have dramatically upped their game in the past ten years. Self-publishing may have an unfair perception of poor-quality books and content, but is no longer the outpost for Aunt Maple’s home recipes for family and friends. It is now the playing field of talented authors with true and original voices as well as highly motivated business entrepreneurs.
I’ve hosted several short hour-long sessions with writers’ workshops and book clubs with the topic of discussing self-publishing. I carry out the same exercise at the start of each one. I lay out ten books, a mix of fiction, non-fiction, paperback and hardback, and challenge them to identify the two books self-published or printed through an author solutions service. After several minutes and much mumbling, they all make their choices and note them down having been encouraged to sniff, stroke, rub and read each book on the table. They will usually be insistent as a group on which ones are bona-fide and the three or four that ‘look suspect’. I normally go through the books afterwards with them and announce that actually eight of them are self-published and only two published by mainstream publishing houses. You won’t believe how many times at least one mainstream title ends up being one of the suspect pair. Yes, I did have a session where they both ended up as the suspect pair. God knows why some woman thought Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee was self-published!
I mention this exercise in the context of my opening paragraph and the fact that readers of books pay little or no attention to who the publisher of a book is; be it CreateSpace or Canongate, Little-Brown or Lulu. Branding only means something to the reader in the context of the author they identify with and the words produced on page. We don’t shop for books in the same way we shop for food. A good book is a good book and the most discerning and fickle editor in the world is often the ordinary reader.
The landscape of global publishing has dramatically changed in the past year. I find it increasingly difficult to speak about publishing without instinctively including self-publishing. For one, the most innovative and refreshing approach to modern publishing is coming from self-published authors, though not necessarily from the author solutions services they choose to pay and use. For the most part, with a few exceptions, authors get their book set up with a digital printer and made available online and the potential to provide a finished product comparable with anything offered from a commercial house, provided the author invests in good editing and design services. From there on, the author is pretty much on their own to promote and market their book online, or ideally, secure distribution and placement on the shelves of bookshops—something even commercial publishers are finding harder to do with low and mid-listed titles from their catalogues.
Without doubt the most significant news in self-publishing occurred in late 2009. For many traditional-thinking purist of the publishing industry—the unthinkable happened. Thomas Nelson, the fifth largest trade publisher in the United States and leading global publisher of Christian textbooks, signed a partnership deal  with Author Solutions (ASI), the largest global corporation of author services. ASI own some of the biggest brands in the self-publishing sector, with companies like AuthorHouseiUniverseXlibris, and Trafford. Their partnership with Thomas Nelson led to the formation of Westbow Press, an imprint of Thomas Nelson offering self-publishing services to authors. Hardly had the ink dried on that deal when ASI announced a second partnership, this time with commercial romance giant Harlequin. The resulting new imprint, Harlequin Horizons caused considerable criticism from three major author guilds in the US, MWA (Mystery Writers of America, RWA (Romance Writers of America) and the SFWA (Science-Fiction Writers of America). Within days Harlequin changed the name of the imprint to Dell Arte Press in an effort to remove the implied connotation authors might be confused and think they were being published for a fee by Harlequin’s mother ship.
The jury is still out on these new entities of self-publishing—shrouded in the criticism that Thomas Nelson and Harlequin are exploiting manuscript slush piles by referring rejected authors to their paid services. But then, in some form or another, haven’t commercial publishers always been exploiting authors by retaining and sharing out 90%+ profits with printers, distributors and retailers on every book sold. Would you be happy if you devised or invented a product, sold it to a manufacturer, and they offered you 6 – 8% on every unit sold? Probably not, but then, that’s the publishing model as we know it. Deal with it or self-publish.
What we are seeing in self-publishing increasingly are authors with more savvy and the know-how to reach directly out to the readers through blogs, online forums and fanzines like Shelfari, and the ability to use unique sales platforms like the Amazon Kindle bookstore and Smashwords, beyond the standard e-tailers. More authors are slowly educating themselves about self-publishing and they know the difference between services like CreateSpace and AuthorHouse. In the past couple of years we are seeing an increasing amount of authors opening commercial accounts with Lightning Source (LSI), the primary choice of printer and fulfilment services for many of the world’s POD (Print-on-demand) Publishers—effectively we are seeing a new breed of self-publisher confident and bold enough to purchase their own block of ISBN’s, set up their own imprint, and entirely cut out the middle man by going straight to source.
It is clear we are seeing the lines between publishing and self-publishing blurring, and the core model of the traditional business of publishing is changing, not because it wants to, but because it has to if it wants to survive. In many ways, both publishing perspectives have a great deal to learn from each other. Time, then, to learn…
(This article first appeared in Irish Publishing News on February 8th 2010.) 

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