Self-publishing: It’s a New World!

We used to know what it was, and it was bad: only losers self-publish with a “vanity press.” If they could get a real publishing contract, they would. We knew what to tell students: steer clear of anything self-published.

But the internet has changed self-publishing, and it is becoming a real factor in popular fiction. Barry Eisler, author of the John Rain series of thrillers, has left his traditional publisher and retrieved the rights to his books. They are now available as ebooks (at much lower cost than the print books), along with four works of short fiction featuring some of his most memorable characters. Eisler has become a vocal critic of traditional publishing, asserting that the only irreplaceable contribution of legacy publishers is the distribution of print copies.

Why would a writer choose to self-publish? There seem to be four main reasons:

• speed (self-published ebooks can get to market faster, in part because no time is lost to printing and distribution)
• control over content, titles, and cover art. Eisler has renamed all his books, using, for each, the title he originally wanted but which his publisher rejected.
• more options. For example, novellas are rarely published in print because there’s no workable economic model for them. With ebooks, length doesn’t drive distribution, so authors can try different forms.
• higher profit for writers. According to Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords, “Indie ebook authors are earning royalty percentages that are 3-5 times higher than what traditionally published authors earn. Publishers are overpricing their books relative to indie ebook alternatives. This means that indie authors can reach more readers AND earn more money selling lower priced books at higher unit volumes all the while earning more per book sold than traditionally published authors at higher prices.”

One of our local authors has published both ways. I asked AlTonya Washington, who used to work in our library and is now a reference librarian at Livingstone College, to give me her perspective. She wrote: “While I still enjoy writing for a traditional house, I have had a wonderful experience through my independent endeavors. Publishing independently has taught me a lot and has rewarded me greatly. The freedom to create characters and plots as I see fit has been so rejuvenating, serving as a reminder of what I love about being an author. There is the challenge of learning to police yourself as you are now creator and editor. There are editors who offer their services for a price so the self-published author may still seek the advice of a more critical eye. It can be tough to admit to yourself that some of (or your entire) story needs to be re-worked or, sadly, scrapped altogether. Still those challenges can make for a stronger and more successful writer. Yes, the profits tend to be greater, but here the reward is also along the lines of not having to wait so long to obtain those profits. Many POD [print on demand] Publishers have also revamped the way the self-publishing process is handled. For instance, ‘back in the day,’ an author who wanted to self-publish could expect to spend several hundred dollars to get the process started. Now, one can present his or her work to the world for little or no money and still have a product they can be proud of at the end of the day. Self-published authors now have access to virtually the same avenues to sell their work as traditional houses do (with the exception of libraries; still a rather tough market for the self-published author to break into).

“Independent authors/publishers can sell work in both electronic and print format. POD Publishers like CreateSpace have really streamlined the process so that a writer alone can handle uploading, formatting and creating the cover for the work. iStockphoto is a fantastic place for users to browse an impressive catalog of artwork. Images may be licensed for use in creating a cover that is a more accurate representation of the book. There are also entities that allow authors to create and sell their work in audio format. Amazon has a partnership that will assist authors with getting audio formats of their work listed with Audible, one of the largest audio book providers. It really is a whole new world for authors, especially those who crave more freedom to create and control over what they have created.”

It’s clear that self-publishing works for popular authors like Washington and Eisler, established writers who have the benefit of existing fans. But what about academic books? Are they, too, being self-published? That will be the topic of a future post.