Self-publishing's current limitations

A sometimes confusing term

One of the obvious things to come out of the Frankfurt Book Fair this year even if you didn’t catch the excellent CONTEC panel on the matter was the omnipresence of the “self-publishing” theme. From digital vendors who help facilitate self-publishing such as ourselves, to hugely successful self-published authors themselves, to traditional publishers rushing to capture an area of the market that may have eluded some of them, all were represented and the Frankfurt Book Fair itself had a number of formal events organized around the issue.

Because the term “self-published” can refer to a variety of different things, it’s useful to ascribe a definition just for the sake of clarity: In this context and in book publishing as a whole “self-publishing” refers to authors who bypass the traditional modes and channels of publishing and instead choose to imply more digital-centric, arguably less restrictive routes. There have always been “self-published” authors of course, but the rise of digital publishing and digital media as a whole has done something previously impossible: Give nearly anyone who wants to write a novel the opportunity to disseminate it to a worldwide audience. A slew of recent hits, such as the infamous 50 Shades of Grey underscore this change in zeitgeist acutely.

Traditional publishers: Conflict or opportunity?

Just to give some statistical background, Bowker, the book research company has recently published some survey-derived data on just this theme and the results are telling. Together with electronic titles there are some 391,000 self-published titles with ISBN numbers out there, though this may seem fairly small, consider that many digitally published titles are in fact published without an ISBN number (especially on Amazon’s Kindle Store) and that as a result, this 422% increase since 2007 is probably a significant underestimate.

This doesn’t necessarily spell doom for traditional publishing houses though, one of the other key points in Bowker’s survey is that out of these self-published ISBNs, 80% came through one of eight self-publishing houses (including Random House’s own Author Solutions). Traditional publishers will have to keep on their toes though and the days of being able to dictate terms to the extent they once did are drawing to a close. Just 30% of polled self-published authors stated they would consider a traditional book deal.

Conclusion: Much work still to be done

In spite of this, there’s clearly space for existing big publishers and facilitators of self-published content alongside smaller, totally independent self-published authors at least at the moment given the arguably closed way in which a lot of the eBook e-commerce infrastructure works. What is required for the future however is a sort of de facto template that other self-published authors can look to as a way to take their careers forward along this nascent channel.

This will take time and require more than just a few media-dominating successes such as E.L James’. There need to be successful, strategy mapping examples that said authors can look to and then follow as a parallel to the traditional route into traditional book publishing. What holds self-publishing back at the moment is confusion about how to do it as well as an implicit bias it’s for “slightly less serious” content (to put it nicely), if both these hurdles can be overcome then things will really get interesting.

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