Myths and misinformation about self-publishing are widespread.
In this overview article, which originally appeared in Mslexia Magazine, ALLi Director Orna Ross, outlines what's really going on in the world of self-publishing today.
Orna believes that every author should self-publish a book, if only to experience for themselves what it actually means.
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Beneath the PDF is a transcript of the article.
Self-Publishing Today: PDF
Self-Publishing Today: Article Trancript
This year, Amazon Kindle turns ten years old. The launch of this electronic reading device was the starting gun for an explosive decade in publishing, that has changed everything for everyone involved in the making and selling of books. And none more than authors.
The Kindle took e-reading and self-publishing mainstream, unleashing a ferment of creative and commercial activity that is shifting power balances in the publishing industry, changing trading conditions at home and abroad, taking English language books into new global territories, and igniting new publishing platforms, new genres and new literary forms.
By 2008, digital publishing had been around for a while (see panel) but Amazon was best-placed to take advantage of all that it offered, because attached to the Kindle came the world’s largest e-commerce store. They boldly grabbed the opportunity by adding a digital publishing platform of revolutionary ease (KDP, Kindle Direct Publishing) and a new payment method to authors.
This self-publishing trifecta liberated authors from a endless and creatively dispiriting cycle of pitch and rejection by publishers. Now a consignment run of print books sold through a bookstore was no longer the only route to readers. Now we could create our own digital files hire our own editors, designers and marketeers. Only an online distributor-retailer now stood between us and a substantial tranche of eager readers.
Digital publishing—e-books and POD (print on demand)—gave authors a global audience, relatively inexpensive production costs, a point-of purchase at the moment the reader discovers our books. It also put an end to “out-of-print”, allowing a book time to grow a readership, and rebalanced a power axis that had become heavily weighted towards corporate publishers, advance-pushing literary agents and celebrity authors back towards the average author.
Its biggest impact for authors was its democratizing effect. Few if any readers know or care who published a book; the author is the brand name that counts. Entrepreneurial authors saw that being published is not somebody in a publishing house deciding that your book is good enough. Publication is seven processes that produce and sell a good book that reaches as many readers as possible: editorial, design, production, distribution, marketing, promotion and rights licensing.
With those in place, they saw, an author-published book could compete with a book produced by the most prestigious publishing house. They took to the new way in droves.
Today, while Big Five and smaller trade publishers fight for a share in a shrinking bookstore market, and institutions and newspapers lament falling author incomes, a publishing revolution is happening on the indie author side. And, like most revolutions, it is being largely misrepresented or ignored by the establishment.
The Commercial Opportunities in Self-Publishing Today
Soon after the launch of the Kindle, other publishing platforms—Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, Rakuten’s Kobo, IngramSpark, Wattpad—emerged. Like Amazon, none of these platforms was investing in the publishing process—book design, editorial, marketing and PR—as a trade publishers would, but neither were they licensing any intellectual property.
The author, not the platform was the publisher, and they received the monies paid by the customer, minus a commission payment (generally 30%) paid to the platform for the publishing tools and payment facility. This left the author in receipt of up to 70% of the purchase price of a book, versus the 10% or less (substantially less after discounting) of net receipts offered by a rights-licensing trade publisher as royalty.
The platforms also made everything very easy for authors. Their T&Cs were far more readable than a publishing contract. Their payment terms were monthly (instead of bi-annually). They provided digital dashboards that updated in real time, so you could see the results of your marketing efforts straight away.
Most significantly, the author retained all publishing rights and was free to cut deals with overseas agents, TV and filmmakers and other rights buyers, including trade publishers at home or abroad.
The Creative Opportunities in Self-Publishing Today
Creative freedom was my personal reason for going indie in 2011. It gave me untold satisfaction to take my rights back from my trade publisher so I could self-publish my books my way.
I had been published by a small feminist press in Dublin for my non-fiction and by Penguin for my historical novels. I liked the indie press experience but, for me, corporate publishing—lucrative though it was—came at too high a price. My titles were changed, my jacket blurbs made no mention of the issues at the heart of my stories, my covers were given the neon-pink and headless-female treatment, I was discouraged from writing poetry and non-fiction.
In my publisher’s terms, these strategies worked. They took my books to the top of the bestseller charts but for me, it was creatively heartbreaking and commercially short-sighted. I wanted the opportunity to slowly build a true readership over time, book by book. I never felt my books reached the readers who would have most appreciated them and many of those who did buy, judging the books by their covers, must surely have let down by what they found inside.
So the idea of self publishing, being able to make my own editorial, design and marketing decisions, intrigued me from the start. I was nervous about my ability to master some aspects of the job, and I’m still learning every day, but going indie turned out to be the best move of my writing life
Since self-publishing, my books have won awards, hit bestseller lists and sold in more than 40 countries in the world. (This month, my Kobo map tells me, I have sales in Mauritius, Japan and Peru, as well as all the usual places through North America, Australia and Europe).
I feel blessed beyond belief to have been here for this moment in publishing history. Not just because I’m garnering more readers and making more consistent money from my books than at any time since I started to publish but because it has restored for me two precious things I was in danger of losing when corporate structures were my only choice: creative freedom and commercial autonomy.
This led me to founding the Alliance of Independent Authors.
The Alliance of Independent Authors
When I started to self-publish, I’d looked around for an indie-minded authors’ association to join but there wasn’t one doing the job in the way I felt it should be done. “You should start an association,” my son said, after an evening of listening to me wax lyrical about the opportunities and the way self-publishing was being ignored, misrepresented and side-lined. “I have been thinking about it,” I said. “You really should.” I had run a writing school and literary agency in Dublin and had no illusions about the amount of commitment such ventures take. It would mean time away from my own writing, and from the personal publishing possibilities that were so exciting to me.
I had a long night of the soul where I asked myself: do I really want to do this? And I found that, somewhat to my own surprise, I did. If my grandchildren were to ask me where I was when the biggest change to our industry in six centuries happened, I wanted to say, “right at the heart of it, beating the drum for authors.”
I decided to make a bold statement and launch our association at the largest gathering of the trade in the UK, so at London Book Fair 2012 ALLi was born.
Our mission was ethics and excellence in self-publishing. On the ethics front we set up a Watchdog desk and Partner Membership to oversee self-publishing services and an Ethical Author campaign. On the excellence front, we set up education and research programs, a daily blog, guidebooks and other needed resources.
Self-Publishing Today: Open Up To Indie Authors Campaign
A third strand of our work was an ongoing campaign to encourage and aid literary events, festivals, prizes, reviewers, booksellers and other interested parties to find ways to include self-publishing authors in their programs, events, listings and reviews
While we have seen some successes, we still have a long way to go before our campaign reaches its goal: that books should be judged and included on the basis of merit and suitability only, not mode of publication. Alas, in some quarters ignorance and stigma is still very live, even among other authors.
Back in 2012, as self-publishing took off, the mystery writer Sue Grafton gave voice to one of the objections authors can have, when she described self-publishers as “too lazy to do the hard work” of going through the submission and rejection process which she saw as a necessary apprenticeship to hone craft.
Having her first three novels rejected, Grafton said, was good for her and she saw “way too many writers who complete one novel, and start looking for the fame and fortune they're sure they're entitled to.” Comparing self-publishing “to a student managing to conquer Five Easy Pieces on the piano and then wondering if s/he's ready to be booked into Carnegie Hall,” she said it was a short cut “and I don't believe in short cuts when it comes to the arts.”
ALLi member and bestseller thriller writer Adam Croft, who had sold more that 250,000 copies of his books in that year alone, found this “outrageous”.
“The complete opposite is true,” he said. “Self-publishing means finding your own proofreader [and] editor, finding your own cover designer, doing all your own marketing and sales work, etc. [but] I don't even have the slightest desire to enter the negotiation stage with any publisher as there's no way any of them could offer me what I'm able to do for myself.” Award-winner and Society of Literature Fellow, Catherine Czerkawska, said Grafton’s comments displayed “a profoundly amateurish and unacceptable ignorance of changes to the industry.” To her credit, Grafton agreed. “It's clear to me now that indie writers have taken more than their fair share of hard knocks and … are actually changing the face of publishing. Who knew?! .. I can see that a hole has been blasted in the wall, allowing writers to be heard in a new way and on a number of new fronts. I will take responsibility for my gaffe.” Not everyone is as open to persuasion as Grafton. Richard Russo has said the thought “literally chills my blood.” Jodi Picoult advises: “DO NOT SELF PUBLISH” As recently as 2016, the Guardian ran a feature article “For me, traditional publishing means poverty. But self-publish? No way!”
Reasons the author gave included:
Self-published authors must spend only 10% of their time writing and 90% of their time marketing.
As a result, the “vast majority” of indie authors have tweet-streams that are 90% adverts
An author who writes literary fiction is dependent on critical acclaim and literary prizes to build reputation and following
Amazon is the company largely responsible for destroying author income
An author who offers a publishing services to another, like design or editorial, is running an “authorpreneur pyramid scheme”
All of these are untrue, prejudices masquerading as facts. Also, self-publishing and trade-publishing are not mutually exclusive. For the indie author, trade publishing is one of a number of author services to choose from, and many of our members move between one publishing pathway and the other for different projects.
Addressing such myths, misinformation and misunderstandings around self-publishing with the facts and figures is a big part of ALLi’s work. For example, the UK Arts Council recently looked at the 10,000 bestselling fiction titles over the last five years and concluded that: “Outside of the top 1,000 authors (at most), printed book sales alone simply cannot provide a decent income… a source of deep concern.” The Council’s concern is understandable but its solution (grants) ignored self-publishing.
Those writing the report either didn’t know, or failed to point out that authors who self-publish, or combine trade- and self-publishing, make more money. Written Word Media (WWM), an author marketing agency, was running an analysis of the global market at the same time. They found that of all the authors they surveyed who earned more than $100K, none was purely trade-published: 72% were self-publishing only and 28% were what they call “hybrid authors”, publishing both through trade- and self-publishing platforms.
To be fair, WWM point out that “only about 5% of overall respondents were solely traditionally published (James Patterson did not take our survey), so traditionally published authors didn’t make up a big part of the surveyed audience”, but they believe it significant, nonetheless, and representative that “none of them were in the 100K club”. (See Facts Panel for more).
In the Alliance of Independent Authors, 5% of our membership has sold more than 50,000 books in the past two years or had equivalent reads on Kindle Unlimited, and we have a number of members who have sold over a million books (one has now exceeded 3 million sales in the thriller genre). Many thousands of others are producing work of outstanding literary merit.
Equally of interest are those who are not making a killing, creatively or commercially, but just making a living. Doing their thing and selling in sufficient numbers to quit their jobs and become full-time writers. You’ve probably never heard their names but they are happily building their readership and their author businesses.
When you look at this from a business perspective, it’s clear why self-publishing makes this possible in a way trade publishing never can. If you don’t have any control over your metadata, your marketing, your pricing, your distribution network, or your rights, you’re not actually in business as an author at all. Other people have licensed your assets and are looking after your business. You’re an artist, at the financial mercy of a system built around a few selected winners.
Of course self-publishing doesn’t guarantee an income either but it does deliver equal opportunity. Authors may relish the challenges of self-publishing or may quail at them, but poverty for the majority is not systemic, built into the business practices.
In self-publishing today, what stands between you and success is creative skill, hard work and the ability to hook readers. One of the great surprises of the self-publishing revolution is just how many authors do relish the challenges and have stepped up to master those skills of making and selling books as well as writing them.
And just how many are good at it.Indie authors enjoy the freedom—and accept the responsibility—of running our own author enterprises. We also know that being independent and autonomous does not mean going it alone, that the terms “self-publishing” and “independent author” are misnomers. Nobody who produces a good book does so solo and publishing is a highly collaborative craft. To go indie is to work in partnership with others as the creative directors of our books, from concept to completion, from inspiration to publication, and to run our author businesses.
Self-Publishing Today: The Quality Issue
But what about what one publishing executive once memorably, if disrespectfully, referred to as “the tsunami of crap”: the abundance of substandard books being released onto self-publishing platforms every day.
When the only way to reach a reader was through print books sold in bookshops, publishing worked from a scarcity model grounded in commercial principles, the selection of a few books for investment potential. The digital revolution works with an abundance model, grounded in creative principles.
In an abundance model, it doesn’t matter how many bad books are enabled—they quickly fall into invisibility and they don’t hinder the creation of good books. On the contrary.
Throughout cultural history—in medieval Germany, Renaissance Italy, in Elizabethan England—whenever new creative forms and formats flourish, an opening up occurs. The means of expression become available to more people. And while this facilitates more tyro and aspirant work—our publishing executive’s “tsunami”—it also results in more accomplished and virtuoso work. More masterpieces emerge, the expanded tip of an enlarged mountain.
That is what is happening today with digital publishing.
Finding good books is not a problem for readers today. There is a great wealth of them and online algorithms are very effective, and getting better, at guiding us towards the books we are most likely to love.
Readers can easily read the signifiers which tell them whether a book is for them or not, including cover, book description, reviews, and a pre-purchase sample. And book searches through categories and keywords are probably more effective discovery tools, if not necessarily as pleasant as bookstore browsing.
Good books are easier to find than ever, including good self-published books. The author who invests time and attention into producing a good book and marketing it well has nothing to fear from publishing’s new abundance model. And know that an entire ecosystem of editors, designers, and marketers has sprung up, which ensure that a self-published book can be as high-quality as any published by the trade.
Challenges for Self-Publishing Today
But it’s not day long laughter in indie-author land. There are challenges. Learning to balance writing, publishing and running an author business is challenging, especially at first. Enduring the many misconceptions about our chosen way is challenging. And getting our books into bookstores and libraries, and finding ways to sell our rights, is challenging.
Although self-publishing has undoubtedly brought readers closer we are still a long way from true autonomy for the majority of authors. Content is still mediated by large corporations—Silicon Valley companies like Amazon, Apple and Google, rather than Manhattan and London trade-publishers. While self-publishing make an autonomous business possible, the mass of authors relying on one publishing outlet remain vulnerable.
We see that naked vulnerability in the panic that breaks across the online author community whenever Amazon make changes to their terms and conditions.
Change is still the order of the day for authors. Digital text, books and media are currently being re-imagined in ways that are likely to have a big impact on authors and author earnings in the next decade.
Blockchain, the technology that underlies cryptocurrency, seems poised to allow direct payments in a truly decentralized way and to possibly enable an author centric payment model for the first time. (ALLi’s White Paper explains more on this.)
But whatever happens with blockchain or other tech, what’s clear that the only authors who can benefit from the opportunities are those who have developed an independent, creative and empowered mindset.
The most profound change of all is one that is only beginning to make its mark: this increase in author confidence. As the cap-in-hand publish-me-please mindset fades in the author community, as more and more of us take up the challenge of independence and create successful author businesses, it is changing our sense of what is possible.
Whatever comes next: indie authors are here, a new fixture on the publishing landscape. Here to stay. And here to lead the way.
SIDEBAR: The Evolution of Today's Self-Publishing
The first lowering of the barrier to entry arrived in the late 1970s, in the form of desktop publishing. Authors’ interest was ignited and a band of enterprising pioneers jumped in, printing off copies of books and pamphlets to sell by mail order, or driving around to bookstores with their car-boot loads of books. The most important development to emerge from this period became known as print-on-demand (POD), as digital printing processes made it economically viable to print single copies, or small batches, to order.
Self-Publishing 2.0: The “International Year of Literature,” 1990, launched the era of the ebook, with books in .txt, .mobi, and .doc formats taken to market in that year but it was 1998 before the first digital bookstores appeared and publishers and authors began to sell books online to be read on computer.
The final element of the digital reading matrix arrived with mass market “epaper technology,” and Sony released the first ebook reader in 2004. This was followed by Kindle eReader in 2007, which came with a vast retail store attached,
Self-Publishing 3.0: This is the phase that is just beginning. It involves direct sales from author to reader—true self-publishing. This can include crowdsourced patronage, subscriptions, membership models and other forms of direct sales by authors to readers, without any intermediary except an online purchasing mechanism. At the moment, this is only a small part of most self-publisher's business model but the changes in publishing conditions, and consumer purchasing habits, look set to accelerate this trend.
Sidebar: Should You Self-Publish?
1. Are you positive and proactive?
As an independent author, you must take responsibility for the risks, as well as the rewards, of publishing your own work. You’ll have no publisher or agent to blame if things don’t work out.
2. Are you brave?
Risk is the core activity of self-publishing. You must risk time on ideas, promotions, or concepts that may come to naught. You must risk money to pay for editorial and design upfront. You must also risk, in some circles, reputation. Family, friends, and many others may see self-publishing as a second-best option. Independent authors must put themselves out there twice over, once in the writing, again in the publishing.
3. Are you hardworking?
If there’s one quality that all successful independent authors have in common, this is it. You must be full of energy and commitment, not only to your writing but to educating yourself about all aspects of craft, editing, design, and promotion. You must recognize opportunities and make the most of them, without derailing your writing, the engine of it all.
4. Are you entrepreneurial?
Independent authors who do best have an entrepreneurial mindset. You must always be on the lookout for new ways to reach readers, new communities who might be interested in your books, new opportunities to get your message out. You should be a savvy user of social media and know how to engage resources like e-mail lists, newsletters, promotions, competitions, and book giveaways to extend your readership. You must be open to failure and willing to learn from mistakes, while excited by the prospect of new projects and creative collaborations.
5. Are you resilient?
Successful self-publishers, by definition, are those who have kept on keeping on, adapting where necessary, and following their hearts. Mark McGuinness says in his new book, Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success, in going indie, you must ensure you haven’t exchanged traditional forms of rejection and criticism for others that can be just as painful and costly. “Anyone who says, ‘Don’t take it so personally’ doesn’t understand what it’s like when you are hit by a major rejection or biting criticism,” says Mark. “Successful indies have found ways to acknowledge the pain—and bounce back from the impact.”
6. Do you base decisions on research?
You must follow gut feelings and intuitions, yes, but successful self-published authors generally back such horse sense with researched facts and figures to stay smart, sharp, and up to date—to search out their readers, stay in touch with influencers in their field, and give their books an advantage. Whether it’s keyword research, marketing studies, direct mail tests or just dear old Professor Google, you should enjoy learning, growing, and getting it right.
7. Do you have good financial sense?
Successful self-publishers don’t tend to be the kind of writers who say, “I don’t care about money,” unless they have a benefactor or obliging day job. Controlling costs is important for all businesses, and you must be able to take care of your resources and make sure you spend money where it will produce the biggest effect.
8. Are you collaborative and supportive?
The camaraderie between successful self-published authors is outstanding. Indies are likely to work from the co-opetition model, where competitors cooperate for mutual benefit.
Sidebar: Facts About Self-Publishing Today
Digital: One in four US readers (the most developed digital market) now read ebooks. Self-publishing accounts for 24-34% of all ebook sales in each of the largest English-language markets.
Global: Self-publishing platforms take English language ebooks into 190 countries. (2018)
Earnings: Fewer than 1200 (US) trade-published authors who debuted in the last 10 years now earn $25,000 a year or more on Amazon, compared to over 1,600 indie authors. (2016)
Bestsellers: 28% of the top-selling ebook authors in the US–the most developed self-publishing market–are indie. 6% of Alliance of Independent Authors members have sold more than 50,000 books in the past two years.(2018)
Gender: 67% of the top titles published across top self-publishing platforms Blurb, Wattpad, CreateSpace and Smashwords are by women. 61% of the Top 100 trade-published titles on Amazon are by men. (2015)
Rights: The 2015 film adaptation of The Martian, a sci-fi thriller first self-published by Andy Weir on Amazon KDP, directed by Ridley Scot, starred Matt Damon and has grossed $630m worldwide to date. (2017)
Silent Success: It is possible to earn over $100,000 annually without appearing on a bestseller list. In a May 2016 snapshot of 142 such “invisible” authors on Amazon.com, 105 were self-published indies. (2016)
Sources: Alliance of Independent Authors, Author Earnings, Bookscan, FicShelf, Neilsen, Pew Research.