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Brave New Booksellers: How Digitalization has made Self-Publishing Viable for Writers

by Bennett Voyles

March 6, 2017

Digitalization has made self-publishing easier and more profitable

Over the past decade, publishing has undergone a revolution, perhaps the most profound since Gutenberg. In this series, we’ll look at how digitalization has changed book consumption, book production, book marketing—and how it may ultimately even change the nature of books. This is the second part of Brave New Booksellers series: the first part is the Rise of E-reading, the third Part is E-Book Production, Marketing and Sales and you can also find E-Publishing with Chinese Characteristics in Part 4 of this series.

Part 2: The Writer

Until recently, book publishing in the US looked like a mature and not very profitable industry, a creaky sector controlled by an oligarchy. There is still some truth to that view—in the US, the five leading publishers still control roughly 80% of all book sales—but look more closely and the picture is starting to change in dramatic ways.

Over the past two years, for instance, the Big Five’s share of the e-book market on Amazon has dropped from 43% to roughly 23%. Publishers Weekly’s Apple iBook Bestseller list also includes self-published authors: on the Feb. 17 list, three of the top ten best sellers were self-published.

As these numbers suggest, digitalization is not just changing which books reach the market, but how they are put together. In this story, part 2 of our series, we look at how digitalization is affecting writers.

Twenty years ago, most books were produced in one of two ways. A writer would propose an idea to an agent, who would then, in exchange for a 15% slice of the writer’s 5-10% royalty, propose it to an editor at a publishing house, who would then offer an advance on royalties to enable the writer to complete the manuscript, or in the case of fiction, the writer would submit the entire manuscript to the agent, who would try to find it a home.

Some books, particularly nonfiction, still come together this way. But there are now other paths. Where before the writer generally had to find an agent, and the agent found the publisher, now authors may also choose to use a do-it-yourself platform or work with a professional, according to Adrienne Sparks, a Harvard, Mass.-based book marketing consultant.

These days, books are often adapted from successful blogs or even fan fiction websites: Fifty Shades of Gray supposedly began as Twilight fan fiction. Many books are published as e-books by the writers, who face no barrier to entry but their own gall.

Another difference is that publication in this new world tends to be a more iterative process. In the old days, once the final manuscript was set into type, very few changes could be made until another edition was published.. For most writers, there was little to be done but to try to write a better book next time. Now, the writer can respond the same way that other manufacturers always have: listen to the customer and change the product. And if the product is a Kindle e-book, Amazon will also make the changes on the purchased version.

Writers today often take user reviews to heart, pull the book down, and try to fix its problems, according to Natasa Lekic, president of NY Book Editors. Many of her agency’s clients are self-published authors who have received harsh reviews from readers and want some help to fix their books’ shortcomings, she says.

Agencies such as NY Book Editors, along with platforms such as BookBaby, CreateSpace, and IngramSpark, are part of a small army of support services that have arisen to help the new legion of self-publishing writers create high-quality books.

“Over the past decade there has been a shift in the book publishing marketplace that now embraces self-published authors and there is an entire segment of publishing services and specialists available to this group of writers… Now more than ever self-publishing is viewed as a viable and often preferable option for writers interested in maintaining control over many aspects of the publishing process while retaining rights and higher royalties,” Sparks explains.

Although observers say the quality of the production services available varies wildly, it’s no longer the case that the most experienced professionals will necessarily be working in-house. In fact, many have both publisher and self-publishing clients.

“The freelance economy movement is strong in publishing, and most steps in the publishing process are now outsourced by traditional publishers. The acquisition, developmental editing, and sometimes design is done in-house, but often the copy-editing, proofreading and production is handled by freelancers,” explains Ricardo Fayet a co-founder of Reedsy, a London-based online marketplace for freelance editors, designers, and book marketers.

At the moment, traditional publishing and independent publishing remain separate markets, a bit the same way pulp and literary fiction were differentiated in the forties and fifties. However, those distinctions are beginning to blur as writers jump the fence from both sides. “Many successful independently published authors end up with book deals at top publishing houses,” Sparks says. “Many successful traditionally published authors also have their own indie published projects.”

Royalties are generally much more generous for the self-published. Amazon, for instance, gives its writers a royalty of 35% for books between 99 cents and $200, but bumps that number to 70% if the book is priced between $2.99 and 9.99 and under 3 megabytes.

Overall, choosing independent publication is no longer the shameful last resort it once was. “There is no longer a stigma attached to self-publishing,” says Sparks.

One reason for the changing status is that a relatively large number of self-published writers are doing very well. As of May 2016, only 250 Big Five authors and 200 recent small or mid-sized publishers’ authors who debuted in the last three years earned more than $25,000 a year from their work on Amazon. By contrast, over 1,000 indie debutants have reached or passed that mark, according to analysts at AuthorEarnings.

Overall, Big Five debutants whose e-books were published between two years and six months ago now take home less than 7% of the total revenue and sell only a fraction of the copies that recently published e-book authors do, according to an October 2016 report by AuthorEarnings. “For every reader discovering a new Big Five author, there are literally dozens of readers finding brand new indie authors and Amazon-imprint authors they enjoy,” the analysts conclude.

Nor are self-published sales restricted to e-books. Thanks to print-on-demand technology available through companies like CreateSpace and IngramSpark, it’s also economical for self-published authors to sell paperback editions of their books. These days, debut self-published authors sell nearly as many print copies today as Big Five-published newcomers. “At the click of a button, indie authors—as well as the smallest boutique publishers and micropresses—can now sell their books through the same online retail storefronts that today account for roughly 50% of total US print sales,” [bold in original] according to AuthorEarnings.

Self-publishing may be a surer route to publication but success is nearly as difficult to achieve as it was via the traditional path. For the average writer, self-publication raises the odds of success from nil to slim. Not only does the writer need to come up with the manuscript, to create a compelling book, he or she must build a publishing house. “Independently published authors must cover all aspects of publication costs from editing, copywriting, cover design, website design, hiring a marketing and/or publishing specialist, advertising, promotion travel costs, and more,” writes Sparks.

But although the market is getting crowded, it’s also getting easier in certain respects. Besides the publishing platforms and freelancers, self-published authors are also advising each other, through such organizations as the Alliance of Independent Authors and the Independent Book Publishers Association.

In the end, emotional factors also play a role in the decision to self-publish, particularly for first-time authors. “A lot of people really want that validation because you’ve grown up dreaming of being a writer and part of that vision has been to have a publisher and be in bookstores,” says NY Book Editors’ Lekic.

Validation is simpler for the self-published. The questions that bedevil traditionally published (and traditionally rejected) writers—finding the right agent, the right publisher, the right editor, and being reviewed by the right critic in the right newspapers and magazines—all go away. “I think validation for a self-publishing author is purely sales,” says Lekic. “Are people buying and reading their books?”

Of course, the writer isn’t the only person whose work has changed in the course of digitalization. In the next installment of this series, we’ll look at how the jobs of editor, designer, and marketer have also been transformed by e-books.

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