Markets of various kinds all around the world are being transformed by the rise of the internet, and the world of publishing is no exception. The music industry, media enterprises and the retail world are all undergoing a massive process of change and if we can understand why that is, we can see how it will affect publishing and what to expect in the next decade or so.
If we start with a simple enough fundamental, it should be easy enough to grasp what is happening. And the fundamental is customers and their needs. Before the internet, the only way customers could obtain a piece of music they wished to listen to, or a news item which they wanted to know more about, or anything from the retail sector, including a book, they had certain mechanical obstacles to overcome: they had to actually get to a shop or contact someone physically in order to obtain whatever it was that was going to fulfil their needs. The arrival of the World Wide Web revolutionised this relationship between customers and the sources of the products they required: instead of having to do anything, people could order what they needed with the tiniest, almost involuntary twitch of a finger muscle. Everything else became automatic, including payments.
Traditional publishers - a centrally-controlled ‘brand’ based in a big building in a major city, full of editors and other decision-makers - face the additional challenge today, as do many others, that the production of the thing that they make, along with its promotion and distribution, has become just as easy as ordering and buying it.
Once considered a ‘back-up option’ for rejected manuscripts and fringe literature, self publishing is in the process of becoming the mainstream method for authors who want complete financial and creative control over their books. The traditional publisher - along with the traditional music studio, media broadcaster and shop - is fading away, an increasingly irrelevant middle-man in a world of high-speed broadband and direct shipping.
There used to be three categories of self-publishing:
Vanity Publishing: the author simply wants to record something for family or posterity and to see their words in print or create a book for a limited audience with no intention of generating a viable income from the book.
Credibility Publishing: the author plans to use their book as a marketing tool to give credibility to a professional profile in another field – though profits might be part of the plan, they are not at the core.
Professional Publishing: a full-time or part-time author intends to make his or her book viable as a source of income.
Self published books are still tainted by a slight stigma of amateurism, but this is vanishing fast. Rather, we are entering a golden age of independent publishing, in which formerly centralised skills like editing, marketing and distribution are developing as new ‘cottage industries’. The internet is assisting this too: apart from supplying easy channel of communication to potential readers, it also supports the independent author with means of distribution and even training in things like editing and formatting. Many of the new independent publishers offer quick and easy-to-use templates for the most basic tasks: all the author has left to do, really, is write, at least initially.
Nevertheless, there are certain questions that anyone planning to launch as an independent author or publisher need to keep in mind:
1. Is the writing (whether it’s yours or someone else’s) good enough?
It’s hard to determine this for yourself. Your biggest assets in the field are a wide reading of works of a similar kind, and Time. If you have read enough in the genre and around it, you will develop, almost by osmosis, an ability to tell whether your work is of sufficient commercial quality. And then you need to have enough time between the completion of a draft and its editing for you to be able to distance yourself from what you have written. Your biggest enemy? Pride. You may simply override every skill and instinct you may have developed just to ‘get the book out there’, ignoring or not seeing its faults.
2. Has the book been professionally edited?
See above. By all means, given enough time and little pride, you can do a reasonable job of editing your own work. What tends to happen, though, is that you become ‘blind’ to certain errors and, even worse, unable to see fundamental flaws in the structure or nature of the work.
3. Have you set up your own independent publishing imprint as a vanity press?
Nothing wrong with that. But it could leave you even more vulnerable to the problems associated with 1. and 2. You need to develop a) the ability to attune yourself to the kind of book you are writing, so that you can grow in judgement and b) a rational but self-critical capacity to be negative about your own work without destroying your confidence as a writer. Difficult, but not impossible.
4. Are the production values, format and cover of the book up to a marketable standard?
There are plenty of tools and even more individual experts out there, available through the internet, to help you with this aspect. As stated, most independent publishers produce automatic templates for most of this kind of thing now.
5. Is the price of the book appropriate and has the author factored in all of the costs?
You can easily get greedy and think that of course people will pay a premium to read your writing. This is another thing that traditional publishing used to claim the expertise in: how to judge whether something would sell at a profitable level. But you have many options, including electronic publishing, where you can test the water and see for yourself if you have the price right.
6. Do you have a strong marketing plan?
There’s more to being a successful writer than writing a book and then trying to get it read. There’s a vital concept involved: strategy. Again, this was a field that traditional publishers claimed as their own, but it can be learned. The key thing to keep in mind here is how to make every action count: when you sell one book, are you also planting the seeds for several more? Do you have the channels set up so that the various types of potential customer out there can find you? And are you making yourself as attractive as possible in a number of ways? These and other questions are answered for you in How Businesses Really Work as well as How Stories Really Work, and there are plenty of other guidebooks out there in this area too.
7. Are you a ‘publicity-friendly author’?
Many authors are solitary creatures who became authors because through writing they had the best of both worlds: they could shut out society while communicating with it through their work. Traditional publishing took care of the rest - the marketing, the media, the vast amount of communication which takes place after a book is printed. Nowadays, though, the independent route is changing all that. Self-published authors have to be able to present themselves along with their book if they really want to break through into the big time. That can be quite a trick if you are shy or a sociophobe generally.
Independent authors and publishers need to consider and investigate each of these points before financially committing themselves. But one of the biggest advantages of this new golden age of independent publishing is that the amount of exposure and behind-the-scenes work is also determined by the author rather than anyone else. It all depends what you want and how much work you want to do.