There are several companies like Lulu and the Amazon acquisition CreateSpace that are helping writers self-publish their own books. This is similar to the YouTube model, where writers gain popularity through self-promotion and viral word-of-mouth marketing, with their books appearing on Amazon alongside works published through major publishing houses.
Prologue part 1 part 2 part 3 part 4 part 5 part 6 part 7 Epilogue
Self-publishing has long been associated with vanity publishing. It’s what you do if you can’t get a professional publisher interested, but you want to see it in print regardless. It’s largely the realm of the amateur: Auntie Irene’s favorite recipes and the calendar made by your local Girl Scout troop.
But today’s digital self-publishing world includes a significant, serious, and growing movement: the democratization of publishing. Writers (and artists, musicians, and indy filmmakers) no longer have to rely solely on the rare attentions of traditional publishers; they can gain viral audiences using their own resources and the power of the social web.
And it sometimes works on a grand scale; after all, pop star Justin Bieber began his career as a YouTube sensation, 50 Shades of Grey was originally self-published, and Lulu proudly states that “Over a million authors have used Lulu.com.” Some have gone on to achieve market success, with a few best-selling authors included in the mix. There is a place for small-run specialty publishing, and self-publishing may be the best option if you have a book in you whose audience is small but important.
Self-publishing is not new, and has a notable history in America. Writing for the Atlantic, Sarah Fay reminds us: “Ben Franklin self-published his paperbound pamphlet Poor Richard’s Almanac. And in 1776, one of the country’s unofficial founding fathers Thomas Paine self published ‘Common Sense’, a 46-page pamphlet that sold over 500,000 copies and helped bring about the American Revolution. During the next two centuries, authors such as Hermann Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Willa Cather, and Mark Twain also self-published.”
On the other hand, today’s Web-powered self-publishing can be a bit perilous for consumers. There are writers out there that shamelessly publish books on Amazon using the same or similar titles as mega-hits (titles can’t be copyrighted). They earn a living through what amounts to fraud, with poor quality pamphlets bearing titles like What to Expect When You’re Expecting, I am the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Thirty-Five Shades of Grey. (See http://tech.fortune.cnn.com/2012/04/16/amazon-knock-off-bestsellers/) In order to protect consumers, I would expect the rise of community self-policing, increased focus on consumer reviews, and possibly the flagging by distributors of obviously misleading titles.
Specialty publishing is another important aspect of the “long tail of the comet.” There are numerous technical manuals and other types of short-run and on-demand business, scientific, government, and institutional publishing, including the members-only world of secure, private access digital titles, that are important to a small but dedicated audience.
Specialty publishers will know how to reach and how to cater to specific demographics, serving those audiences with complementary products, both digital and physical, and with the ability to host and promote targeted, specialty-group networking among their readership.
Print-based self-publishing has always been expensive for the author, but eBook publishing is a cost-effective way to gain your first audience (50 Shades started as an eBook) and to promote your print edition. This is why self-publishing will be an important part of tomorrow’s eBook platform (see the Miranda Proposal), along with numerous attending support systems.
In the not-too-distant book publishing platform of the future, authors will gain access to inexpensive yet powerful online promotional tools and analytics, which help tell them who (demographically) is reading their eBook, where their audience is growing, and where in the vast fabric of blogs and discussion boards are the social conversations taking place about their books.
For aspiring authors, a self-publishing platform offers more than just a path to Amazon. Much of the best writing comes from editorial review, peer review, and workshops. New publishing platforms can support collaboration that helps authors improve their work. Such platforms can also support and promote the high-quality works of thousands of physical and virtual writing communities worldwide, including university BFA and MFA programs. I would be delighted to see companies like Lulu and CreateSpace launch “Elite Programs” for MFA writers, whose quality is often very good, even though only a few actually achieve acclaim.
In a field where quality is treasured (well, not always: look at 50 Shades), rating systems will inevitably arise that will recognize the best quality talent as measured by an algorithm that includes peer review, ratings, popularity trending, academic qualifications, editorial curation, and expert reviews.
Built properly, the publishing systems of the future have the potential to improve the quality of self-published works, help worthy new titles rise virally from the ether, and protect consumers from obvious fraud. While still keeping a warm place for Auntie Irene’s favorite recipes and that adorable Girl Scout calendar.