v25 #3 The Self-Publishing Phenomenon

by | Jul 10, 2013 | 0 comments

by Bob Holley  (Professor, Library & Information Science, Wayne State University)  <[email protected]>

I became aware of the increasing importance of self-publishing a few years ago while listening to a National Public Radio interview on my way home from work.  The woman, a successful self-published author, was giving hints on how to market these works.  Almost as an aside, she contended that of the one million titles published in the previous year approximately 750,000 were self-published.  I haven’t been able to verify this figure for this introduction and have found contradictory evidence that, “according to Bowker’s newest figures of books produced, last year there were 211,269 self-published titles (based on ISBNs) released, up from 133,036 in 2010.”  (http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/pw-select/article/52216-bea-2012-self-published-titles-topped-211-000-in-2011.html) Nonetheless, I’ve been somewhat surprised that I hadn’t encountered more discussion of this increasingly important topic.

This special segment of Against the Grain will partially fill this gap as it includes commentary from many different players in the publishing world.  Authors, publishers, vendors, and librarians recount their experiences with both fiction and non-fiction self-publishing.  The special segment also includes a bibliographic essay by Joe Grobelny.  With the exception of John Riley, a self-published author and friend for many years, I recruited the contributors from postings on multiple discussion lists.  Walt Crawford, one of the profession’s most prolific authors, and Donald Beagle, an author of three very different books, share their varying experiences with both traditional and self-publishing.  Julia Glassman tells how she founded her own small press after receiving a mailbag full of rejection letters from publishers.  Rory Litwin of Litwin Books argues for the relevance of publishers in terms of their added value vis-à-vis self-publishing.  Bob Nardini and Janice Schnell provide a vendor perspective.

A chance meeting helped me fill in one missing piece — the selection process for self-published materials in public libraries.  I was presenting at a workshop where Matt Pacer talked a bit about this topic and then agreed to be a contributor to the volume.  I would have also liked to have had the perspective of a large research library with comprehensive Conspectus Level 5 collecting goals in areas where potentially valuable self-published material exists, but no one volunteered.  Perhaps a librarian with relevant experience will read this introduction and someday write a piece for Against the Grain.

From having read the contributions multiple times as editor, I came away with the following conclusions.  The decision to self-publish or not depends upon the nature of the materials as well as the goals and skills of the author.  Self-publishing may be the only option for niche materials without a large enough sales potential to interest a commercial press.  The author may choose self-publishing to have full control of the material or if the author’s reputation is sufficient to assure the desired level of sales.  The physical or digital quality of the publication is no longer a significant factor because self-published works can look as good or even better than those from commercial publishers (though, for varying reasons, they often don’t).  Several companies sell services to authors for both print and digital materials that publishers normally provide such as copy editing and choice of art work, but several writers advise against these services because of the additional cost.  Several writers assert that the main advantage of commercial publishing is marketing and sales.  Publishers know how to manage marketing campaigns and get their publications included in the national network of bibliographic control so that they are more likely to receive reviews and be included in approval plans and blanket orders.  Nonetheless, self-publishing can generate reasonable sales and be the first step toward commercial publishing as was the case with Fifty Shades of Grey.  At another conference, I had the owner of a printing firm tell me that two of the self-published authors who use his services had become millionaires.

My final comment is that companies like Amazon are luring authors to self-publish with them in digital, print, and audio.  Amazon can offer higher royalties since the middleman, the publisher, is eliminated.  Amazon and the other online book vendors also don’t have any limit to the number of items they stock as did bookstores and can therefore benefit from the long tail.

In conclusion, I am of the opinion that academic and public libraries will be forced to develop collection development policies that take into account self-published materials or they will run the risk of not providing needed materials to their patrons.


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