A Slice of the Literary Life: Self-Publishing is no longer a Dirty Word

This past Friday and Saturday, I attended the 2nd annual Slice Literary conference, held by Slice Magazine, in illustrious Brooklyn, New York.  Coincidentally, this is my second time at a literary conference.  I was not disappointed.  Not only did I meet with some incredibly talented writers, but I also had a chance to meet editors and agents and listen to some of the brightest minds expound on all things literary.

The first panel I attended was the Self-Publishing Panel.  I am fascinated by the world of self-publishing, which is quickly shedding its stigma as the new kid on the block. One of the panelists, John Fine, Director of Author Relations and Associate General Counsel at Amazon, indicated that in 1999, self-publishing was merely vanity publishing but due to the ‘democratization of the means of production,’ self-publishing, print-on-demand and other forms of self-publishing have become increasingly used and accepted.  Penguin’s recent $116 million acquisition of e-publisher Author Solutions and Random House UK’s distribution unit’s acquisition of ePubDirect, are strategic moves that indicate a sea-change in the publishing industry’s perception of self-publishing and e-publishing.

One of the upsides of self-publishing, as pointed out by Associate Editor Hana Landes of Spiegel & Grau, is that self-publishers have a tremendous amount of data about the end-user or reader.  Landes mentioned Anthropology of an American Girl, which was originally self-published (not digitally but rather hand-created) in 2003 and contained a note from the author that she had lost faith in the  traditional publishing world, only to garner a cult-following, which eventually led to a traditional publishing deal.

Indeed, many authors have turned to e-pub and e-distribution platforms such as CreateSpace and Kindle Direct, in an effort to dictate their own terms of success.  There are countless stories of authors who have garnered a following through self-publishing.  Genre-specific categories are particularly successful as e-books (i.e. romance, sci-fi, thrillers).  Additionally, so-called ‘interstitial works,’ those works that are not long enough to be a  book, yet too long to constitute a magazine, may fit perfectly within the $2.99 pricing sweet spot that is so popular on Amazon.

The relative upsides of self-publishing are however, tempered by the advantages that traditional publishers still have: stronger distribution channels in real markets such as bookstores, editorial support, marketing and publicity.  The author may feel a little spread too thin as a one-person publishing powerhouse and publishers still play an important role in supporting the author in these related yet critical ways.

Instead of fearing change, publishers are finally starting to fully embrace it.  Although it didn’t really start picking up until the Kindle hit the market, due to wholesale changes within the publishing industry (publishing has shrunk, editors are freelancing, there’s more competition, authors, noise, competing forms of entertainment, etc.), self-publishing is here to stay.

As Mr. Fine pointed out, ” The smartest authors today are those who are trying everything.”  Or, if I may comment, the smartest authors are those who are not afraid of trying new things and experimenting with different approaches to their work.  The dream of obtaining the six plus figure advance still lives on, but the reality may be something more attainable.

What do you think about self-publishing?  Is the stigma really gone or does it lurk in the shadows still?  Are more publishers going to embrace self-publishing or do they only seem to be doing it because of the adage ” if you can’t beat the competition, join them?”

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2 comments

  1. Thanks for sharing your insights on self-publishing from the conference. I think the self-publishing stigma still remains to a certain extent, but only because many self-published authors use self-publishing as instant and unvetted publishing. There are plenty of great writers who are self-publishing out there, and I think it’s a great platform for any writers who take the time to review, edit, proofread, and revise their content, as well as vetting it via unbiased readers who can help those authors determine what to publish and what to leave in the desk drawer.

    As for publishers and their role, I’m really curious to see what they do. I think publishers can provide great resources to self-published authors, and it’s one area where the author can incur risk through an up-front payment to the publisher rather than the publisher incurring risk through an up-front payment to the author (as is often the case in traditional publishing). It actually makes sense for publishers to round out their revenue stream that way. Thus I think it’s here to stay.

  2. Jamey, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I agree, a lot of writers become impatient and want to see their work in print without properly vetting it first. It’s so important to get input from various readers and revise the manuscript several times before self-publishing.

    I think publishers are finally starting to embrace self-publishing but because publishing is a slow-moving industry, it will probably take a while before all the major publishers will fully incorporate self-publishing. There are authors who have sold thousands of copies by themselves but unless an agent picks them up or they somehow make it into The New York Review of books (I know of at least two books that were self-published, then reviewed by someone important in the NY Review before taking off), authors would do well to remain realistic about how many copies they can sell. There are always exceptions to the rule, and some very savvy authors know how to market and target their audience…I think we’ll see more of these blockbuster self-published successes also.


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