The numbers on self-publishing are not clear. The best guess is that self-published books account for 5% of the total book market share. That is hardly a “ground swell” for a new age. So why all the hype and hope? Why the belief that self-publishing is the “way of the future?” There are probably several reasons. The first is “growth.” Although 5% is not great (unless you own that entire 5%), reports do indicate that we have seen a double digit upward climb in the e-book market and at least a part of the growth is driven by self publishing. That growth has also been fostered by the success of on-line giant Amazon who we can credit with at least the possibility that a self published author can achieve best seller status. Combined with Amazon’s afford-ably priced Kindle line, its Create Space division and all the little extras they have to support authors, much of the self-publishing excitement is tied to the fact that the world’s largest book-seller whole heartedly supports Indie authors.
Self-publishing has become a big business, but the lion’s share of that business (i.e. money) is not going to the authors. The big business dollars are coming from those who support self-publishing. Editors, software creators, artwork, self-publish assist companies, marketing services, review services and of course books on all thing related to self-publishing is where the healthy cash flow flows. Support will continue unless or until the support industry can no longer make money. People making money in support of self-publishing is not a bad thing. People who make their living providing services to self-publishing authors want self-publishing success. The same way the folks who make phone cases love the thought of an IPhone 6, 7, 8…12.
I’m a self-published author so obviously my hopes are that it becomes to future of literature…by which I mean I hope I make enough money to retire from my day job and write full time. I’m also a business executive who deals in marketing and strategic initiatives so my fiction journey is one part creative outlet, one part love of writing and one part experiment in what works and doesn’t work…all of which I am sharing here as I go along.
It is hard to tell if self-publishing will continue to rise. We do potentially suffer from what psychology calls the “recency illusion.” A belief that something we have recently come upon is innovative. Self-publishing is not innovative. It has been around a long time and e-stories are as old as the public Internet – okay a lot of that was porn. Self publishing also suffers from the validity illusion. The consistent flow of articles, blogs (like this one), and the “success” stories feed the perceived validation that “this is it.” The data is still pretty weak to make any real predictions about the future. If history shows anything it demonstrates that when we are in the moment we can’t always judge the things that will always be. “Open Source” operating systems were going to kill the OS giants. Today they have purpose but most people still use Mac or Microsoft. People don’t stand in line anymore to buy a Tickle Me Elmo or Furvy and your beanie baby/cabbage patch collection may not get you to retirement. (Unlike my 70s vintage Space 1999 gun – albeit we didn’t quite get to live on the moon before the turn of the century.)
Self-publishing is like most consumer goods. It will continue as long as there is a desire for it and as long as someone can make money at it. But there are a few things that can potentially (or ultimately) kill the self-publishing phenomena.
1. Free No More – Today there is no cost entry to the eBook self-publishing market. The Amazon cloud probably has a gizzilion tera-somethings of space. Ah, but in business sooner or later someone hits the ole’ calculator keys. So what happens if they decide that a few or twenty quid a year isn’t a lot to store your master piece (that’s different than the delivery charge which is the cost of…um I don’t know what). Research demonstrates that “free” always creates a demand as people seldom consider the true value of the thing if they don’t have to pay for it. The self-published market might shrink a tad if the would-be author had to pay for that space – even a nominal “out of pocket” charge changes demand. If space became a premium thing those costs could rise even more than nominal. What if these new fees were coupled with a sales quota term? If your book doesn’t sell X then we remove it.
2. Free No More Part II – In the eBook and App market people will download hundreds of free things, but make the same book or app a dollar or two and the purchasers begin to evaluate the item more closely. Fees would prevent or at least inhibit the self-published authors ability to give away their work en mass. Such give aways are at the heart of the review and marketing efforts.
3. E-Reader decline – The new Kindle Fire suggests that Amazon is investing more in a tablet type device than an E reading device. Today’s two most popular “readers” are actually used for many things other than reading. As noted book market share is 80-20 in favor of the paper versions. Because our e-readers serve many purposes, like angry birds and movie watching, we will have to rely on future book sale reports to know if electronic reading is growing or declining. But if there is a decline or stagnation, that will certainly impact the self-publishing future. And if future storage fees reduce the number of “free book” downloads we may see a corresponding decline it the total eBook market share.
4. Lack of Standards – It took consumers about five minutes to figure out that not all Mp3 players were created equal. It took another five minutes to realize that “free” music was both illegal and potentially virus ridden. Consumer confidence and corresponding sales in an industry are driven by the standards applied to a service or product. Search some of the blogs on “Vanity Presses” of the past and you’ll see how quickly authors realized that purchasing a 1,000 copies of their own books was not a good way to become self-published. There are no standards on self-published books today (other than formatting requirements). The traditional publishers invest money to ensure that Stephen King and William Patterson are not putting out 500 pages of typos and bad sentences. They filter out bad writing (yes along with stuff they don’t think they can sell) for their customers. A customer doesn’t have to skim a book at B&N to ensure it meets the basic standards of writing. Sooner or later, without some set of standards and some way to communicate that confidence to the consumer, said consumer will grow weary of self-published books. When that happens everyone who self publishes will be punished and the market will fade or at least shift.
5. Big Money – For every author whose primary interest is in their art, there are three people trying to figure out how to make money from the author’s work. I have no doubt that there are several rooms of people sitting around right now, trying to devise a way to incorporate and corner the cash involved in self-publishing. That may be memberships into groups, paid “seals” of approval, or companies absorbing the small self-publishing costs in exchange for exclusive rights to sell the work. Even the beloved Amazon requires exclusivity when an author joins their Kindle Select Program and their recent purchase of Goodreads may or may not be a good thing for authors. If the market share grows you can be assured that people will figure out methods to make self-published just a new form of traditionally published.
It’s always a crystal ball activity when one tries to determine a market’s direction. Self-publishing has become an industry made up of authors and those who provide author services. The news is peppered with just enough “Indie Author Goes Best-Seller” stories to keep authors interested. Much of the growth reported however tends to focus on the business of On-Line sellers. Those sellers, like Amazon, carry a number of goods so the rise may not be Indie Author contributions but might be the fact that people have grown fond of Internet Shopping and Tablets. No rogue business model ever succeeds without ultimately succumbing to the laws of business. Today even Moonshine and Marijuana are legit businesses in some states. For the hardworking author who self-regulates their work to ensure quality, such changes will be helpful, provided the industry reaches those standards in a way that doesn’t turn the book selling into another industry that shuns the creative independents.