I remember a time when authors who self-published were a bit of a laughing stock. They paid a printing company to run off a certain number of their books, getting a cheaper-per-book rate for a larger print run, but essentially paying in the thousands for the privilege of finally holding a bound copy of their endeavours in their hand.
It was called vanity publishing. It was a cruel description, for when has the characteristic of vanity ever been applauded?
Vanity-published authors had various reasons for going down that route. They may have tried the publishing houses and been roundly rejected; they may have – in a rare moment of artistic clarity and honesty – decided against publishing houses in the certain knowledge that nothing would come of it because the product was lacking; they may have realised the finite appeal of their offering, however good it was, as in the case of extremely local histories (“The Village Duck Pond – A Quacking Good Reed”), or family histories meant only as a treasured gift for family members.
Digital publishing is a game-changer. I liken it to the advent of illegal downloading of music and movies. Film and movie companies, record and video shops, were all hit in the pocket by this. Some may say “rightly so”, given the many years of unashamed profiteering that preceded. These industries quickly caught up, though, and shifted their wares online to compete with the pirates. Recent legislation in many countries has sought to limit illegal file sharing, with serial downloaders fined and P2P websites shut down, but it’s not over yet.
The problem for the traditional publishing houses is that digital publishing is not illegal. The authors are distributing their own work. Publishers cannot ask governments to intervene and stop it, like the music and movie industries have.
The Wall Street Journal published a couple of articles recently, one online and one in print: Secret of Self-Publishing: Success – Authors With a Following Make Money Going It Alone, but It’s a Slog for Others and Self-Publishers Get Help – Penguin Starts Service as Big Houses See Digital’s Potential. (Subscription only, I’m afraid.)
The first article essentially points out the huge difference between those who make it big in digital publishing and those (the majority) who languish. So, pretty much the same as paper publishing. Where the difference lies is in the remuneration: “Amazon.com Inc. fueled the growth by offering self-published writers as much as 70% of revenue on digital books, depending on the retail price. By comparison, traditional publishers typically pay their authors 25% of net digital sales and even less on print books”.
The second article made me smile. Penguin has jumped on this fast-departing bandwagon with a service called Book Country: “For a fee of between $99 and $549, plus a cut of any sales revenue, Penguin’s subsidiary Book Country will offer an array of tools—ranging from professional e-book conversion to a cover creator—to help a writer make their work available through digital book outlets and print-on-demand services.”
As for money, the article states: “Authors will receive 70% of revenue for titles sold directly from Book Country that are priced at $2.99 or more, and 30% on books priced from 99 cents to $2.98. Book Country also will take a fee for each sale on other online retailers, which also will take a percentage of each sale.”
The 70% figure is there again. I think the message has hit home that authors deserve more for the efforts they put into their work. Reading between the lines, and speaking crudely, the publishing houses must be crapping themselves. They are, effectively, now redundant, and must create a purpose for themselves that fits with the new world order. I am quite sure they will succeed in that, but they will never again regain the unassailable authority they once enjoyed.
I don’t have much sympathy. Their monopoly has been broken and that’s fantastic. Monopolies are never good news. Monopolies are always self-serving simply because they can be; because the people who require their services have no other choice so are open to having the piss taken out of them. Previously, the only authors to really pull in the big bucks were those who could – with the help of an astute literary agent – conjure up a bidding war between competing publishers, and those who could, from that position, create the kind of publicity and fan base that ensured their longevity.
Now, a talented author can slowly but surely create the buzz necessary to rack up some decent income. It may take many months or years, but the potential is there, because, unlike book shops, the internet will never remove your book from their virtual shelf just because it didn’t fly out of the door in huge quantities in the first few weeks.
The downside is that digital self-publishing may well end up creating so many “authors” that even the very best of them may have enormous trouble making themselves heard. It’s a problem I’ve blogged on before when talking about the burgeoning hordes of “freelance writers” the internet has given rise to.
This is a ground-floor opportunity, folks. It’s happening right now.
So write now.