Features

In depth: self-publishing

Self-publishing has had a bad reputation. And if authors feel nervous confessing they have dabbled—or even considered pursuing this path—choosing to research and write about it is doubly disreputable. Nevertheless, that is what I have done in writing a guide to self-publishing, The Naked Author.

There is weight in the numbers. The US has traditionally published around twice as many new books and new editions as the UK, but in 2010 the ratio rose to nearly nine to one, and it is on target for double that this year. The difference is largely fuelled by self-published titles. Smashwords, one of several US e-publishing companies, is now releasing 6,500 new e-books every month, while Lulu.com publishes around 20,000 new titles a month.

At a time when traditional book sales are falling and bookshops are closing, self-publishing offers a valuable opportunity to promote wider engagement with reading and writing. Writers who have experimented are developing skills and competencies that will make them both more demanding of future investors and better equipped to manage alone. This genie will not go back in the bottle.

To begin with basics, there is no single thing that is self-publishing; it is a process, not a product. It can cover a range of different situations and formats; from a writer seeking the objectivity promoted by a single-reading copy of their current work in progress to a "this is your life" memory book for an elderly relative; from a "how to" title based on professional expertise that functions as an augmented business card to an e-book novel which can gather momentum, prove demand, and then gain attention from a conventional agent/publisher.

While the vast majority of self-published titles will probably not be widely purchased or read, for the writer there are reasons for involvement other than financial gain. There is work to be done on the correlation between literary talent and insecurity, but my preliminary observation is that self-publishing authors are a happy bunch—perhaps because the act of completion, and accompanying awareness that what has been ­created is henceforth preserved, can bring profound satisfaction.

Higher standards
All this word-based activity comes to a world where book purchasing and reading are threatened. In 2009, the Publishers Association Yearbook valued the home consumer book market (i.e. not including school, ELT, business, reference titles) at £2,470m; not bad divided between an estimated population of 61.8 million. But this is not based on an even distribution. Surveys of book-buying habits in the UK have consistently identified a much relied-upon, largely female market who buy heavily but are also aging—hence it is vital to widen interest in what is for sale.

The government's recent Taking Part survey demonstrated the importance of reading to people's lives, as evinced by its ranking as a free-time activity, but it still lags behind watching television, spending time with friends and family, listening to music and shopping.

There have been wonderful initiatives to spread enthusiasm for reading and widen participation, but this remains an uphill process. A seminar at this year's London Book Fair on what the publishing industry can learn from television and online gaming companies similarly involved in content development revealed a market of eye-watering size, vastly bigger than the audience achieved for books.

The story-based structure of games has led publishers to console themselves that an inherent love of narrative has been redirected rather than completely extinguished. Yet the industry has been curiously reluctant to credit self-publishing with a role in promoting engagement with the written word.   

Each January, "writing a book" scores consistently highly in the published rankings of New Year's resolutions; if pursued through self-publishing, this ambition previously tended to result in poorly produced products. Now accessible and affordable technological developments—and the emergence of new bespoke publishing service companies—mean that producing a work of satisfactory standard is possible—and quick. It takes just minutes to convert a disk-file into an accessible e-book via Smashwords.

The V word
Although these works have not been through the traditional publishing process and some in the industry still turn up their noses, they still present a rarefied judgement that is not universally acknowledged by the market (just as publishers routinely over-estimate the number of imprints of which the average consumer is aware). The process of learning to paint may lead to the framing of indifferent watercolours; selecting predictable hymns and the "23rd Psalm" for a wedding service does not mean your taste is locked there forever. The decision to present work in a typeface considered infelicitous by publishers is surely a stage on a journey, not something for outright condemnation as evidence of a process driven by vanity.

Ah, the "V" word. Self-publishing has suffered heavily from association with that word. If we accept that writing, however inexpertly presented, has a value (improved self-knowledge, wider understanding of both sequence and events, enhanced empathy, recording of memories in a shareable format), should we not be encouraging wider participation rather than marking out a meadow for exclusive use?

Among professional writers, the re-emergence of self-publishing (Austen, Dickens and Twain all partook) closely mirrors a number of significant developments within publishing. Over the past 20 years authors have become increasingly involved in the marketing of their titles; appearing at literary festivals and author events to build a platform of recognisability that may prompt sales—particularly valuable because these are virtually the only situations in which books are sold at full price.

Today publishers want "book plus promotable author", not book alone. "Promotable" may be variously defined. Tony Mulliken, chairman of Midas PR, itemises promotable as "a willingness to get involved in social media marketing, and preferably have a website of their own; taking part in broadcast media; writing articles for the press and websites for no money." Given their previous isolation from the processes of publishing, this wider reliance has swelled both their confidence and desire for involvement, and many authors are now demanding more say in the presentation of their work.

Presentation particularly bothers them. With intense pressure on margins, and reduced profits, authors and agents have complained vociferously about reducing editorial standards, and publishers relying on freelance, out-of-house editors while no longer contributing to the pool of trained labour.

Today many authors—particularly within academic publishing—are themselves paying freelances to tend their work before it is "professionally published", just to maintain their reputation. It's a short hop from this to considering total responsibility. And editorial­ rigour can now be purchased as well as self-administered; the range of services is growing and universities are producing a stream of students with both an academic qualification and practical experience in publishing.

As for sneering at self-publishing authors who either write an autobiography without (apparently) ever having read many, or those who employ others to assist them with the writing bit, well, the industry offers that sort of latitude to celebrities all the time.

Self-publishing offers the chance to assert that ordinary lives can be both interesting and valid; the chance to star in your own story. In a world dominated by social media, where an individual's self-esteem is bound up in manicured profile and detailed monitoring of how many online acquaintances (often unknown in person) are following remotely, this feels very contemporary.

Desert island books
There is also the valuable part that self-publishing plays in ensuring the book remains on the cultural radar. Hearing the frustration of those who lose not backed-up photographs reminds us of the fragility of badly documented digital resources; Kirsty Young's island castaways regularly request a family photograph album as their one non-essential item. Professionals may not consider the large numbers of self-published personal archive titles as “proper books”, but these are maintaining the format of the basic codex as something of high material value within the lives of those who do not frequent bookshops, just as reading promotion agencies have shown that sports memoirs may offer a “shallow end” to non-readers.

Surely any experience of book ownership has a potential long-term value to both industry and individual; reaching those who are not as addicted as we may have assumed they should be.  

Self-publishing has also prompted an interest in new writing mechanisms. Team-writing is becoming popular, a process akin to the scuola of the Italian Renaissance, whereby someone sketches out what bestselling crime writer James Patterson has referred to as “the parts the reader does not skip”, and others shade in the bits between. Raphael and his junior assistants worked in similar fashion on altarpieces. Online writing partnerships can avoid the inter-personal difficulties of giving feedback face to face, and offer real momentum in project development (the fastest book I ever wrote was with two Australians—we wrote/edited each other in sequential daylight periods).

As an example, author Louise Voss was conventionally published by Transworld in the early Noughties, but was eventually dropped for insufficient sales. She found new impetus through an online writing partnership with Mark Edwards. In spring 2011, they published two joint novels as e-books, drew a huge following online and then had agents and publishers competing to welcome them back. HarperCollins will now publish their next book, Catch Your Death, on 5th January.  

Star players
So how is the conventional industry responding? Of course self-publishing is a threat, but perhaps in more complex ways than have been previously appreciated. I think some of the rather overstated predictions (“It's the end of publishing” and so on) come from misreading the publisher's role. Publishers were never the quality police, seeking out the only writing worth esteem.

Publishing remains a business—and one whose model of operation requires the sourcing of a range of content to suit the range of customers, in the same way that a stock market portfolio reliant on shares from one sector alone would be horribly risk-exposed. Publishers have searched for work that is marketable and for which an audience can be identified. In the process they  sought to make a profit, and subsidise further writing worth reading. But that has never meant that all work worth sharing has been offered to the reading public. Indeed, new author publicity material often features their obstacle-strewn path to publication. Authonomy, run by HarperCollins, and Macmillan's New Writing Scheme have shown that there is considerable talent at large, and that offering the chance to participate in choosing what becomes available can add energy to the process.

Nor is publishing an activity solely capable of development by publishers. The rapid rise and now domination of the revision notes market by CGP Books has shown that those without previous experience—in CGP's case a teacher and an accountant—but with a strong business ideas can move quickly.

Existing operating methods within publishing are threatened. Publishing firms have relied on a mutuality of interests within their stable; bestsellers subsidising nascent talent. The empowered celebrity author (or, perhaps more significantly, their agent) who sees a book with their name on the cover as just one component of asset-packaging to promote longer term shelf-life may be less public spirited, particularly if able to identify the distribution route (fan website/shops). Those running sports teams wrestle with similar problems—how do you keep star players feeling like part of the team?

Of course there are benefits to being part of a successful stable, and limits to how much/for how long a medium devoted to a single star will remain enthralling. But the individual “talent”, isolated from common sense, may find the manager's message more persuasive than the group ethic. In future, publishers will have to work harder to reassure their high-earners of the long-term benefits of remaining part of the system.

Getting up to speed
How publishers decide what to publish will be influenced by the processes that shape self-publishing. Relying on trusted commentators who assess proposals and make reader reports will still be important—but may have to be done faster, reporting to fewer committees.

Within scientific communities it is now common for papers to be openly reviewed on the web, with the best adopted by journals—a system that has more in common with “The X-Factor” than traditional peer-review processes. Universities today have PR departments eager to boost the institution's profile, and they excel at spotting press angles that facilitate the promotion of individuals and the university.

For more commercially based content, feedback will surely become more market-driven; how many online hits does this individual attract; does this mean their content is marketable? To avoid previous expensive commissioning mistakes, publishers will have to distinguish more effectively between those who attract attention and those who gain approval.

In future, effective publishers and agents will continue to select, curate and manage writing talent. In a world awash with choice and remote buying mechanisms, the time-pressured consumer will increasingly rely on brands they can both spot and trust. The online buyer tries before they buy, and quickly shares the information, so publishers will have to ensure they provide the right supporting details. Rather than just telling readers they should be familiar with a particular author, they will have to demonstrate why—and who else agrees.

Authors (whether traditionally published or self-published) will benefit from a realistic appreciation of the value of their work and hence set their goals accordingly. Authors may just find out that publishing is much harder than they had previously assumed. But if, in the process, they demonstrate to an unsuspecting world that there is considerable demand for their writing, and present a talent for self-promotion that is as effective as it is unabashed, they are well equipped to attract positive attention from the professionals. So rather than the previously assumed kiss of death to the serious writer, self-publishing today may enhance the chances of a conventional deal.

Alison Baverstock is course leader for MA Publishing at Kingston University. The Naked Author: A Guide to Self-Publishing is published by Bloomsbury.