The Rise of Self-Publishing

When Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos wrote last year that “even well-meaning gatekeepers slow innovation” he was firing a shot across the bow of the Big Six publishers (Hachette, Macmillan, Penguin Group, HarperCollins, Random House, Simon & Schuster). No doubt, Bezos was referring to cherished publishing lore of how J.K. Rowling was rejected by 12 different publishers. Twelve! Of course those gatekeepers (muggles) were too myopic and lacked the imagination to realize that a book about wizards that would appeal to kids (and their parents) could sell more than 450 million copies and launch an empire worth several billion dollars.

A lesser-known story in publishing circles is the story of David Lassman who submitted the first chapters of Jane Austen’s most famous works (substituting names and titles to disguise them) to some of the leading publishers in England. Guess what? All the submissions received rejection letters. “It was unbelievable,” said the surprised Brit. “If the major publishers can’t recognize great literature, who knows what might be slipping through the net? [Bezos, can we hear an “Amen” brother?] Here is one of the greatest writers that has lived, with her oeuvre securely fixed in the English canon and yet only one recipient recognized them as Austen’s work. Getting a novel accepted is very difficult today unless you have an agent first, but I had no idea of the scale of rejection poor old Jane suffered.” One literary agent wrote: “[I am] not confident of placing this material with a publisher.” The Penguin Group concluded that “First Impressions (the fake title for “Pride and Prejudice”) seems like a really original and interesting read.”

But we digress… 

With the advent of Kindle Direct Publishing and its competitors (eg, Smashwords, B&N, and Apple) and the wide adoption of e-readers like the Kindle and iPad, the sales of self-published e-books have exploded. Since 2006, there are more than 200,00o self-published titles; the e-book’s rate of growth is four times that of traditional printed books. The big six are definitely taken notice: they witnessed what Amazon did to the bookstore industry. Indeed, e-books stand to revolutionize the publishing industry in much the same way that Apple’s iTunes transformed the music industry. Of course, a few publishing executives continue to hide in their ivory towers, clinging to a “barbarians at the gate” stance and claiming that their refined literary palates protect the hoi polloi from rancid stories. However, industry analysts have already drafted the next chapter in the life of the big six: evolve quickly or perish. Self-publishing evangelist and mystery writer, Joe Konrath, elaborates: “A technology has come along that is changing their business model, and publishers need to learn their place. They were essential to the process, and now they are not.” One thing is clear: consolidation is inevitable for the Big Six.

Most of this is bad news for traditional publishers, but great news for writers who can now control their own literary destinies, bypassing the closely guarded-gates of the agent-publisher system, as well as foregoing successive soul-crushing rejection letters. The poster woman for indie authors is E.L. James whose erotic Fifty Shades of Grey has sold more than 60 million copies and coined a new word in the English lexicon: mommy porn (proving once again that sex always sells; D. H. Lawrence and Henry Miller would be proud). The first book of the trilogy was published in May 2011 by an Australian virtual publisher, the Writers’ Coffee Shop, and then as sales picked up dramatically, the series was picked up by Vintage Books in America in April 2012. For the first time, an e-book was the bestseller for several weeks in a row.

Not only does self-publishing shore up a writer’s self-esteem, it can also provide him or her with a modest to substantial  income. In a recent article in Time magazine, Andrew Rice reports that indie author Sheryl Hoyt (writing as SaraLynn Hoyt) has made up to $2,000 per month on her romance novel, Beneath a Silver Moon. Nyre Belleville (writing as Bella Andre) has had even more success, writing 17 e-books and making more than $2.4 million in the past year. How is this possible? Simple math and sheer volume and Amazon. Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing allows authors to keep 70% from the sale of each $3.99 e-book. Through favorable word-of-mouth and some promotion, books can land on Amazon’s best-selling list, generating steady self-reinforcing sales that quickly add up. For Amazon and authors it is an absolute win-win.

Read related post: How Many People Have Read the Harry Potter Books?
The World’s Most Expensive Book
William Faulkner on the Writer’s Duty

For further reading: Time magazine, December 10, 2012 issue.–receives-dozen-rejections.html

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