Priscilla Becker would self-publish her work if she had the choice.
“Your work may be more accessible if you’re published by a major publishing house,” says Becker, a creative writing professor at Columbia and published poet. “But you don’t get paid anything.”
Becker isn’t the only one to throw off the age-old taboo against self-publishing. Since 2006, the number of self-published books produced each year has grown by almost 300 percent. The unprecedented ease of sending a book into the world may have even begun to threaten long-established, profitable publishing houses. In July, Penguin bought Author Solutions, a company founded in the ’90s to help authors self-publish. In November, Simon & Schuster worked with Author Solutions to create Archway, Simon & Schuster’s imprint for self-publishers.
Author Solutions is one of a growing host of largely online companies—such as Lulu, Blurb, and Amazon—that specialize in allowing writers to self-publish manuscripts. Gone are the days when a pile of rejection letters meant a book would never make it into readers’ hands. These companies design, format, and copy-edit books, then put together marketing packages to help authors advertise—for a price, of course. Depending on the number of services required, an author can pay between $2 and $20,000 to get a book onto the virtual shelves of the web, although the journey onto real-world shelves is significantly more difficult.
The 21st-century turn to self-publishing isn’t surprising. The rejection rate for manuscripts received by traditional publishing houses is 98 percent. But e-books and Internet have made self-publishing a newly viable option. While producing a book and selling it to bookstores on one’s own was once nearly impossible, services like those offered by Author Solutions have made it easy for writers to reach small markets with a relatively small investment.
“The new technology has thrown traditional publishing models into disarray,” says Victor Navasky, chair of the Columbia Journalism Review and former editor of The Nation. “Self-publishing used to be called ‘vanity press’ because one couldn’t get a traditional publishing imprint to do it. There’s a whole new set of enterprises, and the whole thing is redefining itself.”
Many people still think of self-publishing as the “vanity press.” But self-publishing has unexpected advantages for more than just those who are rejected by large publishing imprints.
With the rise of e-books, author royalty structures are changing in favor of authors. Traditional publishing houses pay the initial expenses to produce a book and put it on the market, but they also keep anywhere from 70 to 90 percent of the profits. This isn’t true of e-book publishers, who can keep royalty rates as high as 50 to 70 percent. And self-publishing authors who advertise successfully can often keep a majority of the profits from their book sales.
“It’s inevitable that famous authors, if they have the choice, will push to sel-fpublish because of the royalty difference,” says Navasky.
And it’s not just the royalty difference that’s so attractive; there’s also the independence that comes with rejecting the traditional publishing route.
Although they’re able to capitalize on Simon & Schuster’s brand name, authors who work with the company’s imprint Archway don’t actually receive editorial input from the publishing house. That’s part of the beauty and the gamble of selfpublishing. Authors no longer need someone to put a seal of approval on their book. Does that mean misunderstood, frequently rejected authors will finally gain their much-deserved audiences? Or does it mean the book market will be flooded with inferior material?
“There is an inherent quality control problem,” says Navasky. It has to do, he explains, with the largely online nature of self-publishing. With the Internet, “traditional standards don’t apply,” he says. “In the magazine business, I did a survey with the Columbia Journalism Review. Even prestigious publications like the New Yorker don’t fact-check and copy edit as rigorously online as in print because they want to be fast and attract maximum traffic.”
Navasky believes this lack of quality control extends naturally to self-published books. After all, authors who self-publish have the same attitude as The New Yorker: They want to get their books out as fast as possible and attract maximum traffic. Authors have to be relentless about advertising, and the vast majority of self-published authors meet a very small, or even nonexistent, audience. In a New York Times article, Alan Finder reported that most self-published books sell fewer than 100 or 150 copies.
Becker agrees that there are disadvantages to forgoing the traditional route. “Self-publishing may help monetarily, but I don’t think it’s good for your bio or your curriculum vitae,” she admits.
But in the end, Becker says that there are advantages and disadvantages to any approach to publishing, and that the main problem is simply getting your foot in the door, whether through a well-established publishing house or on your own.
“It’s really difficult to get going,” she says, “but once you’ve published it’s not so difficult to publish again.”