Writing, printing, and disseminating your own work has a varied past. A century or two ago, it was a noble activity, indulged in by such great figures as William Blake, Tom Paine, Benjamin Franklin, Walt Whitman, and James Joyce. It endured a long period of indignity, branded as "vanity publishing"—that is, self-publishing as a last resort for works not viable in the marketplace. Perhaps it was the small press movement that began rehabilitating the term, as the 1960s and '70s saw much self- and otherwise-subsidized publication of beloved and none-too-commercial work by literary pioneers like Jonathan Williams and Len Fulton and publishing pioneers like Dan Poynter. The desktop-publishing revolution in the 1980s lowered the barrier to book production. Then came the Internet, and then Amazon. Of course, a company like Vantage Press has been around for more than half a century, doing for citizen authors what is increasingly commonplace today—taking the means of production into one's own hands and becoming an author.
But there have never been changes as vast and as fast as there are now. Indeed, the self-publishing industry is growing up in a hurry. Not only are more books than ever before being published by a growing number of self-publishing companies, but authors are becoming more knowledgeable about the publishing process and demanding more services from vendors. Self-publishing companies are responding by widening their marketing and distribution options, offering books in digital formats, and treating authors as business partners. "Whatever stigma vanity publishing may have had has diminished substantially for both readers and authors," notes Russ Grandinetti, v-p of Kindle Content, who is also involved with CreateSpace, Amazon's self-publishing arm. Indeed, Amazon has introduced a whole set of services aimed at drawing established authors to publish with it. But as Grandinetti and others note, the majority of people who sign up with their companies are new authors looking to publish a book as a commercial enterprise or, as AuthorSolution's CEO Kevin Weiss says, "to get writing a book off their bucket list."
No matter what the goal, the demand for self-publishing services continues to grow, albeit not quite at the frenzied pace before the recession. Weiss says he expects the sale of author packages to increase by about 23% in 2010 compared to 2009. "I've been at this three years and I'm still amazed at the growth," Weiss says. Bob Young, founder and CEO of Lulu, says revenue at the company should be up by double digits this year, and, for the first time in Lulu's history, the company will turn a profit. "Our core business is very, very healthy," Young says. He expects the company, which withdrew plans for an initial public offering earlier this year, to sell more than three million units, which includes books, e-books, and other content.
Similar to traditional publishers, the sale of e-books and other digital products has been a strong area for self-publishing companies, both as a source of new business for the company and as a format to sell to the reading public. Many of the larger self-publishing companies offer a digital component to authors either as a basic service or for a slight extra fee. "Every time a new platform is introduced, it's a new service we can offer," says Brent Sampson, president of Outskirts Press, which recently added a Kindle option to its offerings and will be adding an iPad option in the first quarter of 2011. CreateSpace's Grandinetti notes that self-publishing through Amazon's Kindle "continues to grow," adding that six of the top 100 Kindle bestsellers last month were by self-published authors. Infinity Publishing recently added an audiobook option and, says CEO Arthur Gutch, is preparing to introduce a "One-Book" offering that will give authors a print, digital, and audio book in one package. Self-published authors realize that it is easy, and not expensive, to publish digital editions, so those looking to reach a wide audience tend to do both, Grandinetti says. Vantage Press will add e-books in the 2011 first quarter, says CEO David Lamb.
Author Solutions has already moved beyond e-books and is now offering an apps package as well, aimed at children's book authors. Weiss says he expects the app service to eventually rival that of its e-book program.
The growth of digital is occurring so fast it is causing a bit of a problem for Sampson, who believes an increase in digital-only titles is one reason the growth in signing print book packages for Outskirts has slowed. One of the challenges Sampson says he faces is letting authors know that because of advances in technology it is very easy to publish print books. "Most [authors] don't know that they can get a paperback published without any headaches," Sampson says.
Along with other executives, Sampson says that if the self-publishing industry is to continue to expand, author education must be a top priority. Sampson says, "When a new technology is introduced, there is more re-education." Author education will be a "major thrust" for Author Solutions in 2011, Weiss says. The company plans to create educational sites for authors, and Weiss hopes to facilitate more author-to-author interaction through such things as podcasts and Webinars, while also working with outside companies to develop more educational platforms to reach authors.
More education is necessary not only to draw new authors to a company's service but also to give those already publishing the tools they need to successfully market their titles. As distribution to traditional and digital channels expands, authors need to understand metadata and discount terms, among other concepts. "We explain the publishing math," says Sampson. Author Solutions will put more resources into marketing, building on its existing programs to help increase sales, says Weiss. To that end, in early December the company appointed Alan Bower to the post of publisher and director of sales channels. Weiss says Author Solutions is committed to getting more exposure in bookstores for books that merit it, conceding that it won't get all books into stores. "Even traditional publishers don't get every book on shelves," he observes. Currently, most self-publishers have packages that include distribution through Baker & Taylor and Ingram. CreateSpace's Pro Plan is one such example, and interest in that is growing, says Grandinetti.
In addition to digital, partnerships are seen as another growth area for self-publishing companies. Author Solutions has partnered with four traditional publishers to operate self-publishing arms, and Weiss expects to announce more in 2011. Lulu's Young believes growth will come from partnering with groups and organizations that will use the Lulu platform to market book publishing services to their members. Under the program, Lulu will handle all back-end operations, and its partners will provide the content. "It will be the equivalent of an imprint," Young says. Working with outside organizations is a way to work with what Young calls "the next generation of publishers." Outskirts has launched a more modest imprint effort. Authors who publish using its Diamond, Pearl, Ruby, or Sapphire packages, which include a discount for buying an ISBN, can list their own imprint as the publisher of record on the book. For authors that don't take part in the "Private Label" option, Outskirts becomes the publisher of record.
CreateSpace also recently launched a service through which authors can buy an ISBN directly from the CreateSpace Web site. The ISBN offer was part of a range of enhancements Amazon made to CreateSpace in November. Other new features centered on services to help authors write and produce more professional looking books. "Many authors are looking to improve the quality of their work and are willing to hire help," Grandinetti, says, adding that authors realize that the better the book, the better the sales. Grandinetti says he is also seeing more small presses "who are looking for bandwidth using CreateSpace.
In another sign of a maturing market, several companies are expanding their international businesses. Lulu recently opened a printing facility in France to serve the European market and plans to open a new printing plant in Canada soon. "International growth is outpacing that in North America," Young says. Weiss says international sales growth has been very strong at Author Solutions.
With self-publishing on the rise—and competition in the space heightening—companies are being as author friendly as possible in order to put the days of vanity publishing even further in the past. "This isn't like the old vanity publishing where books sat in an author's garage," stresses Weiss. "We treat authors as customers," Grandinetti adds. Infinity's Gutch says for small companies like his that get a slice of book sales, working with authors benefits everyone. "We want our authors to know we are on the same side of the table as them," Gutch says. "We make more money when authors sell more books."