Thanks to the well-publicized success of authors like J.A. Konrath, Amanda Hocking, and Seth Godin, the stigma surrounding self-publishing is fading fast. Still, it’s far from gone, and a web seminar sponsored by PW and Digital Book World yesterday titled The Evolution of Self-Publishing covered the reasons for self-publishing’s stigma, how and why it’s losing that stigma, and what the industry and individual authors need to do in order to help self-publishing move even further into the mainstream.
But first, about those aforementioned bestsellers? Panelist and author Jason Pinter expressed his frustration at always hearing the same few names repeated as examples of how lucrative self-publishing can be. “What annoys me is that the same names are always used: Godin, Konrath, Hocking, The Shack,” he said. “There’s a sense of people latching on to a couple of individuals who’ve found success and then those people get a lot of publicity. Then it’s, ‘They can do it; I can!’ There is a bit of a fallacy there; it’s not always the case.”
Though there are, of course, many reasons most self-published books don’t sell well. One of the main reasons mentioned by the panelists? Marketing. “It’s one of the hardest things to do,” Pinter said. “Authors really need to look at what their goals are and how they’re going to realistically achieve them.” Carolyn Pittis, svp, global author services at HarperCollins, agreed: “Marketing is the issue of our time. Book marketing is the biggest challenge that anyone in the book business is facing today, purely because there’s so much noise and so much content getting created and so many potential distractions.” Marketing often determines a book’s commercial success—or failure, said Phil Sexton, publisher and community leader at Writer’s Digest. “It’s about what the intent of the author is. How much they’re going to back [their book], whether or not they’re going to try and sell it.”
Indeed, a crowded marketplace is both a testament to the increasing options for self-publishing, as well as a factor working against selling self-published books. “There’s a huge volume of new content and there’s a lot of noise in the market,” said Pittis. “It becomes harder for readers to find the content that they’re most interested in.” And, as Victoria Strauss, novelist and co-founder of Writer Beware, reminded everyone, there is no gatekeeping in self-publishing; anyone can do it; and “very wonderful books might be published and very terrible books might be published.”
So, marketing is key in a crowded marketplace—but let’s say your book manages to break through the clutter and catch the attention of a traditional publisher, leading to a publishing deal. That’s one topic that PW reviews director Louisa Ermelino raised. “Maybe self-publishing is going to be an extra step added to publishing,” she suggested. “Maybe what’s going to happen is you self-publish a book, someone notices it--an agent?--and it goes from there into the traditional sphere.” The idea of self-publishing becoming something akin to a farm team system for traditional publishing generated a fair amount of debate among the panelists. Ermelino noted that in those cases, self-publishers have done some of the work for traditional publishers, but Strauss insisted, “It’s still the exception. It’s really rare.” Moderator Guy LeCharles Gonzalez asked the group how initiatives like Harlequin’s self-publishing can imprint open opportunities for self-published writers. Strauss’s response: “It’s all about the money; it’s not about finding wonderful books—come on.”
Still, if writers know what they’re paying for and what they might get in return, most everyone agreed there’s nothing wrong with traditional publishers setting up self-publishing arms. “You can hit Lotto. The thing is when people think they’re going to get something; it’s so unlikely,” said Ermelino. Strauss said she doesn’t mind traditional publishers “bolster[ing] their bottom line this way,” but the “farm team” implication is taking it too far. “I don’t think it’s true and it’s giving writers false hope.” To which Ermelino responded, to laughter all around: “And writers are delusional; no matter how they’re published.”