Self-publishing has been enjoying an exceptional run in recent years, as new technologies and growing acceptance of indie books have led to an explosion of new titles and industry growth. While this expansion shows few signs of slowing, as we head into 2014 it is a good time for indie authors and publishers to take a look at what the future may hold, what new opportunities may be available in the new year, and what challenges to watch out for.
As self-publishing matures further, industry watchers expect that authors are going to have to raise the bar on their own offerings, collaborating with editors and designers while taking a more entrepreneurial approach to their work. At the same time, as technology makes self-publishing ever easier, the industry will hear new voices from around the globe and from places that have been underrepresented in the past, giving readers a greater variety of indie titles than ever before, but making it more vital for authors to find a way to stand out from the pack.
One thing industry experts all agree on: 2014 is an exciting time to be in self-publishing. Last fall, bibliographic information service provider Bowker revealed that self-published titles had grown by nearly 60% in 2012, and in 2013 it showed no signs of slowing. And while the industry continues to grow, 2014 may be the year of “maturing.”
“It’s almost been a giddy feeling about all the new opportunities, but I think we’ve reached a slightly more mature period,” says Beat Barblan, director of identifier services for Bowker. “We are seeing more authors who say they want to be an author beyond just a hobby, and recognize that they have to be much more entrepreneurial.”
The phase of what Barblan calls the industry’s “ecstatic growth,” in which many writers who had never thought they would be able to publish are taking advantage of the newly available tools, is likely to shift into a steadier period, with authors taking a more long-term perspective on their careers.
“People are more aware now that they have to market their work, and work with an editor, convert the e-book to the right formats, and this has been an ‘aha moment’ for a lot of authors—it’s not, ‘I’m handing over my document and I’m done,’ ” says Barblan.
Barblan expects 2014 to see a growing acceptance from authors that writing the book is only a portion of the publishing process, as they learn from other authors’ success stories and from their own experiences. Barblan has seen that in authors who come to Bowker and set up their ISBN number and metadata, but then come back asking why their books aren’t selling.
“Talking to authors who attend the [Self-Publishing Book] Expo—they are really working hard to educate themselves like never before,” says Diane Mancher, owner of One Potata Productions and co-creator of the Self-Publishing Book Expo, which will be held in the fall of this year. “People are more savvy, and are treating it more as a business than as an opportunity to get words on paper.”
She grants that there are still authors who “have [only] one book they want to get out,” but that, increasingly, when writers get started down the self-publishing path, they approach it with a greater level of seriousness than had been seen a year or two ago.
Mancher expects to see maturation particularly in evidence in how authors approach their online presence.
“It’s going to become second nature for authors to know they can’t just throw up a Web site and leave it at that—they have to add content to their Facebook page, Twitter account, and really keep those outlets active,” says Mancher.
While authors are realizing they have to wear more hats than just the writer’s, it has also become clear that successful books are created as part of a collaborative effort. To make a work succeed, one has to utilize outside experts to help with the process.
“There has never been a book published in traditional publishing that has not had an editor, copy editor, and designer,” says Betty Sargent, founder and CEO of self-publisher association BookWorks. “So to think one can do all that all on one’s own for a self-published book is naïve.”
She urges her members to seek out these kinds of “publishing partners” in order to ensure their books have a high level of quality, and expects in the coming year to see more indie authors taking that approach.
Sally Dedecker, education director at BookExpo America (taking place May 28–May 31 this year) who oversees the uPublishU self-publishing arm of the event, applauds the growth in author services that is making it easier for writers to get the assistance they need to strengthen their books. This can be technical help, such as with converting to an ePub format, or more high-level points, like developmental editing and cover design.
“If writing is your fulltime profession, you have to consider how you are balancing your time—you have to dedicate yourself to writing your next book, or marketing,” says Dedecker. “There are only so many hours in the day.”
With this rise in varied offerings, Mancher expects more authors will take on more of a project manager role in their book’s development. That means allocating funds specifically for editorial and art assistance, rather than just paying for an all-in-one self-publishing package from CreateSpace or Lulu.
“People are now sitting down and saying to themselves, ‘Let me set aside x amount of dollars to hire a publicist or get a good cover designer— what can I do on my own and where can I use the help?’ ” says Mancher. “They might say, ‘I have a good handle on social media, but I could use help with someone writing a press release for me.’ ”
Helping to stoke this is growth on the supply side, as editors, designers, and other professionals from traditional publishing companies have offered up their services with growing regularity.
“They’re recognizing that self-publishing isn’t what it used to be — that there’s no shame in editing or designing a self-published book,” says Mancher.
As authors get more serious about their publishing, author service companies that offer resources are going to become more important. Mancher points to BiblioCrunch, the DIY e-book production and distribution platform, which relaunched in June 2012, offering editorial, marketing, and design services to authors. Or Bowker, which launched, in May 2013, SelfPublishedAuthor.com, offering guidance and resources tailored specifically to indie publishers. Expect to see new services pop up in 2014 and for those already offering them to expand their menus.
A Bigger Tent
The rise of self-publishing and e-books, with their more simplified distribution, has made it possible for authors to find international audiences that would have been unreachable a few years ago. While it’s hard to ship print books around the world, the ease with which e-books can be delivered, once foreign rights issues are worked out, makes it simpler than ever to get works throughout the world.
It also means more markets are opening up for would-be writers who have not been as active in the publishing industry. While Barblan says that the U.S. “is ahead of every other place in the world” as far as the volume of self-published ISBNs, with Australia also boasting a strong self-publishing community, he sees interest growing globally.
“We get calls from authors at different parts of the world—Eastern Europe, Latin America— asking, ‘Any way to get my book out?’ That has certainly increased,” says Barblan. “And for every person who calls, there are hundreds who don’t but are looking to do the same thing.”
Sargent says that her association is working to offer more resources for the expanding ranks of self-publishers, and points to India and England as two global markets to watch for particularly strong growth in the coming year.
“At BookWorks, we are working to provide a global home base for all these writers who are trying to figure out the changing self-publishing world,” she says.
With the tent for new indie authors growing, author services will need to speak to a wider range of concerns. For Dedecker, that will mean a greater focus at this year’s uPublishU on speaking not to one large audience, but to several distinct audiences under the “self-publishing” umbrella.
“It will be more of a mixed crowd— folks dipping their toe in and those who are on book six, seven, and eight,” says Dedecker. “If they are launching their first book, they will have completely different concerns than those who have been publishing for a while.”
This also means appealing to authors publishing in a variety of genres and for a range of ages and levels of interest. It may be a fulltime business consultant publishing a book mainly as a calling card for prospective clients, or a college graduate looking to work up to making a living as an author.
But this exploding democratization creates challenges for authors attempting to stand out from the pack. This means a growing importance placed on search-and-discovery tools, i.e., SEO, to help readers who know what they are looking for find it.
This past year, Amazon introduced its Kindle Countdown promotions, which allow authors to offer books for free for as long as they like, which has proven a potent way for writers to get the attention of readers. Without disclosing details, Jon Fine, Amazon’s director of author and publisher relations, says Amazon will continue to “experiment” with these sorts of offerings to aid discoverability in the year ahead.
“Free works well for people who have a series of books, but not as much with one shot,” Fine says. “We view Kindle Select as a terrific playground to try new things and see what works. I think you’ll see a lot more of that this year.”
One way in particular that Barblan has seen this higher concern with discoverability is in a greater focus on metadata. While it used to be seen by authors as a techy burden that was superfluous to the writing they would rather be doing, increasingly, authors are embracing metadata as a way to get the attention of the right readers.
“The better information you give, the better the customer will understand your work. Authors are understanding that much more than they used to,” says Barblan. “There are all kinds of things to make people know your book exists—blogging, Twitter, giveaways— but one thing you must do, if nothing else, is provide good metadata for your content.”
Similarly, in social media, a focus on quality is likely to outpace quantity as well.
“What I talk a lot to writers about is: Don’t focus on the number of your followers—it’s a flawed metric,” says Dan Blank, founder of author consultancy WeGrowMedia. “The way social media is important is the quality of those followers and how engaged they are in what you have to say.”
For this reason, Blank maintains that e-mail will take on a greater role in social media efforts in the coming year. While it has been seen as a somewhat old-fashioned marketing approach, with the glut of new social media platforms, it actually cuts through the clutter more effectively.
People are engaging with their in-box everyday, and more highly than with other outlets,” says Blank.
The year 2014 is also likely to see a rise in “hybridization,” with authors straddling the worlds of traditional and indie publishing.
This hybrid approach has become more attractive. Indeed, authors at traditional houses are being expected to take on more of the marketing efforts for their own books. With authors already expected to cultivate a substantial platform, it is occurring to some to go it alone, if only for one book.
“Some traditionally published authors are heading in this direction—the opportunities are there,” says Dedecker.
Mancher gives the example of a volunteer at the Self-Publishing Book Expo who had self-published her work for years before signing a traditional book deal with St. Martin’s Press, but continues to self-publish other work.
Publishers are also working to connect with self-published authors on their own terms. Simon & Schuster’s Archway Publishing, offering self-publishing services for authors in fiction, nonfiction, business, and children’s books, has been successfully up and running since November 2012. Atria recently launched an in-house program aimed at cultivating their stable of indie authors. A team of editors, marketing, and publicity people meet weekly to go over how they are helping to promote the authors, providing materials for the author signings and events, coordinating cover reveals, building up social media and more.
Atria’s president and publisher Judith Curr, who was the keynote speaker at Self-Publishing Book Expo last year, points in particular to the speed with which indie authors tend to churn out their books, producing two to three titles a year, which requires a slightly different approach to managing and marketing.
Fine gives the example of a successful, traditionally published YA author he spoke with recently who thought that a great way to promote her latest book would be with an app. She approached her publisher who urged her to do it on her own since they had limited expertise in building apps.
“So she became an app publisher—collaborating with five or six people,” says Fine. “It’s interesting to hear the bells going off in traditional authors’ heads—it’s incredibly empowering for them to try self-publishing.”