Self-publishing saw another successful year in 2014, with authors like Deborah Bladon and Jen McLaughlin hitting the New York Times bestseller lists, fanfic authors like Sophie Jackson receiving six-figure advances, and many millions of titles being published across the industry’s numerous platforms. The view of self-publishing as an outlet of last resort for desperate authors is also changing—the negative stigma that’s long been associated with the industry is being discarded for a more progressive outlook, along with the acknowledgement that self-publishing and traditional publishing can coexist and even benefit one another. And self-publishing platforms are increasingly serving as a kind of testing ground for traditional publishers, which are snapping up successful indie authors and offering them, in some cases, million-dollar advances. Further, some traditionally published authors are becoming more open to exploring self-publishing as a supplement to or as a replacement for their traditional publishing careers.
A year ago, we predicted that the self-publishing industry would mature in 2014, with writers taking ownership of their role as both authors and business owners. As 2015 begins, we once again anticipate a year of growth, despite some concerns about market saturation. For this year’s preview, we talked to a number of industry insiders about the current state of self-publishing, the trends they’ve noticed over the past year, and the current challenges facing indie authors in an increasingly crowded market, along with some of their predictions for 2015.
As an example of continued industry growth, Ashleigh Gardner, head of content at Wattpad, noted that in 2014 the social publishing site gained millions of users who shared 15 million works of fan fiction alone—resulting in breakout publishing stars like Anna Todd, whose One Direction fanfic, After, got her a four-book deal with Gallery Books at Simon & Schuster.
Established self-publishing sites like Lulu also saw growth over the past year, according to the company’s v-p of marketing, Dan Dillon, as a result of new initiatives like Lulu Jr.—a brand enabling children to become published authors. In addition to Lulu Jr., the company announced a partnership with Crayola to develop a line of co-branded book-making kits for kids.
Across all segments of self-publishing, there were signs of continued growth and innovation—from Crayola to fanfic to hybrid publishing to the rise of serialization, we break it all down for you here.
The Rise of the “Authorpreneur”
As more and more authors go it alone, they are increasingly treating their self-publishing ventures as businesses. This means realizing that their publishing efforts must be part of a broader business model that takes into account everything from branding to media outreach to editorial collaboration—which is an important development, according to Beat Barblan, director of identifier services at Bowker.
“There has been a realization over the last year, I would say, that, in order to be successful, self-publishers must see themselves as business owners and recognize that writing the content is only the first of many steps,” says Barblan. While he notes that “content is still king,” he points out that even good content will have trouble finding an audience if authors aren’t publishing professionally—paying attention to the services a traditional publisher offers like editing, marketing, e-book conversion, and cover design. “Authors have realized that when choosing to self-publish they are not eliminating the role of the publisher: rather, they choose to assume the publisher’s responsibilities.” This means that indie authors are doing more work than their traditionally published counterparts, but are perhaps more empowered as a result—taking ownership of their titles and working to expand their business.
Dillon at Lulu agrees. “It’s been very fulfilling to see the concept of the ‘authorpreneur’ take hold in 2014,” he says. As an example, Dillon points to the portion of Lulu authors who are utilizing the free tools offered by the site to communicate directly with their readers, which in turn builds loyalty and drives sales. “The one thing our authors did supremely well in 2014 is they got to know their readers, to understand who they are, and to deliver an ever increasing amount of high quality content to them,” something Dillon says is the hallmark of a maturing and thriving marketplace. “As 2015 gets under way, we expect to serve even greater numbers of authors who consider themselves the CEO of their book business.” He also notes that, as business owners, authors are working to develop customer loyalty in order to “keep their customers for life.”
The need for a long-term outlook by indie authors is echoed by Smashwords founder Mark Coker: “Now more than ever, indies must focus on their long-term game plan. Avoid the temptation of making short-term decisions that harm your long-term opportunities. Understand that as an indie author you are an essential participant in the publishing community.”
Many others in the industry also say that indie authors will need to pay increasing attention to professionalism. Barblan predicts that readers will increasingly expect self-published books to be indistinguishable from those that are traditionally published. “From the value of the content to the type of paper used to print physical books or the care taken in their conversion to e-books, books should be of equal quality regardless of how they get published,” says Barblan. “The reader wants good, well-presented content that is readily available at a reasonable cost.”
As self-publishing has become more established, it appears to also have become a viable option for traditionally published authors, who have tended to shy away from it in the past. For instance, self-publishing allowed New York Times bestselling author Eileen Goudge to release Bones and Roses in 2014 after she failed to find a publisher for the novel. Smashword’s Coker predicts that we’ll see more traditionally published authors going this route—especially midlist authors, who tend to get less attention from their publishers than frontlist authors and may be looking for a change. In addition, the flexibility offered by hybrid publishing means that authors with out-of-print backlists can regain the rights and publish the titles themselves, perhaps opening up their work to a new generation.
“Clearly, [self-]publishing has not only matured, it has lost the stigma that stuck to it for years,” explains Sally Dedecker, an industry consultant and education director at BEA. “I hear from traditional authors who are exploring the [self-]publishing option, and looking for a game plan to shift to hybrid or leap right into [self-]publishing.” As an example, she notes that at uPublishU at BEA in 2014, a number of attendees were traditional authors who wanted to explore their options and investigate the benefits of various publishing platforms and learn more about rights and marketing.
Barblan agrees that 2015 will be a year of growth for hybrids. “I think we will see an increase in hybrid publishers, choosing to publish both ways: via traditional publishers as well as on their own depending on type of content and market,” he says. As authors learn more about their publishing options, whether via a panel at BEA or from networking with other writers and readers, and are able to choose exactly how to publish individual titles depending on their needs, it seems clear that hybrid publishing will continue to attract new fans in the coming year.
Serialization and Fan Fiction
Authors have also taken note of the opportunities offered by serialization. By releasing their work a chapter at a time, authors can keep readers hooked while incorporating feedback from their fans as they go—a format that’s been successful for a number of indie authors this year. This publishing model also allows for increased author revenue—publishing 30 chapters priced at 99¢ lets authors potentially enjoy 30 times the revenue compared to a single title at the same price point.
“Serialization is here to stay,” predicts Wattpad’s Gardner, pointing to the more than 14 million stories shared serially on the site in 2014. “With so many writers sharing stories chapter by chapter, reading is becoming episodic. The reality is people still love to read, but prefer to do it in short bursts, often on the go.” (In fact, authors are writing on the go as well—more than 20 billion words were published on Wattpad’s iOS and Android mobile platforms in 2014.) Gardner also notes that fan fiction continues to be the fastest growing category on Wattpad, covering everything from “celebrities to YouTubers to apps and classic novels.” Gardner says she expects to see “more real person fan fiction and stories about breaking news in the coming year.” Also, while genre fiction remains strong, she’s seeing a change in subject matter—“sexy cowboys” are giving way to sexy MMA fighters in the romance genre, and jinns are taking over from vampires as common protagonists in the fantasy realm.
Thoughts on Market Saturation
With an increasing number of indie titles being self-published every year, authors face the constant challenge of discoverability—getting their titles noticed in a sea of seemingly endless options. “There’s a glut of high-quality, low-cost books out there,” Coker says, adding that one reason for this is the “immortal” e-books from both indie and traditional authors that will never go out of print. More importantly, he notes, traditional publishers are beginning to heavily discount their e-books and offer some content for free in an attempt to capitalize on the success that many indie authors have seen with this strategy. This means even more good content is available at a very low (or nonexistent) price point.
Coker offers the statistics to back this point up, noting that a 2014 Smashwords survey found that free e-books at Apple’s iBooks store were downloaded 39 times more frequently than books that cost money—a figure that sounds encouraging until it’s compared with the survey from the year before, which saw free books downloaded 91 times more often. “So many authors are using free promotions and perma-free that free books face increased competition,” he says.
Nevertheless, Dillon is confident that there is still an appetite for new books, and that those books all have the potential to find an audience. “The magic of the book business is that for every book, there are n number of customers,” he notes. “Readers are perpetually buying new content, and no one book addresses their every need or desire.” Dillon also says that, unlike practical items like washing machines, snowblowers, or tablets, readers can always use another book. Diane Mancher, founder of One Potata Productions and cofounder of the Self-Publishing Book Expo agrees, pointing out that she doesn’t believe there can ever be too much content available. “That to me would be like suggesting there is too much music to listen to or too much art to appreciate.”
“I think that the publishing industry has always been faced with too many books, so little time to read,” adds Dedecker. “That said, authors who embrace best practices in publishing, have a solid focused plan to engage readers, and are testing new opportunities to reach new audiences can put themselves in the driver’s seat.”
Challenges for 2015
While noting the increasing challenge of discoverability, our industry experts are mostly in agreement that 2015 will continue to be an exciting year for self-publishing.
“Best practices for book publishing, working to better understand issues around discovery—including metadata—and experimenting with new ways to monetize their content should be high on the ‘to do’ list,” advises Dedecker. Dillon predicts the continued resiliency of the print format across various segments of the market, while also noting that reader data will become an important focus for brands, authors, and marketers in the coming year. Mancher believes that 2015 will continue to see traditional publishers “mine indie authors to find the next big thing.” Coker predicts a drop in author revenue from e-books sold in Europe as the result of an increased value-added tax (VAT) that took effect January 1, something he says will make e-books “less competitive to print books and other nonbook options for leisure, entertainment, and knowledge.”
Finally, there’s the view that self-publishing can continue to act as a corrective to the traditional publishing industry, which is often seen as lacking in diversity and minority voices. “There’s been a lot of talk about the need for diversity in books lately,” notes Gardner. “On Wattpad, we see a true range of storytelling. You can find stories you wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else that cover emerging or underrepresented genres like urban fiction, fan fiction, and LGBT stories.” Gardner says she’s hoping that 2015 offers more recognition for authors and books that represent “different cultures, experiences, and viewpoints.”