Self-Published -- New Horizon or Crap Depository

I first started to investigate the potential for self-publishing at the same time I began looking for an agent -- about a year ago.  At that time, electronic publishing was taking off, and many of the self-publishing options were inheritors of the vanity publishers of a couple decades ago, where an author had to pay big bucks to get their book into print, and then had no way to distribute in the critical bricks and mortar bookstores.

Things have changed dramatically in a year, and they hint at where it will go ultimately, but there are still some chapters yet to be written in this story.

So here's where we stand currently...

ebooks were 10% of all book sales last year.  After the christmas success of eReaders, I would expect this year to be more like 20%.  Amazon dominates ebook sales as well as the online sales of conventional books.  online sales appear to be growing as well.

Bricks and motar bookstores are losing market share, and the overall market has been shrinking somewhat.  Blame the recession and the rise of alternative forms of entertainment (including reading blogs).  I would expect to see some slight growth in booksales this year, but continuing decline in the traditional store channels.  Borders is already in bankruptcy, and I would expect most bricks and mortar stores to feel increasing financial pressure.

Publishers are the gatekeepers to the traditional bookstores.  If you don't sell your novel to a publisher, then you won't be in Barnes & Noble (with a few exceptions).  But publishers extract a big price for that access -- authors receive only 17.5% royalty on book sales, give up their ebook rights, give up much creative control of the product, and then wait years to get their work into circulation.

There are a million manuscripts out there chasing the ten thousand publishing slots each year.  Arguably, they screen out the junk material, and assure consumers of quality when they purchase a book (as readers, you can be the judge).

In the midst of this, Amazon did a couple of very interesting things -- first, they purchased a self-publishing company named Createspace.  Createspace offers writers all the ancillary services provided by traditional publishers, such as:  editing services, book layout, cover design, print on demand production, etc.  The only thing they don't do is distribute and market (although the marketing by publishers of new or midlist authors is limited, at best).  Second, they increased the author's share of revenue to 70% for the lower price ranges.

What Amazon appears to be up to is classic channel disruption.  I have some ideas as to why they are headed this direction, and if I'm right, they're being very clever.

So what does all this mean?

Remember that million manuscripts?  Many of them will likely end up self-published on Amazon as ebooks and perhaps as print-on-demand books.  Most will be priced low -- $0.99 to $9.99 per copy.  Readers will have more choices than ever, although many (particularly those devoted to the publishing industry) say much of it will be of low quality (or crap).  The successful authors will be as good at marketing as they are at writing.  Good works will be overlooked, while mediocre material will succeed merely because it generates a buzz.  I'm not sure this is much different than traditional publishing, where a hot cover or strong presale promotion could turn a mediocre book into a big seller, but it might be more extreme with self/epublished works.

My own, admittedly unscientific, sampling of self published work hasn't resulted in the discovery of any diamonds in the rough, and I would say the average quality has been below traditionally published works.  However, the books have been substantially less expensive, and they are often still entertaining.

Where is it going?

This is the big question -- will self/epublished work develop a reputation as a crap repository to be avoided like the plague?  Or will rating and evaluation services of some sort emerge to sift the wheat from the chaff?  I think the later.  Will ebooks continue to displace print books -- I think we can count on it -- just like records were displaced by CDs and ultimately computer downloads.  Will Amazon and B&N be able to keep control of their content and prevent it being ripped (off) by consumers at will?  Hard to say at this point.  I think if a novel sells for $2.99, the temptation to steal it drops, but who really knows...

How about traditional publishers?  As brick and mortar stores become less and less relevant, so do the publishers.  They seem to be retrenching now, focusing on their stables of established bestselling authors, and taking fewer and fewer risks with new writers.  That may be smart in the short term, but may ultimately hasten decline as more an more hot new authors are "discovered" on Amazon.  Amazon appears to be employing something called "Judo Strategy", using the biggest asset of their competitors (the tie in to expensive printed material and the expensive distribution channel) against them.  At the least, publishers will probably have to reduce prices on ebooks, and their share of profits, to prevent established authors from seeing self-publishing as an attractive alternative.

Bricks and mortar bookstores will probably persist for quite a while -- longer if they can escape their dependence on traditional publishers and offer a broader range of product.  Print books aren't going away -- while much fiction is easily read in ebook format, non-fiction often is better conveyed in print/paper.  Book sellers who focus on convenience may very well be the best positioned to survive and thrive in the future.  I would much rather be an airport bookseller than a stand-alone Borders right now.

I continue to struggle with what a new author should do in this shifting environment.  Traditional publishing still has a certain cache.  And I'm not excited about taking on marketing responsibility for my work -- I am writing, after all, because I like to write, not because I want to market the materials.  So my uncertainty continues as I watch the changes unfold...