The Self-Publishing Revolution

By Betty Kelly Sargent of BookWorks: The Self-Publishers Association


Disruption, upheaval, explosive, in transition—all of these words apply to the publishing business today as never before. But why? What’s changed? Why has self-publishing become such a big deal in such a short time? It seems to me, after thirty-five years as an author and editor in the book and magazine business, that three things have happened:

  1. The technology has changed. Now everyone from stay-at-home moms to astrophysicists can write and publish their book with a few (OK, more than a few) clicks on their home computer.
  2. The means of distribution has changed. Instead of relying exclusively on bookstore distribution, these moms and astrophysicists can sell their books from their own websites, or directly through distribution channels such as Amazon or Smashwords.
  3. The business model has changed. Those who choose to self-publish receive no advance, and have to foot the cost of publication and marketing themselves—but (if successful) they can earn a much higher royalty on each copy sold.

So what’s the catch? Becoming a successful self-publisher is not so easy. One has to take on all the responsibilities usually shouldered by traditional publishers. A self-published author has to, first and foremost, do the following:

  1. Write a good book. No matter what the subject or her professional credentials, it is essential that the book be the best it can be before investing in the necessary, outside, professional help.
  2. Hire a developmental editor. Her friends may like her book, her mom and high school English teacher may think it is brilliant, but there is nothing like an objective, experienced professional to help her get the book into the best shape possible. There’s a reason that publishers employ so many experienced professionals: every book needs to be edited, designed, publicized, and marketed. This is especially true for self-published books, and the challenge for many indie authors is to find qualified professionals to help them.
  3. Hire a copyeditor/proofreader. This, too, is essential. Nothing damages an author’s reputation more than misspelled words or dangling participles.
  4. Hire a professional cover designer. Looks matter. Many readers can and do judge a book by its cover. In fact, the book’s cover is its most important marketing tool. The type should be bold, the image arresting, and the cover has to make an impact on a computer screen—even when the image is the size of a postage stamp.
  5. Develop a marketing plan and stick with it. This is the major challenge for most indie authors. The fact is that these days even traditional publishers ask their authors to take a leading role in the marketing of their book. The first question most literary agents and editors ask is, “what’s his platform?” It is essential that self-publishers give a lot of thought to their intended “platform” too. At we encourage our author members to consider creating a website for their book. We suggest they brush up on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn to let people know about their book and to open a dialogue with potential readers. It is important for them to know their niche, understand their genre, and connect with potential readers. In fact, we stress that it is a good idea for them to get involved with social media long before their book is published. This is something authors weren’t able to do very well until the advent of social networks, so why not take advantage of this great new marketing opportunity. Books can now be marketed in more precise and sophisticated ways than ever before.

The big question facing everyone in the book industry now is what does this all mean? What will the book business look like five years from now, and what will be different by 2024? At the recent London Book Fair, Jon Fine, Amazon’s director of author and publishing relations, said, “If you are an author in ten years you are going to have an array of options. What we’ve done is provide the tools that make it possible to take a story and make it available to hundreds of millions of people around the world . . . and to do it in multiple formats.”

Fine goes on to say that he believes the next challenge authors, publishers, and distributors will face is to work out how readers will discover those books that are right for them. “We’ve created a tsunami of content,” he says. “It’s a high-class problem to have too many stories. We, as tech companies, publishers, authors, service providers, have to find ways to help stories find the right audience. This discoverability problem is the next big challenge.”

Ron Martinez, founder of Aerbook believes:

New services will arise to further build out the ecosystem. Soon, affordable à la carte marketing and “indie retailing” services will be as routinely available as print-on-demand is now. Publishers will sell directly to readers, obtaining email addresses and contact permissions, keeping even more of the revenue with every sale. Fan bases will become customer bases.

Further down the road, books will increasingly be shared even as they are written, gathering followers, valuable feedback, and even pre-orders chapter-by-chapter. Today, the youth-oriented story site Wattpad does just this, for millions of readers and thousands of writers. But the benefits of shaping a work as it is written and gathering committed readers will move this model into the mainstream for the full range of categories. In this way, publishing will become part of the fabric of the vast social web, organized around interests and relationships. Exciting times lie ahead, and in a way, we are looking at a re-creation of how publishing once was before the advent of monolithic, centralized retailers: a diverse and well distributed literary marketplace.

One of my favorite cartoons of all time was in a recent New Yorker. A couple of scruffy looking, bearded guys are standing near a table looking down at two large, bound, illuminated manuscripts. One says to the other something along the lines of, “Well, this is all fine and dandy, but they’ll sure never take the place of scrolls.”

Betty Kelly Sargent, founder of BookWorks: The Self-Publishers Association, writes an article for Publishers Weekly each month about self-publishing.