The Reading Life

The paradox of self-publishing

March 22, 2013|By David L. Ulin
  • Ebook sales appear to be flattening at about 25% of the market.
Ebook sales appear to be flattening at about 25% of the market. (Scott Eells / Bloomberg )

If you believe print is on the way out, Laura Miller wants you to think again. In Salon this week, she uses Simon & Schuster’s recent deal with ebook phenom Hugh Howey, author of the “Wool” series, to suggest that, contrary to the myth that self-publishing represents a leveling of the playing field, many presses are thrilled to take advantage of such low-hanging fruit.

“By the time a self-published author has made a success of his or her book,” Miller observes, “all the hard stuff is done, not just writing the manuscript but editing and the all-important marketing. Instead of investing their money in unknown authors, then collaborating to make their books better and find them an audience, publishers can swoop in and pluck the juiciest fruits at the moment of maximum ripeness.”

More important, Miller traces what appears to be a flattening of the ebook market (at around 25% of total book sales) and the resurgence of the independent bookstore as a first point of contact for readers unsatisfied with one-click buys.

“If print could talk,” she writes, “it would surely be telling the world, Mark Twain-style, that reports of its demise have been greatly exaggerated. The market for e-books grew exponentially after Amazon introduced the Kindle, and it’s still one of the most fascinating and unpredictable sectors of a once hidebound industry. But the early-adapter boom is showing signs of flagging and the growth of the e-book market appears to be leveling out. E-books are definitely here to stay, but it seems that many, many readers — a threefold majority, in fact — still prefer print.”

Miller’s piece is a response to a recent Wired article in which Evan Hughes argues that we are near a tipping point, which may arrive when a “big-ticket author” (John Grisham, say, or Stephen King) abandons traditional publishing.

I’m not sure about that — and neither is Miller. Why, she asks, strike out on your own “if self-publishing would mean hiring a staff to replace the services provided by a publisher, from marketing and publicity to distribution and editorial”?

Why indeed? What all this talk of self-publishing overlooks is that writers are not publishers, that few of us have the wherewithal, the resources, the business acumen to see our own work into print. That’s especially true, perhaps, of what Miller calls “little ticket” authors, who have been squeezed by the blockbuster mentality endemic in the industry, and thus, are more likely to consider the DIY route.

No knock on self-publishing — I’ve considered it at times, although I've never followed through. And that’s the issue, in a nutshell: How many writers, really, want to be publishers if someone else will fill those shoes?


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