Out of Quantity comes Quality (or what Publishers can offer Self-Publishers)

As the volume of self-published works continues to grow exponentially, research by book data analysts at Bowker suggest that the number of self-published titles has increased by 422% since 2007, and as the tools to do so increase in popularity and ability, with platforms from Amazon and Smashword providing full self-publishing services, publishers are increasingly being called into question to defend not just their position, but their existence. In a world where the number of books is increasing exponentially, I argue that the traditional publishing house will become an identifier for quality.

With meager royalties flowing to authors (compare the traditional 30% eBook royalty with Amazon’s 70%), and long production schedules that sometimes span three years, the value-added chain of publishing is increasingly being unbundled by authors to suit their individual needs. The case for traditional publishers looks dire. Why should an author hand over large chunks of royalties to a publisher that freelances out editorial and design duties anyway? They can do this themselves. And some do.

Though the majority do not. There are a great number of professional self-published authors that freelance editorial and design components of book production and build platforms for themselves. There are a greater number still that do not. And as Chuck Wendig, an engaged self-published author points out, there is a problem of quality and discoverability when it comes to self-publishing, something he refers to as the shit volcano. He argues that if you were to take random sample pages of 10 self-published books, and 10 traditionally published books, “you will find considerably more errors in author-published releases than in those published by publishers”. What happens when Wendig’s proverbial volcano overflows—when readers become wary of lower price points and search out other identifiers for quality, reliable content?

Nearly two years ago, David Vinjamuri wrote that “there is enormous pressure in the market to solve the ‘drowning in bad writing’ issue with indie publishing. It’s hard to imagine that a solution won’t emerge in the next 12-18 months”. The self-publishing eBook bubble has still not burst. The market continues to grow. It’s a viable business model for motivated authors and platform builders alike. It hands authors the tools of traditional publishers, total autonomy, and a hearty royalty structure to boot.

The reason why it continues to grow is twofold. First, we’re still in the early stages of self-publishing. The author is not constrained by the traditional model of publishing, and for the first time in history we are seeing all manuscripts available to the public, not just those chosen by gatekeepers. Authors can publish their work with the incentive of royalties. These services help authors monetize their work and authors are happy. The consumer as discerning reader is still a developing notion in the eBook market, which Damien Walter sees as a massive boomtown thanks to a large new readership and lower price points.

The second reason is that the platforms for self-publishing are profitable. As Ewan Morrison points out, if Amazon has “five million new self-publishing authors selling 100 books each, Amazon has shifted 500m units. While each author – since they had to cut costs to 99p – has made only £99 after a year’s work”. If the companies offering self-publishing services are profitable, they will continue to offer those services. A new kind of consumer appears: the author as consumer. The current revenue mechanisms in place for publishing don’t reflect the quality of material–they rely on quantity of material. That is the underlying business model of Amazon and other self-publishing platforms like Smashwords.

The bottom line is that we live in a world/market of abundance, where the problem of discoverability is greater than ever before. Regardless of whether the eBook self-publishing bubble bursts, self-publishing is here to stay. And now there are hundreds of thousands of authors vying for an audience, for attention. The key question for someone deciding how to publish is whether the route of traditional publishing offers advantages that remain out of reach for the majority of self-published authors.

What then, can a traditional publishing house offer that the self-publishing route cannot? As Cassandra Metcalfe has argued, a publisher helps an author develop a quality product. We need gatekeepers because they deliver quality. I argue that as the popularity of self-publishing increases and the market becomes ever more over-saturated, this issue of quality will come to the fore.

Quality will feed into the discoverability of a book, of an author. Publishers’ should act to build their brand and position themselves as a provider of quality. Not just in terms of editorial and literary content, but in all aspects of the publishing process. In an age where anybody has the potential to build a platform, where the tools of the traditional publishing house are unbundled and available to authors, where anyone can publish a manuscript, the mandate and editorial vision of a publishing house, the publisher’s expert handling of metadata, and the power of the publisher’s brand, can all help individual books stand out.

Whether you publish literary fiction, non-fiction information books on the fauna of the Pacific Northwest, or young adult vampire ghost romance books set in a dystopian future, as the market continues to saturate, a brand that signifies quality and reliability can aid discoverability. The new world of technology offers publishers manifold ways to deliver quality content. The product is not just the writing anymore. It’s now inclusive of accessibility, deliverability, discoverability, and ease of use.  In this respect, publishing houses such as Tor and O’Reily stand out. They are trusted brands for the genre of content they offer, and have a dedicated readership because of it. They build their brands, foster interaction and communities, and provide quality content in all respects.

I’m not arguing for the continuation of a legacy model here. Things have to change: royalty arrangements, services to authors, coding-literacy, even a shift from author development to brand development. I am arguing that in a world where the number of books available to a consumer increases exponentially year on year, discoverability and quality will become more important. It is this that differentiates publishers from self-publishers, and it is this that publishers can offer.

Bibliography / Links

Bridle, James. “The New Value of Text.” BookTwo. Oct 5th, 2011 < http://booktwo.org/notebook/the-new-value-of-text/ >

Dempsey, Beth. “Self-Publishing Movement Continues Strong Growth in U.S., says Bowker.” Bowker. October 9th, 2013 < http://www.bowker.com/en-US/aboutus/press_room/2013/pr_10092013.shtml >

Metcalfe, Cassandra. “Redefining the Publisher: Why we Need our Gatekeepers.” TKBR PUB 802, Jan 30th 2014 < http://tkbr.publishing.sfu.ca/pub802/2014/01/redefining-the-publisher-why-we-need-our-gatekeepers/ >

Morrison, Ewan. “The Self-epublishing Bubble.” The Guardian, 30th Jan 2012. < http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/jan/30/self-e-publishing-bubble-ewan-morrison >

Vinjamuri, David. “Publishing is Broken: We’re Drowning in Indie Books and That’s a Good Thing.” Forbes, 15th August, 2012. < http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidvinjamuri/2012/08/15/publishing-is-broken-were-drowning-in-indie-books-and-thats-a-good-thing/6/ >

Walter, Damien. “The Principle of Digital Abundance: Thoughts on Author Earnings.” Damien Walter, Feb 12th, 2014 < http://damiengwalter.com/2014/02/12/the-principle-of-digital-abundance-thoughts-on-author-earnings/ >

Wendig, Chuck. “Slushy Glut Slog: Why the Self-Publishing Shit Volcano is a Problem” Terrible Minds, Feb. 2nd, 2014 < http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2014/02/03/slushy-glut-slog-why-the-self-publishing-shit-volcano-is-a-problem/ >

One Reply to “Out of Quantity comes Quality (or what Publishers can offer Self-Publishers)”

  1. An argument is made in favor of the added value provided by the professional publishing houses during the publishing process of books. A book associated with a recognized publisher reduces the risks involved in buying an unknown product for the consumer.

    As for the services offered by the publisher, one may argue that not all books are treated equally. How much time were editors given to review the book? Is the same quality standard applied in creating the ebook version of a book as creating its print version? How familiar is the publisher with ebook metadata–knowing that ebook metadata is only really covered in the latest version of ONIX? Was the author provided a professionally-designed website? How are ebooks promoted and priced for the global markets?

    It would seem that many services justifying the royalty system of a publisher are less than satisfactory when it comes to digital publications. What is left is the accreditation given by a publishing house. If this is the role of the publisher, will they be replaced by peer evaluation systems? For such systems to gain the confidence of the reader, the “peers” would need to be recognized.

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