The ‘shadow industry’ of self-published books

Book publishing is in an ongoing phase of disruption: how we manufacture, distribute, market, and sell books has changed radically in the past decade, and the pace of change does not seem to be slowing down. Especially with modern technology and the opportunities in various social media to reach a mass number of readers without the benefit of expensive marketing campaigns, writers have found a new and exciting market to expose their talents. There was a time when self-publishing was equated with vanity, however, because of the digital revolution, democratization has happened. Writers now have the opportunity to become their own entrepreneurs, coming up with creative writing and distributing it through their blogs or websites and eventually marketing their books to the intended audience on the various social media platforms. Experts have attributed this success to the ability of the writers to build a closer relationship with the readers in the participatory nature of social media. The self-publishing industry is booming, conquering over 30% of the market share in America. Self-publishers are constantly innovating and sharing their creative ideas through the internet’s several highly interactive websites tailored for the success of up and coming authors.

We can find hundreds of examples of great successes in the publishing industry of self publishers. One of the most recent success story is of course the erotic romance novel series, Fifty Shades of Grey. The author of the book, E.L. James, began her journey as a humble, self-publisher, inspired by Stephenie Meyer’s characters in Twilight, Edward Cullen and Bella Swan. She initially published episodically on fan-fiction websites of Twilight under the pen name “Snowqueen’s Icedragon”, however as she had gotten more popularity she started plugging them into her own website, The series was originally titled Master of the Universe, however, she later decided to split them into three parts and publish her first book call Fifty Shades of Grey in 2011. Within just a few years her series of Fifty Shades of Grey sold more than 125 million copies worldwide and has topped best-seller lists around the world, including those of the United Kingdom and the United States.

Andy Weir’s The Martian was also originally published chapter by chapter on his blog for free in 2011. The book based on a man travelling to Mars and creating a living garnered a lot of interest from science-fiction fans. He researched related material so that it would be as realistic as possible and based on existing technology and also took suggestion from the fans as he continued writing. At the request of fans, he made an Amazon Kindle version available at 99 cents. The Kindle edition rose to the top of Amazon’s list of best-selling science-fiction titles, where it sold 35,000 copies in three months, more than had been previously downloaded free. Weir sold the print rights to Crown in March 2013 for over US$100,000. In March 2013, Twentieth Century Fox optioned the film rights, and hired screenwriter Drew Goddard to adapt and direct the film. The film was released on October 2, 2015 and grossed $228.4 million in North America and $400.9 million in other territories for a worldwide total of $630.2 million.

Eva Lesko Natiello, author of New York Times and USA Today Bestseller, The Memory Box, a psychological thriller about a woman who Googles herself and discovers the shocking details of a past she doesn’t remember, spent seven years trying to find a publisher for her work before she finally gave and self-published it. Amanda Hocking wrote 17 novels while working as a group home worker in Minnesota. She self-published them all as e-books, selling more than a million copies. Self-publishing has proved most beneficial for romance novel writers. Especially when they capture their audience in a series about a fictional family and market their books for under $5.00. Barbara Freethy has sold more than 2,000,000 books writing about the Callaway family. The ease of self-publishing e-books has allowed these prolific authors to establish a huge fan base within a short period of time.

However, while it has become increasingly easy for authors to publish their own work there are certainly a few drawbacks that self-published authors have to face in these platforms. Firstly, since the process is so quick and easy, everybody and their brother and sister is an author. The competition is too high and the probability of your book getting lost in the enormous collection of self-published book is also quite high. Secondly, since there’s an abundant number of books in these websites, majority of them are usually pretty bad, therefore readers are often skeptical about starting a self-published book since starting a new book is a big commitment. Unless a book creates enough hype through word-of-mouth or in this case recommendation from their virtual book friends, it’s really difficult to have an immediate impact in the market. Finally, in the world of self-publishing, where anyone can put a document on Amazon and call it a book, many writers are seeing their work being appropriated without their permission. Some books are copied word-for-word while others are tinkered with just enough to make it tough for an automated plagiarism-checker to flag them. Despite all of these drawbacks the market for self-published books continue to grow, so much so that some researchers claim that we are currently experiencing a time of self-published revolution.

Internet based entrepreneurs have not wasted too much time to take advantage of this untapped market of creative publishers as there are now a growing number of websites designed to help them reach their intended audience. Websites such as LULU,  CreateSpace and Kindle by Amazon, Blurb, Smash Words etc. lets authors publish their own work in their websites to be sold to millions of people around the world. It’s easy to produce and easy to publish, hence the growth of self-published books has been huge in recent years resulting in the decline of print books as well as e-books published by the big five publishers of the industry. According to AuthorEarnings report from January 2015, 30% of the ebooks being purchased in the U.S. do not use ISBN numbers and are invisible to the industry’s official market surveys and reports; they claim that all the ISBN-based estimates of market share reported by Bowker, AAP, BISG, and Nielsen are wildly wrong. Furthermore, they have also claimed in the report that 33% of all paid ebook unit sales on are indie self-published ebooks, hence, 40% of all dollars earned by authors from ebooks on are earned by indie self-published ebooks. The amount of money spent on self-published books went up from around $510m in 2014 to $600m in 2015. This proves that the data provided by the official publishing industry fails to include a third of the e-book market and their claim that ebook sales are “plateauing” or “declining” becomes highly suspect. In fact, the market share for e-books could well be greater than print books if the number of self-published books from the ‘shadow industry’ were accounted for.


Self-Published Book Beats the Odds By Making New York Times Bestseller List –

Is self-publishing coming of age in the digital world? –

Bestseller Success Stories that Started Out as Self-Published Books –

January 2015 Author Earnings Report-

How Has Self-Publishing Changed In The Last 2 Years? Interview With David Gaughran. –

Self-publishing a book: 25 things you need to know –

Stealing Books in the Age of Self-Publishing –

The Publishing Industry in 2016: A Status Update –

‘Huge, untracked shadow industry’ in e-books –

Publishing Trends In 2016 With Jane Friedman –


  1. The first paragraph seemed a little unstructured because different ideas were presented but not connected into one topic. For example, you mention that modern technology provides writers with ways to expose their talent but then the next sentence it jumps to self-publishing being associated with vanity. You mention that there are “several highly interactive websites tailored for the success of upcoming authors”, which I do agree with, but it may be more effective to mention examples of those websites.

    I think it was very interesting to read all the different success stories that grew from authors posting on their own blog. The success stories prove that self-publishing can be successful in their own way. That being said, I think that it would be necessary to mention how they published their book and not just the fact that they were successful. Provided your audience with how a self-publisher can be successful and sell physical books or ebooks would strengthen your argument. You also incorporated an interesting fact about Twilight that I was not aware of, in which case I thought was really interesting. I did not know that the author of Fifty Shades of Grey was a fan of Twilight, much less being inspired by it.

    When you mention that self-publishing is most successful for romance novels, is there proof of that? Can you provide evidence that it has sold more copies than all the other genres? It would be a stronger argument if other numbers were presented to illustrate the gap between romance novels and the other genres.

    I agree with your idea that self-publishing is a good way to create a large fan base and that it can be an easy method to publishing a book. However, I think provided examples of how the self-publishing process is “quick and easy” would be beneficial for your argument. It provides proof that what you are saying is true or at least there is a process that people can follow to better understand how it is “quick and easy”.

    I think stating that majority of books on some of the websites are bad may be slightly opinion based. I do not think that statement can be generalized because a good or bad book is dependent on the person reading it. This, however, could be changed if there was evidence to support that statement. That being said, I do agree with you on the fact that choosing self-published books, similar to supporting anything really, is a gamble because some things may not turn out to be as good as you expect them to be.

    I was interested in the idea you presented, where you said anyone can publish their book on Amazon. I took the liberty to research that a little more because I wanted to know more. I think providing an example of how someone could publish their book on Amazon would support your idea of anyone being able to do it. On Amazon it says there are a couple of steps and it would only take 5 minutes to publish. You login, create a title, upload content, confirm your publishing rights, and you enter your pricing and royalty information. Quick and easy steps and then in roughly one or two days your book is published and on the market for consumers to purchase.

    Overall, I think you had many compelling ideas in your paper and with a little bit of support provided by examples it would have been strengthened a lot more. The last paragraph did a better job in providing examples to support your claims.

  2. This is a highly readable introduction to the topic of self-publishing that uses plenty of specific anecdotes to demonstrate the rise of self-publishing as a viable form of challenge to the traditional publishing industry. It would have been helpful to know where those anecdotes were coming from through the incorporation of citations into the text; even with a Works Cited at the end, an uncited article ends up reading like personal opinion rather than research. I agree with Jennifer that more data would have been helpful, but what was really missing for me, as a reader, was a conclusion. What do you have to say about self-publishing? What does your essay prove? What are the take-aways you want to leave your reader with?

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