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 –

Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy

Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy is a book by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Director of Scholarly Communication at the Modern Language Association and Visiting Research Professor of English at New York University, published by NYU Press on November 1, 2011. Authorship is one of the chapter’s from this book. In this chapter, Fiztpatrick talks about changing the traditional authorship methods of writing scholarly articles. She thinks that we need to approach authorship from a different perspective in the digital age—the key lying in interaction. She critics the individualistic and solitary approach to writing a paper as an elitist and limited way of approaching a particular topic. She accepts that the traditional method holds more originality and authorship to the article but on the other hand she feels that academic articles must be more accessible to everyone by making them more collaborative and interactive by enabling readers to comment and develop their own ideas which the author could implement in their writings.

Thus, Fitzpatrick defines in her chapter the significant changes that should happen with academic authorship – from a final product to a process of constant interactive changes, from an individual effort to a collective achievement, from an original idea to a remix of several different perceptions, and from intellectual property to the gift economy. Essentially what she is talking about is a shift from the accepted traditional method of authorship to a one that involves a community of interested readers to generate different ideas and formulate an article with more minds than one. She identifies that the word processing as a highly interactive technology that enables interested readers to revise and comment back almost instantly. She argues that by releasing the text to the readers and making them available to comment upon, authors can immerse into several different ideas that he/she may not have thought about. Essentially her model of writing would make online authorship an ongoing, process-oriented work which would increase the amount of time that they must invest in their writing. Fitzpatrick believe that allowing readers to comment on early versions helps improve later drafts.

Fitzpatrick acknowledges that online writing, and particularly the use of platforms that enable reader comments, will require authors to develop a different relationship to their work and completely rethink their perception of writing. They would have to return to their website to read constructive comments and make changes accordingly. She suggests that scholars use a Creative Commons license for scholarly work to facilitate the use and reuse of material for the collective benefit of the community. She thinks that the writers must be committed to supporting online discussions without dominating them, encouraging to share the most radical to the most constructive comments. She suggests that giving our work away “in a manner that acknowledges that its primary purpose is to be reused and repurposed, we have the potential to contribute to the creation of both better tools and a stronger sense of the scholarly public” (83).

She also discusses the academic anxiety about writing and thinks that network technologies might help us feel less alone and less lost in the writing process. Writing and publishing in networked environments might require a fundamental change not just in the tools with which we work, or in the ways that we interact with our tools, but in our senses of our selves as we do that work, and in the institutional understandings of the relationships between scholars and their now apparently independent silos of production. She argues that thinking about authorship from a different perspective could result in a more productive, and less anxious, relationship to our work. The interaction, participation, and conversation that occur during scholarly creation helps the academy communicate with the broader public. She says “We need to think less about completed products and more about texts-in-process; less about individual authorship and more about collaboration; less about originality and more about remix; less about ownership and more about sharing.” (p. 83)

I thought her proposed method of authorship is quite idealistic as it would be very difficult to moderate user comments and also verify the legitimacy of the article. Will students be able to use an interactive scholarly article for research purposes? How do we know if all the information or data on the article are accurate? Then there’s also the question of being too open and who’d benefit from the published article? The original author? Then what about the readers who have actively commented on the process of writing the article. What would be the incentive of the writer other than betterment of the community? Surely if there are no economic incentives to writing there would less and less people interested to invest their time and effort into it.

Works Cited

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. 2009. Two: Authorship. In Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. Media Commons Press.

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