Self-publishers setting the stage, but traditional publishers have a part to play

Self-publishing is setting the stage[1] for the future of publishing with the prevalence of “do-it-yourself” tools and applications, almost diminishing the value of the traditional publisher as gatekeeper.

The digital context has given ordinary readers tools[2] to become self-published authors/publishers through several online platforms and user-friendly technology tools to start-up their own publishing, marketing and data analysis businesses. One such author is Scott Nicholson who has published more than 70 books and sells them online through Amazon for the Kindle and other ereaders. “He handles the entire process himself”[3] and the lucrative 70% royalties on e-book sales attract authors more than the traditional publisher’s offer of a mere 25%[4]. With that said, Amy-Mae Elliott says that “with the advent of e-books, social reading sites and simple digital self-publishing software and platforms, all that has changed. An increasing proportion of authors now actively choose to self-publish their work, giving them better control over their books’ rights, marketing, distribution and pricing”(Mashable, February 2014).

Moreover, editors and designers, as well as graduate publishing students are also forming start-up businesses geared towards content strategies for publishers and authors. For traditional publishers, the online context has emphasized the role of the publisher as an incubator, and consultant.

According to Bowker’s statistics “more than three million new titles were published in 2010. Of these, over 2.7 million were non-traditionally published books, including print-on-demand and self-published titles.[5]

Traditional publishers, who already face competition from retail giants such as Amazon, now have to consider their competitive edge against a surprising opponent – the consumer, and in this respect, the reader. We can see that through social computing, as described by Alan Liu as an evolutionary form of reading where the reader assumes the role of annotator, and thereby contribute to the work of the original author. In this sense however, authorship is not overtly important, but the overall collaboration of the project instead. Readers who range from academics to ordinary non-scholars or literary students, are able to developed a shared network among others and create a community from which they are able to grow an audience base. Self-publishing tools offered by Create Space and online coding academies to create website ad artificial intelligent website creators such as The Grid[6] offer readers who become self-published authors the ability to create a brand around themselves and successfully publish online and printed books, without the help of a traditional pubisher who often administered this task.

This paper argues that technology has revolutionized the way we approach the publishing, its function, and who has the right to publish. Matthew Ingram says that how we view publishing is narrowed down to the push of a button in the online context of the web.[7]

The future of the book: “Almost as constant as the appeal of the book has been the worry that appeal is about to come to an end. The rise of digital technology—and especially Amazon, underlined those fears” (The Economist, From Papyrus to Pixels)[8].

Traditional publishers find themselves at odds with having to compete for the same market alongside ordinary persons with little to none experience in the publishing field, but who are able to attract, and maintain an audience with user-friendly, and free tools and platforms on the web. Additionally, the serialization of content is popularized by the context of people consuming media in short form, from a mobile device or tablet, and often on the go. The reader who consumes in this fashion, is able to come up with the right solution for what publishers are missing the mark on.

This ties into Brian O’Leary’s view of “Context not Container” in his book A Futurist’s Manifesto, especially with the publishing industry taking a popular form of the web2.0. In the same sense, contexts such as social computing have blurred the lines between author and reader with both having the capacity to adopt the role of publisher through networked channels.

What this means for traditional publishers is not only a change in their business models, but also their approach to the nature of the digitized age. They have to align themselves with networked trends, and find innovative ways to approach online distribution, marketing, and content creation. Additionally, instead of focusing on the plight of traditional publishing in the age of technology, this paper draws its attention to the opportunities self-publishers exploit and how both traditional publishers can co-exist alongside them within this context.

“The book is now a place as well as a thing and you can find its location mapped in cyberspace,” writes researcher Paula Berinstein[9] who discusses the notion of the networked book where authors, publishers, and readers gather to think, discuss, annotate, and refer the book. One can say that this was sparked by online journaling platforms such as blogs, and now by the Web 2.0 which makes the book searchable, linkable, divisible, and mutable (Berinstein, 2015). A case study such as Gamer Theory (spelled GAM3R 7H3ORY) by McKenzie Wark which started off as a draft online and invited reader interaction through annotation, comments and feedback points to how such a networked book was transformed into a better book for online and print. The book contained index cards with reader comments, and prestigious academics. It was also acquired by Harvard University Press for publishing in 2007 and an online editions are available. This changing approach in how the book is created, curated, promoted, and distributed appeals to the cooperation between self-publishers and traditional publishers in a digitized context.

Other opportunities show that traditional publishers will need to unbundle their content and services in order to remain relevant. “They will have to reimagine their role. [They] could start offering “light versions of their services, such as print-only distribution, or editing, and not taking a cut of the whole pie”[10]. Moreover, publishers will need to work harder at proving to authors that they are capable of reading a far larger audience. This challenge is could be tantamount to the accessibility of the same technology making it is easier for self-publishing and explore new and alternative ways discovering, marketing, sharing, distributing, and imitating the books of other self-published and traditional publishers, think fan-fiction.

Furthermore, traditional publishers need not be at loggerheads with self- publishers, but should rather look for collaborating opportunities by declaring their importance with publishing quality content with the assistance of editors and customized content strategies. A recent case study points out to how a self-published author of a dystopian science fiction short story, “Wool” on the web led to film adaptation and a contract with a traditional publisher, Simon and Schuster to buy the license rights to print the book. “Most writers still sign with publishers when they have the chance, because print books remain such a sizeable chunk of the market”[11]. With that said, the self-published author owns the right to the e-book.

Besides this, self-published authors attract readers by selling their books at a low price, and often in e-book format. This puts traditional publishers under pressure to lower their prices too especially in genre fiction, such as romance, where romance publisher Harlequin suffered financial losses and was ultimately acquired by HarperCollins in May 2014.[12] This acquisition, for the most part, has led to international opportunities for the now-imprint to publish in over 30 languages worldwide, a move they hope to acquire authors. We can again, see in this instance, that traditional publishers are able to exploit international brand presence.

In his article, “A modest proposal for publishers and authors”, Jonathan Fields discusses the nature of the relationship in the digitized age, and how the two can co-exist through partnerships. He says that traditional publishers, even as well-known brands did not even have direct access to buyers, and according to him, still do not.[13]

Self-publishers who are able to attract and maintain a profitable audience can explore the benefits traditional publishers and booksellers are able to offer in partnership. Barnes and Noble’s Nook Press has launched Pub It! that offers self-published authors e-book publishing and print book packages. Potential self-publishers can build their book, prepare downloadable manuscript files that includes instructions to create, format e-books and print books on demand—as well as the technologies available to do this. Authors also have the option of acquiring professional input from Nook Press in any part of the publishing process.

Their author services packages can be purchased and guides authors through the publishing process to create a printed book which is ready for shipping within a week. [14] The Nook Press print platform creates print books for personal use whereas the ebook platform creates digital books for sale through Nook and the Barnes and Nobles website which distributes directly to the reader.

According to their press release, PubIt! attracts at least 20% independent authors every term and titles increase by 24% in the Nook Store. The report also states that at least 30% of customers purchase self-published content accounting for at least a quarter of Nook books sales every month[15].

In conclusion, self-publishers have approached the web as a platform or context of endless opportunity, whereas traditional publishers have perceived it as a threat to their business models and in turn, their very purpose of publishing. Essentially, a new form of publishing is already set as the stage where self-publishers are able to introduce new standards of creating content and curating content, marketing and distributing it with user-friendly, accessible and even free tools. The smart traditional publishers, and even booksellers, as we have seen have used this as an inspiration to expand their own models, and collaborate with successful self-publishers, even emerging bloggers and annotators by offering unbundled professional services and content strategies, as well as editing and formatting tools to publish their own books. The new stage of the “techno-publishing”, a term I coined myself, is a place to invest coding skills, multiplatform marketing and content disaggregation for the right audience at the right time, is where the business of publishing is right now. What is left, is for us to decide which part we’ll play in it as future publishers.


Work cited:

Elliott, A. 2014. “People-Powered Publishing is changing all the rules.” at

McGuire and O’Leary (2012) “Context, not Container” in  A Futurist’s Manifesto. Press Books.