When self-publishing assisted by print-on-demand technology became available to the public, it was quickly dismissed as a low-grade alternative to traditional publishing. Established publishing houses feared they would fall victim to this assault, but they still dismissed self-publishing as a vanity fad that would pass.
But it did not pass. Self-publishing continued to grow and evolve. Even if only a few hundred copies of each self-published title were sold, that was still hundreds of attempts at stealing readers away from the established order of publishing. In response, big publishers merged and became even bigger, mid-size publishers went out of business, but small presses proliferated, using low-cost business models.
When Amazon, Lulu, iUniverse and other platforms facilitated authors to do it themselves, writer associations around the world moved quickly to legitimize this revolutionary movement and bring it into their respective folds. After the first poorly constructed, badly edited, and haphazardly formatted offerings were published, the movement took stock. Professional editors and other middlemen from the traditional industry saw this as an opportunity to replace income lost to being fired by mainstream publishers. Thus, self-published books gained wider appeal and over a short time became better produced as technology improved.
Soon e-books came along, leveling the literary playing field even further. With costly paper production and distribution taken out of the equation, e-books could be offered for less than half the paperback price and still retain the same earnings for authors and publishers. The old guard of publishers tried to defend e-book prices, saying they should be equal to that of paperbacks, but that argument lacks weight as long as publishers pay authors the same for either format and then pocket the savings from not having to worry about paper and distribution costs.
I self-published a writing guide for my students in 2013 through Amazon, offering it as an e-book. In 2017, I published my first novel as a paperback and chose Create Space, which offered print-on-demand. I used their printing services and distributed it directly from my website with no intermediary. My sights were on promoting and I was elated when I surpassed my break-even goal.
Then, a few months ago, I received an email stating Create Space and Amazon would merge in a united platform. The kicker was that I had to place my novel in a market for them to continue printing it on my behalf. No longer was I an individual working in a specialized field. It felt like I was being bullied. This new move raised questions in my mind. What could this merger do for me? What could they possibly offer that I had not done already? I know they set up a smart aggregator to muscle in, offering customers popular titles at bargain prices. So how could a reader find my work amongst an avalanche of new titles?
These were their terms: If a book sold for less than $10, I would receive a 65 percent royalty. If it sold for more than $10 the royalty would be 30 percent. My novel sells for $22.
In the end, success depends on what value is provided. In the case of Amazon, their original value proposition lay in their ability to provide the largest selection of books, without shoppers having to leave the comfort of their homes.
Is that worth giving up the lion’s share of profits? I don’t think so. The writers who formed the vanity movement have now gone mainstream in the form of a more respectable self-publishing movement. Their stories come from a more personal place. Their skill set has had to increase from writer to publisher and marketer in order to remain in the game. Yet, except for a lucky few who will be snatched up by the mainstream, they will remain effective only at selling to friends, family and a small circle of fans, as opposed to selling across international markets in multiple languages aided by large marketing budgets. However, they will be read, and they will add diversity to the literary landscape while the traditionalists retrench to promote only their top lists as competition heats up.
How will this all level out? Motive will determine longevity. Few anymore are making money in this game, writing having become more of a hobby than a career.
Personally, I hope writers — people who believe divine inspiration and not profit margins guide their fingers across a keyboard — continue investing in their work.