When the latest wave of self-publishing, assisted by print-on-demand technology, hit the streets at the dawn of the new millennium, it was quickly dismissed as low-grade soap opera. Established publishing houses shivered lest they fall victim to this new assault on their bastion. All sorts of labels were thrown at the new entrants: “vanity publishing,” “lacking in editorial integrity,” “selling to friends and relatives.” It was dismissed as a fad that would pass.
But this wave of self-publishing continued to grow and evolve. The sheer volume of books coming through the channel was daunting; even if an average of 50 copies of each self-published title were sold, that was “50 x umpteen” attempts at stealing readers away from the established order of publishing. And the old order started to groan and creak under this kamikaze attack; big publishers merged to get even bigger, mid-size publishers collapsed and went out of business, and small presses started to proliferate using low-cost business models. When Amazon, Lulu, Wattpad and other platforms facilitated self-published authors to “do it themselves,” the dam burst and writers associations around the world moved fast to legitimize this revolutionary movement and bring it into the fold, lest their own members defect and become “indies” in an industry that had moved from a cosy cartel to a free for all!
And what of the self-pubbers themselves? After the first wave of poorly constructed, badly edited, and haphazardly formatted offerings, the movement took stock. Professional editors and other middlemen from the traditional industry saw opportunity to replace income in this space as their employers, the mainstream publishers, began shedding them in order to remain competitive. Self published books became deeper and broader (they were no longer just disguised memoirs), they were well edited, formatted and produced as technology continued to evolve. Besides, creative writing courses were proliferating in colleges and universities, and where else could all this output be absorbed? Certainly not by the traditionalists who had driven many of their authors to become teachers in those very schools because their royalties did not cover all the bills at home.
And then e-books came along and leveled the field even more; with costly paper production and distribution taken out of the mix, e-books could be offered for less than half the paperback price and still retain the same earnings for authors and publishers. The stubborn old guard of publishers has tried to defend e-book prices, saying they should be equal to that of paperbacks, but that is an argument that lacks weight as long as publishers pay authors the same remuneration for either format, and pocket the larger surplus from the e-book channel by holding its prices level with the paper channel.
“Might is right,” has played throughout history, and the former fringe dwellers who formed the “vanity” movement have now gone mainstream as the more respectable “self-published” movement. Their stories come from a more personal place; their skill as all-rounders (writer, publisher, marketer) in this game makes them all the more skilled. And yet, except for a lucky few who will catch the zeitgeist and be snatched by the mainstream, they will remain effective only at close range (selling to friends, family and a small circle of fans) rather than selling across international markets in multiple languages aided by large marketing budgets; but they will be read, and they will add diversity to the literary landscape while the traditionalists retrench to promoting only their top 10 lists (or top 5, even top 3) as competition heats up and margins come under threat.
Where will this level out? Motive will determine longevity. Few are making money in this game anymore, and hunger may drive writers in either camp to choose where they want to invest their time in future. In the traditional camp, attrition also takes place when the Big 5 toss out “dead wood” at faster and faster rates. Short shelf-life notwithstanding, we hope that writers in both camps choose wisely and continue to invest in their writing in some fashion, because that is what determines a society’s evolution, for “man cannot live by bread alone, but by the words that come from God” – and writers would like to believe that divine inspiration has something to do with how their fingers move on the keyboard.
Self publishing is mainstream now. The question is whether the traditionalists will move to make the self publishing channel their entry point for picking up the “best of the best” authors in future, thus creating a two tier structure, or will readers place equal emphasis on both channels, so that it will be authors who determine how and where they want to place their work.