Beyond vanity: self-publishing’s digital revolution

The emergence of the so-called digital age has meant that traditional publishing houses are seeing their powers wane. Katie Boucher considers the changing face of the industry as electronic media opens up new avenues for writers

In May last year the online retail giant Amazon announced that, for the first time, e-books had outsold print books. Then in June, John Locke, an unheard of writer from the US, became the first person to sell one million Kindle e-books without a publishing deal. In two short months it was starting to look debatable whether the publishing industry had any use left in it.

Particularly once Amanda Hocking, another self-published author from the US, joined the ‘Kindle Million Club’ alongside the likes of Stieg Larsson (Millenium Trilogy) and Nora Roberts, with her series of paranormal fiction. What was the use of a publisher if you could simply upload your own material directly to the digital market? And who needed an actual bookshop when the titles you sought were available electronically at a cheaper price, from the comfort of your sofa?

Growing industry


As of November 2011, around 12 authors had sold over 200,000 e-books through Kindle’s self-publishing site, and 30 had sold over 100,000. With considerably better profit margins – Kindle Direct Publishing pays the author royalties of up to 70 per cent of e-book sales, as opposed to the usual 15 per cent that traditional publishers pay for print books – writers hoping to get rich quick might consider Locke and Hocking’s route the answer. Stories such as theirs, though, are few and far between, says Kate Pullinger, the Canadian author of the award-winning novel The Mistress of Nothing, who will be speaking about ‘Storytelling in the Digital Age’ at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai on Friday 9 March.

“The problem with publishing via Amazon is that you’ve restricted your market to Amazon,” she says, “and the same with iBooks and the other platforms that are emerging.” As someone who writes for both the digital and print markets, she sees benefits in both. “The things that I publish through traditional publishing are e-books and bound books. Whereas the digital works I publish are all multi-media, collaborative works. And for me that’s the interesting side of the digital realm.”

Far from being defunct, Pullinger believes that the traditional publishing houses still have a role to play in bringing books to an audience. “They have a great deal to offer me as a writer, not the least of which is editorial, high production values and access to the broadest market.” That Hocking has chosen not to self-publish her next tranche of books – they have been snapped up by St Martin’s Press in the US and by Pan Macmillan in the UK – bears this out. In a recent interview with The Guardian newspaper, the 27-year-old admitted that the self-editing process and endless self-promotion had eventually worn her down. “It drove me nuts, because I tried really hard to get things right and I just couldn't. It's exhausting, and hard to do. And it starts to wear on you emotionally.”

‘Legacy publishers’


As further evidence of the ongoing need for so-called ‘legacy publishers’, Pullinger cites Harry Potter creator JK Rowling’s new project: little is currently known other than it is a book for adults, and will be published by Little, Brown. “If anyone is a brand and could ostensibly publish herself, it’s Rowling,” says Pullinger, “but I thought it was very interesting that despite creating Pottermore (JK Rowling’s website, which holds the exclusive selling rights to the e-versions of the Harry Potter books) she has returned to traditional publishing. For me that was an enormous indication of what traditional publishers can offer a writer; the way they can handle quality control, editorial production and also, in JK Rowling’s case, the worldwide rollout of the book.”

For authors, digital publishing alone may not be the answer; but a shift in the balance of power between publishers and writers will be a welcome by-product. Says JA Konrath, the internet publishing pioneer in a recent post on his blog, A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing: “The industry is broken. It cannot continue to treat its content providers as if it's doing them a favour.” Publishing, he says, must change or die. “Amazon is going to eat you all for lunch because they aren't thinking about how to make money tomorrow. They're thinking about how to make money in 2018.” Without doubt, they have a battle for survival on their hands. But with many e-books now costing the same as a loaf of bread, it’s likely to be us, the consumers, who come out on top.