Self-publishing: discoverability and the bubble
According to writer Ewan Morrison in the Guardian this week, we are at the start of an epublishing bubble. He says:
Like the dotcom bubble, the commercial real estate bubble, the subprime mortgage bubble, the credit bubble and the derivative trading bubble before it, the DIY epublishing bubble is inflating around us. Each of those other bubbles also saw, in their earliest stages, a great deal of fuss made over a “new” phenomenon, which was then over-hyped and over-leveraged. But speculation, as we’ve learned at our peril, is a very dangerous foundation for any business. And when the epub bubble bursts, as all previous bubbles have done, the fall-out for publishing and writing may be even harder to repair than it is proving to be in the fields of mortgages, derivatives and personal debt. Because this bubble is based on cultural, not purely economic, grounds.
Nathan Ihara, a publicist at publishers Melville House, responded saying:
Already many self-published authors (most notably Hocking) have happily joined the traditional publishing world. Morrison reminds us that once blogs were considered a DIY way to make money, but a decade later nearly no one has turned a profit on a blog. Who did find success via blogging? Those who turned their blogs into books or TV shows and took their self-published products mainstream.
Ihara goes on to point out that “these hordes of would-be writers existed long before eBooks had been invented.” True. Perhaps the issues of how to discover decent self-published authors have simply been amplified in the digital space. Joanne Fradley, creator of bookstackreviews.com, explains how their project is trying to help readers find good self-published works.
Choosing a book has always been one of those personal, ritualistic things we do. Everyone’s got their preferred system. We have had to re-learn how to select our fiction from clinical websites deprived of all the extra physical attributes of a book that used to sway the decision just a little. For me it was a shock to realise how much I had been drawn to selecting a book because of that pleasing flash of colour on the spine or the way it felt in my hands. I had this unbelievable choice of writing at my fingertips, in the comfort of my home and often priced for less and I didn’t know how to make a choice. The realisation of this lead to the formation of our website bookstackreviews.com. A single website to showcase independently authored e-fiction to the fast growing market of e-readers. We post short reviews with a star rating in order to make it quick and easy for readers to make a selection. The project began with two of us; one building the site and dealing with administration while I read the submissions we received. The trickle of submissions fast became a deluge and we now have a team of twelve reviewers and an aim to get three new choices up on the site every Tuesday.
The development of e-publishing has lead to a flood of writers self-publishing their work on sites like Amazon which provide authors with all the ready-made retail infrastructure in return for a cut of the profits. This has been fantastic for both readers and writers. Writers now have autonomy over the whole book selling process and readers have a much wider pool of fiction to choose from. But it hasn’t come without problems and challenges.
The biggest challenges for writers now are the huge numbers of self-published works of fiction currently available in e-book format. We get as many as forty submissions a week and are almost always looking for new critical readers to write reviews for our site. Marketing and actually making money from writing fiction has always been hard and in some ways the democratisation that has come with self-publishing has only made it harder.
As the market first opened up a reader would sometimes encounter formatting issues within books that had been self-published. This was due to the nature of the technology that had to be used in order to get the book from a computer file to something that could be bought and sold. Often those doing so didn’t have in-depth technical knowledge so of course mistakes happened. There is a forum community supporting publishing on Amazon and guidelines are available from helpful people but in the last few weeks or so Amazon have created an official answer to this problem. There is now an enhanced previewer available for free download which allows writers to see exactly what their readers are going to see when they buy the book. This is encouraging for those wanting to self-publish and will also improve the quality for the reader.
The challenges for readers in the ebook market are numerous and come in various guises. Some people just don’t know about self-published or independent fiction. They use their e-reader to download copies of the same books they would walk into a mainstream bookshop and buy. They aren’t aware of the huge world of knowledge and talent that the e-reader can unlock. Those that are aware are often put off by the sheer volume. There is a huge quality issue around self-publishing. I’m happy to say that the majority of the books submitted to us are well written and meticulously checked for mistakes. But there have been a few that were rendered almost unreadable because of continuous spelling or grammatical errors. If a reader trying out the self-published market for the first time came across something like that I’m sure they’d run back to the established market pretty quick. At bookstackreview.com we do alert potential readers to excessive errors in the text and also to any formatting issues within the reviews. But the vast majority of books are produced to a professional standard.
In terms of garnering an audience the self-published book world still feels fairly underground. We rely a lot on social media to promote the site which I am aware is limiting in that it engages those already aware of greater changes in how we read and interact. There is a sense of community growing around the site as writers rush to promote a good review and reviewers want people to see what they are involved with. One of our writers has become a reviewer and the actual design of the website was very much helped by advice and suggestions from the writing community. However, I’m not convinced at the moment that many of our submitters are using the site to read one another’s work. I think in the world of writing there is a lot of competition and it can be easy to forget that writers can learn from each other rather than simply compete to get somewhere.
The inevitable question that comes with all of this change is how will it fit into the old way of doing things? There is definitely still a huge status issue with regard to books published by a publishing house and those self-published. We’re still at the start of self-publishing and at the moment the two institutions are incomparable. There are a few independent author success stories appearing in the media which indicates that it is possible for people to make good money from self-publishing fiction but these are very few and far between. Many independent authors price their books very low or even give them away for free in an attempt to generate a readership. This has led to a tiered pricing structure marking the difference between self-published and professionally published work. There is a big debate to be had here and I’m sure that the publishing industry feels that it is being under-cut. Most writers would love to charge more for their work but they clearly feel that the only way to compete is to price lower.
We’re still at the beginning of the independent book experiment? Revolution? I’m not sure what to call it yet. But I have had the privilege of discovering some fantastic books and writers publishing quietly by themselves on the web.
Time will tell if the self-publishing bubble is set to burst – in the meantime publishers and self-published writers alike have to grapple with the complex issues of discoverability in the digital space.