A few weeks ago I had lunch with a number of literary agents here in the Bay Area. All the talk was about self-publishing in general, e-book self-publishing in particular, and what is the role of the agent in this Brave New World. Sad to say solutions were not at hand but there was much hand-wringing and talk of the sky falling.
Self-publishing has exploded in the last 10 years as a result of the advent of new technologies and distribution channels that allow writers to cheaply publish and distribute their own books. Print on Demand publishing (POD) began about 10 years ago. Companies like Lulu, Lightning Source, and Book Surge offer a complete publishing package to the aspiring writer/publisher including cover design, formatting, editing, printing, and distributing POD books, all for a very modest price. The quality of the perfect bound paperback POD book is as good or often better than a similar paperback by a trade publisher.
Distribution is mostly done through Internet booksellers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Most bookstores have been reluctant to stock POD titles. And, of course, the author/publisher is responsible for marketing and promoting her own book(s). The term that is often used for this new model is “disintermediation.” It’s an impressive word that you should learn and throw it around at the next cocktail party. It means getting rid of the middle man, in this case commercial trade publishers. The good thing about that is that it is a democratizing force in the world of ideas. The bad thing is that there are no filters to separate wheat from chaff. And, gentle reader, make no mistake about it. There is plenty of chaff out there, a veritable ocean of mediocrity. In this respect it is consistent with the new culture of information on the Internet where everyone is an expert.
This easy entry into book publishing is reflected in the numbers. In 2009 the number of books published by traditional commercial publishers was 302,000, a number that had been holding steady for many years. In 2010 there was a modest 5% growth to 316,000 titles. POD titles, which didn’t even exist 10 years ago, shot up from 1,033,000 titles in 2009 to 2,776,000 in 2010. Wow! It seems like almost everyone is a published author now. (These figures are compiled by W. W. Bowker, the publisher of Books in Print.)
Of course, e-books are now the talk, even the obsession, of everyone in the book business. E-books are still an emerging technology. Things seem to be changing almost every day. I just came back from meeting with publishers in New York. E-book sales are continuing their exponential growth. In the last few months a number of genres have had e-books sales surpassing print sales for the first time. Amazon.com reported last month that Kindle Editions sold more copies than all print on paper editions combined (at Amazon, at least). Surely the second coming is at hand.
Self-publishing e-books has become the new enthusiasm. It barely existed a year ago. Now it has emerged. It is even easier and cheaper than POD. It can be created and distributed virtually for free. We’ll talk about that some more later.