The Explosion of Self Publishing

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. 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.


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15 Responses to “The Explosion of Self Publishing”

  1. jeffrey moussaieff masson Says:

    Very informative. Delighted to learn all this important information. When you say something like 300,000 books were published last year, do you mean in the USA alone? That is an astonishing figure! No wonder we get the feeling that it is impossible to keep up with all the good books out there. Even if only one tenth of one percent of books published are ones I would like to know about (let alone read) that still means 300 books a year. Now that I think about it, that is just about what I do actually read, or at least skim. But it is like having a full time job! Jeff Masson

  2. Ilana DeBare Says:

    I think there’s a possible opportunity for an online book review site focused on self-published books. You’re right that there is an explosion of self-publishing… and 99% of self-published stuff is pretty un-readable… yet there are those potential diamonds in the sand. It would be a service both to readers and writers to find and highlight those self-published books that are worth reading… though I’m not sure what the revenue stream to support such a site would be, and who would get the happy job of weeding through the 20,000 unreadable works to find the few good ones.

  3. perspicere Says:

    You are kidding right? Last year was the first year for e-books? I self-published my first novel in 2006 in both e-and trade paperback and I was late to the game! lol…

    Unfortunately most literary agents and traditional commercial publishers were sitting in their ivory towers and couldn’t see what was actually going on downstairs on 23rd Street and/or Hudson Street (Wink and Nod to my former employers GP Putnam and Sons and Penguin USA in the 80s :)….

    Anyway, this is a perfect time for literary agents! You all are no longer at the mercy of the big (6 or is it 8) publishing houses. You can come up with a profit model that puts you in the dough by negotiating rights for all of us independent publishers. (wow I just had a ha ha moment)

    Do you know how I found you? I was looking up subsidiary rights. I was thinking about all the ways I could slice and dice the bundle of rights that come with the one copyright to my sci-fi fantasy book.

    Once you all level your noses so you can make eye-contact, you will find, as did the traditional publishers, instead of snubbing us, you’ll find markets that you didn’t know existed because we are creating them. It is a “brave new world” out there and we are making the lion share of money simply because we don’t have to share it with anyone but our distributors and printers…

    Speaking of which, did you ever think booksellers would become book publishers/distributors? Well look at Barnes and Noble, check out Amazon Kindle Publishing. That is exactly what they are today.

    For every book I sell the online retailers take a large percentage as if they were my publisher/distributor/retail store…they didn’t write one word or bind one book it is all 1,0s yet they get a cut..AND I’m just one writer – have you check the number of e-titles for sale? Have you checked the number of authors they feature? Further more traditionally published authors are also publishing e-books on their own to test the markets for themselves.

    Which brings me to this point, have you read the procedure on how to turn your posts here into a kindle or Nook e-book? If you have, please provide a link to purchase your book. I would love to know more on how to exploit my bundle of rights 😉

    I like your blog A LOT! There’s a wonderful wealth of information here! Thank you for sharing. Also, next time have me or one of the more successful self-publishers come speak at your meeting. Talk about a paradigm shift for agents woo!! 🙂

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Thank you so much for this passionate comment. Yes. 2010 was not the first year for e-books, but it was the year that it really took off. I have been looking at the process of creating an e-book using Smashwords. My plan is to do the first one and to talk about the experience on this blog. And, yes, I have thought about making an e-book out of the best of “Ask the Agent”. And good luck with your novel (s).

      • perspicere Says:

        Thank you – and yes please provide a link when you do. I subscribed to your blog – so I receive notifications. I’m heading over to you new post now – I actually laughed out loud when I read it.

  4. perspicere Says:

    Oh! Shameless plug. “Imagine having the power of the Gods at your fingertips, but all you want is one man to love you? Would you use your powers to get the love you believe you deserve? One woman will try in “Sleeping with a D-Man: An epic supernatural tale of forbidden love, conspiracy and sacrifice.” by Mel Hopkins

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Mel. It’s ok to plug (shamelessly or otherwise) your new book. I hope you sell millions.

      • perspicere Says:

        Thank you so much! I never thought about selling millions. Funny I never really though much about selling millions, ( nice for my bank account though) I want to millions to read my story.

  5. Alan Says:

    ISBN numbers 13 digit versus 10 digit
    In December 2010 we Self Published our cookbook with a very large company. We paid in our package for one 13 digit ISBN number, but have since discovered that many of the large online bookstores also have a 10 DIGIT ISBN number alongside.
    Does anybody know why, and could this be used by online bookstores to sell our book and post the sale to the 10 digit number, so by passing paying our royalties.

    • andyrossagency Says:

      I can answer that. Up until about 10 years ago, all isbns had 10 digits. The first digit was for language, the second series of digits (length varied) was unique publisher identifier, the next series was for title number. Finally there was a check digit for error correcting. The ISBN agency finally ran out of 10 digit numbers added 3 more digits so they could accommodate more titles. But many bookstores continue to use the 10 digit code alongside the 13 digit code

  6. Alan Says:

    Thank you Andy, but I am still a bit confused. If they ran out of 10 digit numbers from Dec 2007, about 5 years ago, then when the online bookstores take our 13 digit one and convert it to a 10 digit one , saying it is the same, why does this “new” 10 digit number now not clash with one that was used up for another book, prior to 2007 ?

  7. andyrossagency Says:

    Alan, I’m not sure I can answer that. It isn’t clear to me that they actually ran out of the 10 digit numbers. I think that they would eventually run out of them. I know that when they first converted over to 13 digits, many of us were listing 2 numbers. They may still be doing that. Without more details of your situation, I’m not sure I can give you a definitive answer. Why don’t you ask the publisher?

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  9. So, you wrote a book? - Publishing Tips - The Fantasy Review Says:

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