The Cruel Paradox of Self-Publishing

Digital and print-on-demand technology has made self-publishing much easier. But for every self-published work that gains traction, the overwhelming majority of books don't.

espresso book machine.jpgSelf-publishing technology, like this Espresso Book Machine, has made book manufacturing much more accessible to authors. (AP Images)

Earlier this summer, Penguin Group, long a distinguished major publisher of books, paid $116 million to acquire Author Solutions Inc. A leading provider of self-publishing services, Author Solutions said that since it was formed in 2007, "it has enabled 150,000 authors to publish, market and distribute more than 190,000 books in print and electronic formats." The transaction is a significant breakthrough in what has become a vital factor in the publishing landscape of the digital age. For the first time, an established publisher, the second largest in the world, with about 40 imprints in the United States, is delivering its reputation and management resources to support the vast number of people who want to write a book that, for a variety of reasons, does not make it to a traditional list. By adding Author Solutions, with revenues last year said to be about $100 million, to such pedigreed Penguin names as Viking, Penguin Classics, Putnam, and Dutton, the concept of self-publishing has moved away from what was always known as "vanity publishing." While these authors are still mainly paying to see their works turned into finished print or e-books, they are no longer consigned just to the margins of the marketplace.

In his remarks when the purchase was announced, Penguin's CEO, John Makinson, was effusive: "Self-publishing has moved into the mainstream of our industry over the past three years. It has provided new outlets for professional writers, a huge increase in the range of books available to readers and an exciting source of content for publishers such as Penguin. ... This acquisition will allow Penguin to participate fully in perhaps the fastest-growing area of the publishing economy and gain skills in customer acquisition and data analytics that will be vital to our future."

Makinson's enthusiasm, given Penguin's commitment, is understandable, but the reality is that self-publishing is still mainly a place for writers to bypass the judgment of publishers and their editors prepared to make literary or commercial guesses about a book's potential. A thorough assessment of self-publishing by Alan Finder in the New York Times recently observed these benefits: "Digital publishing and print on demand have significantly reduced the cost of producing a book. ... Writers who self-publish are more likely to be able to control the rights to their books, set their books' sale price and keep a larger proportion of the sales." But he added this unassailable qualification: "Most self-published books sell fewer than 100 or 150 copies, many authors and self-publishing company executives say."

And therein is the essential fact about self-publishing: Digital and print-on-demand technology has made the manufacture of books and their distribution through the Internet vastly more accessible than the traditional publishing model. But for every instance of a self-published work that gains meaningful traction because its author succeeds in finding an audience for it, the overwhelming majority of books do not. There is a menu of services available from companies like Author Solutions, including editing, design, and basic marketing that can cost up to about $5,000 and will give the book a qualitative boost. But with so many books pouring forth, gaining any attention is a formidable challenge. In its sale announcement, Author Solutions said Bowker Market Research, which is a primary source for how many books are published, reported that 211,000 self-published titles were released in 2011 in print or e-books, an increase of almost 60 percent over 2010. Presumably, that number will grow substantially again by the end of 2012.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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