After 'Fifty Shades of Grey,' What's Next for Self-Publishing?

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The erotic novel became a New York Times bestseller without a traditional publisher, thanks to word of mouth. Can we expect more hits from nowhere?

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The Atlantic

First-time author E.L. James was offered $5 million dollars last month for the movie rights to her self-published novel, Fifty Shades of Grey. James, a former TV executive based in London, published the first installment of the Fifty Shades trilogy as an e-book. Without traditional distribution by a big-name publisher in the United States, the series caught on via word-of-mouth and Facebook. James then signed a seven-figure book deal with Vintage. Soon, Fifty Shades of Grey landed on the New York Times e-book and print bestseller lists. Of course, the hoopla surrounding Fifty Shades—and James—is unwarranted, at least from a literary perspective. The run-of-the-mill romance novel recounts the sexual relationship between ingénue Anastasia Steele and billionaire Christian Grey. It relies on a close first-person narrator (Anastasia Steele) and embarrassingly contrived descriptions, such as "My inner goddess is doing the dance of the seven veils."

Why, then, is there so much hype? Some ascribe it to the fact that the James's novel is essentially soft porn, which can sell anything from women's underwear to Fiats. And it's an e-book, which means that readers who might otherwise feel self-conscious about being seen buying or reading a trashy novel can do so relatively incognito. Others attribute it to the Ya-Ya phenomenon. Like Rebecca Wells's Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Fifty Shades of Grey became a popular success because women told other women to read it. In email correspondence and in conversations at nail salons, women talked about the book that everyone was reading.

But the novel's success may also have something to do with our collective love of the underdog. The publishing history of Fifty Shades of Grey is a rags-to-riches story. James was an amateur who started the Fifty Shades trilogy as fan fiction, an online ritual in which avid readers rewrite their favorite novels with slight variations. James wrote the first book as an homage to Stephanie Meyers's young adult vampire series Twilight. There's little remarkable about one mega-selling series spawning another, but James was a self-published writer who became a monetary success seemingly by beating the American publishing system at its own game.

Self-publishing success stories are an American tradition, one in which the revolutionary/genius/outsider triumphs. In 1640, Stephen Day used the first printing press, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to publish editions of the Bay Psalm Book. Ben Franklin self-published his paperbound pamphlet Poor Richard's Almanac. And in 1776, one of the country's unofficial founding fathers Thomas Paine self published "Common Sense," a 46-page pamphlet that sold over 500,000 copies and helped bring about the American Revolution. During the next two centuries, authors such as Hermann Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Willa Cather, and Mark Twain also self-published.

Self-published authors are the literary equivalent of self-made men and women.

Ostensibly, self-publishing serves as an alternative to the sluggish, nepotistic world of mainstream publishing. New publishers, such as Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble.com, and Google, help writers cut out the middlemen—including editors and agents—and publish their work directly with them. The two major subsidy presses are the Amazon subsidiary CreateSpace and Lulu. (There are also "indie" e-publishers, including Smashwords and Scribd.) These "author-services companies" don't offer publishing deals, advances, or publicity agents because there's no inventory and no investment. It's all done via print-on-demand (POD), which allows publishers to print copies of books per request.

Whereas a book distributed by one of "the big six" (HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Group, Random House, Hachette Book Group, and Simon & Schuster) might take two years to be released, a self-published print book can take as little as two weeks. The author proofreads the book and designs the cover online without the assistance of an editor or, in some cases, even a contact. (A self-published e-book that's been proofed and is ready to print could take as little as five minutes to publish.) The author sets the book's price, retains the copyright to the work, and is given an ISBN number (International Standard Book Number) or UPC. Nearly 35 percent of the list price of each print book goes to the author. If it's self-published as an e-book, the way James's was, the author's share is even sweeter—nearly 70 percent of the list price. In some cases, shipping is even included.

Like blogs, which fractured the hegemonic newspaper industry, subsidy presses appear to be the people's publishers. CreateSpace's motto: "Publish your words, your way." Lulu's: "Bring your book to the world." The proof of these presses would seem to be the fact that self-published books occasionally make it onto traditional bestseller lists. In 2011, two titles on USA Today's bestseller list were self-published. In the same year, 11 self-published books appeared on the New York Times bestseller list.

But in reality, self-publishing offers anyone with a manuscript and a credit card the opportunity to publish, and the success rate is less than one percent. Although an author may avoid the cost of an MFA program in creative writing and the hassle of "making contacts," self-publishing still has its costs. A self-published author may need to pay for services ranging from copy editors and book doctors to publicists, designers, and consultants. Marketing is entirely in the hands of the author, including blog ad campaigns, Google Keywords, and social media, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. And then there are the reviews. A self-published author can pay $500 to have a book reviewed on Kirkus Discoveries (yes, it can still be negative). Ultimately, getting a book into print can cost anywhere between $1,000 and $25,000, and it still may not resemble a "real" book because subsidy presses don't offer standard-size paperbacks.

The other downside is that self-publishing reduces a book to a brand. This inevitably diminishes the attention paid to the quality of a work and favors genre books like James's 50 Shades. When titling the book, an author must consider search engine optimization. When designing the cover, he or she must think in terms of how it will look as a thumbnail image online. Unlike the influence of alternative avenues to publishing in other mediums—Apple's Garage Band and iMovie, which changed the music and movie industries for the better—self-published books have yet to offer the quality and originality sometimes lacking in books produced by mainstream publishers. Instead, it's been a hotspot for mediocrity. The Celestine Prophecy. The Artist's Way. And now, the 50 Shades trilogy. If recent trends are any indication, the majority of writers who self-publish do so in the hope of being able to eventually sign a book contract with one of the big six publishing houses anyway.

Perhaps we need to devise a new standard, one based on value rather than possibility. We could begin by curbing our enthusiasm for the little guy or gal. Self-published books often suffer from poor writing, typographical errors, and syntax and usage mistakes. When we publicize and blog about self-published authors we should note that at least right now they fascinate us not because of their talent but because they're underdogs, writing risqué books, and achieving unheard-of monetary success.

As the e-publishing revolution continues, expect more books like Fifty Shades of Grey and don't be surprised if no new Whitmans appear anytime soon. Traditional publishing has its limitations, but good literature still needs editors, agents, proofreaders, designers, and publicists to make a book as flawless as it can be. Perhaps the digital age will produce e-editors, e-agents, and e-publicists that specialize in bringing e-literature, rather than just e-books, to a reading public ready for more.

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Sarah Fay is an editorial associate at The Paris Review. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Sunday Book Review and The New Republic’s “The Book.”

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