A Paradigm Shift in the Book Publishing Industry

A Paradigm Shift in the Book Publishing Industry

By Emmanuel Paige

Self-publishing has recently taken on a significant level of interest and has become a modern phenomenon whereby any writer can have their work published in book form and distributed directly to the public without a traditional publisher, editor, or anyone to stand in the way. Although there is not always a vetting process in self-publishing whereby peers evaluate the writer’s work, it is still possible for high quality and literary books to be created. If the writer has enough persistence and self-discipline to judiciously edit, proof, and design a proper layout, the resulting book can be competitive to works created by established writers who use traditional publishing methods. Computers with powerful software designed to process and format words as well as create galley proofs and book covers are affordable and widespread and have leveled the playing field for the layman and professional alike. The self-publishing revolution is here, and it is causing an escalation in book production that is extraordinary, and a transformation in publishing of this magnitude has not been seen since the invention of the Gutenberg press. Although self-publishing is not a modern phenomenon, it is currently creating a paradigm shift in the book publishing industry due to rapid advances in technology that give writers exclusive control over the book publishing process.

Self-publishing is not a new concept, and it has been around for several centuries, perhaps beginning with the invention of the Gutenberg press. The first notable example of a self-published book may be from author Laurence Sterne in 1759 with his book Tristram Shandy. According to the Independent, an online newspaper established in 1986, Sterne was unable to find a publisher for his book, so he printed it on his own. It required him to borrow money, and he utilized his own outlandish marketing strategy (Patterson). Although it is difficult to locate documented cases where established writers have self-published in the past, there are a few verified examples in the historical record: Marcel Proust, Laurence Sterne, Martin Luther, Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Jane Austen, Derek Walcott, and Virginia Woolf (Patterson). Upon casual examination it becomes readily apparent that writers from centuries past have used self-publishing as a method to reach their audience. The reasons they chose self-publishing are varied, but mostly it had to do with circumventing traditional publishers who held the final decision to publish, or not. The solution for these writers was simple: publish it themselves and bypass the naysayers. Laurence Stern paved the way and many writers followed suit afterward.

Virginia Woolf is a classic example of a writer who utilized self-publishing with great success. Although she became a famous writer and a prominent literary figure over the course of her career, this was not always the case. Early on she decided to try her hand at publishing her own books and decided to buy “a small printing press and starting a publishing house, Hogarth Press, in 1917 . . . [that] published Virginia’s work” (Heitman). In time, Hogarth Press become a respectable publishing house, however, at first, self-publishing was the primary focus of this small and unknown press. Virginia Woolf is a testament to how a determined writer can become established by using self-publishing.  She was able to reach consumers, circumventing traditional publishers, and put her books directly in the hands of her target audience: the reading public.

Advances in modern technology have made self-publishing easy to accomplish. The technology that changed everything was the movable type printing press invented by Johannes Gutenberg, somewhere in the middle of the 15th century, and “by 1450 his experiments had apparently reached a considerable degree of refinement . . . allowing him to operate a printing shop through the 1450s and maybe into the 1460s” (Lehmann-Haupt). The invention of the printing press “is widely regarded as the most important event following the Middle Ages, as printing ultimately made it possible for all to read and learn” (Darnton). After the passage of hundreds of years, printing technology advanced slowly, but it did not change drastically until the invention of the personal computer (PC) and digital printing, around the end of the 20th century.

Presently, modern technology exists in the form of computers that take the principles of Gutenberg’s printing press to a much higher level. Humans have gone from primitive forms of writing on clay tablets, glyphs and cyphers on stone, to ink pens and paper, eventually advancing to typewriters, arriving at Linotype and offset printing presses, and finally developing the powerful word processor on a PC and the digital printing press. As a result of technological advancements, a manuscript can now be created electronically on a PC, submitted in digital format directly to the printer and distributor that results in a downloadable eBook or a hard copy book that is printed on demand (POD) and shipped directly to the consumer. Additionally, because of these technological advances, the quality of self-published books may now potentially rival mainstream books. Software like InDesign, Photoshop, and MS Word are available to create book covers and interior layouts that are as professional in design as those created by traditional publishers. It was not always this way, and about twenty years ago at the beginning of the modern self-publishing craze, a low-quality book with a bad cover design and shoddy craftsmanship was a dead giveaway: it screamed “self-published!”

Also, technology brought speed and accuracy to the self-publishing process. As a result, there is no reason to wait for extended periods of time for copies to be printed, because POD technology can create single copies of books, instantaneously. There are even instant book devices like the “Espresso Book Machine” that are “book machines, which operate like ATM’s . . . text is downloaded in the book machine, printed, and delivered as a paperback within four minutes” (Darnton). The book machines may one day be as commonplace as soft drink and snack vending machines. These POD books look good and are of a high quality, so the consumer may never know that the book is self-published.

Regardless of the advances in technology, critics often point out that there is a stigma attached to self-publishing, and it is considered by some to be a last-ditch effort by writers who wish to be published but cannot get accepted by traditional publishers. The driving force behind self-publishing, they argue, is vanity. They argue that writers who cannot make it in traditional publishing are opting for self-publishing out of a narcissistic desire to gain attention. These critics argue that would-be writers usually lack talent and produce inferior and low-quality material that should never be taken seriously or be published at all. Self-published books are second rate and low-quality, they argue, and are ultimately causing a glut in the market. According to an article titled “Digitizing Books Devalues the Work of Professional Writers” the author, Morrison, states that self-publishers “are interested not in quality but in quantity . . . [and] content has little value to digital booksellers.” Some of these critics also believe that self-publishing is catastrophic and detrimental to writing as a profession, since it detracts from quality and cultured writing and allows for amateurs to infiltrate with lowbrow content. “Within 25 years the digital revolution will bring about the end of paper books. But more importantly, ebooks and epublishing will mean the end of ‘the writer’ as a profession” (Morrison). In the end, those in staunch opposition of self-publishing accuse the writers of lacking talent and the ability to accomplish anything of value or importance and believe that they are merely in it to gratify their authorial vanity, seeking fame and fortune with as little effort as possible.

There are some sound arguments that support self-publishing and the momentum for this movement is gaining impetus every day. The biggest factor is that all writers now have an alternative method to traditional publishing. The playing field has been leveled by technology. Writers can follow in the footsteps of established authors who have taken the self-publishing path to success. Darcie Chan, 37, a self-published novelist with her first novel titled The Mill River Recluse “sold 416,000 copies of the 99-cent e-book” (Donehue). Another good example is the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy by E.L. James, “that began as fan fiction and emerged as one of the biggest-selling series in publishing history . . . [and] spent 100 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list” (Bosman). These examples show that self-publishing can create first rate books that may result in phenomenal sales. Writers are earning a living, even becoming wealthy from their efforts: Michael Prescott, Barbara Freethy, J.A. Konrath, Erika Leonard, and Amanda Hocking are examples of modern, successful self-published writers. Another bonus feature stemming from self-publishing for traditionally published writers is that they can rerelease old titles via self-publishing when the rights to their books have reverted to them. Another clear sign that changes are coming is that traditional publishing houses are trolling the self-published titles for the next big, bestseller. There is ample evidence that self-publishing is creating substantial income for writers, even leading to titles making it to the “bestseller” lists.

Although the criticism of self-publishing is well-founded and bears consideration, there are case examples of books that are demonstrating through quality production and sales performance that it is not always going to produce inferior books. Due to cutting-edge advancements in technology, and a mounting shift in public opinion that is showing more acceptance for self-published products, a niche market is developing that is creating competition for the consumer’s attention and dollars. This is beneficial because it allows writers from all walks of life and educational backgrounds to reach the publishing market and compete for a readership. Any writer can now contribute their books—which may contain potential literary works—to the world to be considered and reviewed directly by the readers. The consumers do not seem to mind self-published books since they are now of a high enough quality to compete in the book selling market. Finally, the outlook on writers who publish their own work is getting better and “with its opportunity for self-published authors to sell hundreds of thousands of e-books, the stigma is disappearing” (Donahue). Some of the writers who self-publish today may be the literary geniuses of tomorrow.

Critics will undoubtedly continue to disapprove of self-publishing, however, in the end, the readers will decide if a book is good enough to buy and if it is worth reading. The sales of self-published books will attest to the success of would-be writers, and if readers like a book they will buy it regardless of who published it. Readers will demand high quality, however, and a poorly designed book will most likely not have many sales. There is some luck involved, too, but mostly hard work and determination will be the deciding factors. JA Konrath, a successfully self-published writer, “points out that the vast number of books released in any form, print or e-book, don’t sell. To become a successful writer, talent, hard work and self-promotion are important” (Donahue). Add to all of this that established organizations are taking notice of the sales trends in self-publishing, and that there is now an award “The first Selfie Awards will be presented at BookExpo in 2020” (New Award for Self-Publishers Announced), and it is obvious that self-publishing is gaining ground as a respectable method of publication. Additionally, libraries are starting to take notice and address the self-published writers and admit that “little is known about self-publishing authors and about the concerns of public librarians regarding how best to support library self-publishing initiatives . . . as libraries explore this potential new role, more needs to be done to support author services in public libraries appropriately” (Moulaison). Also, bookstores and retailers are noticing the self-publishing phenomenon, and they are preparing to deal with it directly, which is a sign of hope for aspiring writers.

In conclusion, self-publishing is a viable and productive venture for any writer, regardless if they are already an established professional or a fledgling writer attempting publication for the first time. Successful self-published authors are growing in number, and there seems to be a narrowing margin between traditionally published books verses self-published books. There is an upward trend within the book publishing industry that is slowly demonstrating an acceptance of self-publishing. It is highly likely that popular acceptance and productivity of self-publishing will continue well into the future and become more commonplace. The statistics and data show great progress and advances in self-publishing success stories, technology, and the overall acceptance as a valid method of publishing. “With technology enabling everyone to be his or her own Johannes Gutenberg, why would an author sign with a traditional book publisher?” (Donahue). Ultimately, two points are clear: first, self-published books are being written, published, and manufactured that are good enough to rival those designed by professional publishers; second, self-publishing is creating a paradigm shift in the book publishing industry, and change is imminent.

Works Cited

Bosman, Julie. “For ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ More Than 100 Million Sold.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26 Feb. 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/27/business/media/for-fifty-shades-of-grey-more-than-100-million-sold.html.

Darnton, Robert. “The Digital Age Has Not Significantly Changed the Way People Read.” What Is the Impact of Digitizing Books?, edited by Louise I. Gerdes, Greenhaven Press, 2013. At Issue. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/EJ3010872202/OVIC?u=nhc_main&sid=OVIC&xid=aa6ac203. Accessed 6 Oct. 2019. Originally published as “5 Myths About the ‘Information Age,’,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 17 Apr. 2011.

Donahue, Deirdre. “E-books Are Already Creating a Self-Publishing Revolution.” E-books, edited by Debra A. Miller, Greenhaven Press, 2013. Current Controversies. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/EJ3010856228/OVIC?u=nhc_main&sid=OVIC&xid=b1d0dc72. Accessed 18 Sept. 2019. Originally published as “Self-published Authors Find E-success,” USA Today, 13 Dec. 2011.

“Espresso Book Machin.” Xerox, https://www.xerox.com/en-us/digital-printing/digital-presses/espresso-book-machine.

Harris, Sam. “The Future of Writing Is Digital.” E-books, edited by Debra A. Miller, Greenhaven Press, 2013. Current Controversies. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/EJ3010856226/OVIC?u=nhc_main&sid=OVIC&xid=681a792d. Accessed 7 Oct. 2019. Originally published as “The Future of the Book,” Daily Beast, 27 Sept. 2011.

Heitman, Danny. “Virginia Woolf Was More Than Just a Women’s Writer.” National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), Vol 36, No 3. June 2015, www.neh.gov/humanities/2015/mayjune/feature/virginia-woolf-was-more-just-womens-writer. Accessed 20 Oct. 2019.

Lehmann-Haupt, Hellmut E. “Johannes Gutenberg.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 19 Aug. 2019, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Johannes-Gutenberg.

Morrison, Ewan. “Digitizing Books Devalues the Work of Professional Writers.” What Is the Impact of Digitizing Books?, edited by Louise I. Gerdes, Greenhaven Press, 2013. At Issue. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/EJ3010872204/OVIC?u=nhc_main&sid=OVIC&xid=a1030875. Accessed 7 Oct. 2019. Originally published as “Are Books Dead and Can Authors Survive?” Guardian, 22 Aug. 2011.

Moulaison Sandy, Heather. “The Role of Public Libraries in Self-Publishing: Investigating Author and Librarian Perspectives.” Journal of Library Administration, vol. 56, no. 8, Nov. 2016, pp. 893–912. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/01930826.2015.1130541.

“New Award for Self-Publishers Announced.” Publishers Weekly (Online), June 2019, p. 1. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=asn&AN=136741363&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Patterson, Christina. “How the Great Writers Published Themselves.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 17 Aug. 2012, https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/how-the-great-writers-published-themselves-8053570.html.


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