I self-published my first novel in October 2011, less than four years ago. At that time, the publishing landscape was already well into a radical transformation — and these last few years have seen that transformation accelerate. The biggest changes in publishing itself came in the first decade of this century. What’s picked up since then is public and industry recognition of those changes.
Not long ago, self-publishing and “vanity publishing” were synonymous. Vanity presses would publish books for a hefty fee, providing hundreds of books that authors had no practical way to sell. The likely result: a garage or barn full of books that no one outside the author’s immediate circle would ever see, let alone read.
The transformation began, actually, at the end of the 20th century, with the launch of Amazon as (initially) an online bookstore. Then, in 2000, a few authors started BookSurge as a way to publish their and other authors’ work while allowing authors to maintain control, copyrights, and profits. In 2005, Amazon acquired BookSurge and renamed it CreateSpace. Suddenly authors had a way to publish paperbacks that would immediately be offered on Amazon. The costs of doing so could be limited to a few dollars for “proof” copies, though authors could spend much more to hire assistance for tasks they didn’t feel competent to complete for themselves.
Fast-forward a bit to 2007, and Amazon revealed its first Kindle ereaders. With Kindles came Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), a portal for authors to provide ebooks that Amazon would sell. Smashwords, a competitor that let authors publish in a wider range of ebook formats, started up the following year. In 2009, following some adverse publicity about the royalties Amazon was paying its ebook authors, KDP started providing a 70% royalty option for books in a certain price range (along with a few other requirements). That was far more than any traditional publisher had ever dreamed of paying. By around 2011, if not before, Smashwords was distributing books to other online retailers like the Nook Store and Kobobooks. For ebooks, there wasn’t even the minimal cost of a proof copy, though authors faced the same choice between hiring help and going it alone.
As both ebooks and self-publishing started to take off, traditional publishers tried to figure out what the heck to do about the ongoing revolution. One unfortunate aspect of that response: more unfavorable contracts for their own authors. Advances and promotional budgets shrank. Fine print, sometimes hidden in odd places in the contracts, grabbed more and more rights for longer periods of time, and made it harder for authors to reclaim publication rights for their own use. The economic uncertainty in the industry may have contributed to more staff moving from one firm to another, which meant an increase in “orphaned” books, books left with no one in the company to back them and ensure they received the best in cover art, editing, and promotion.
At the same time, the mechanics of self-publishing got easier. CreateSpace’s, KDP’s, and Smashwords’ submission software became less finicky, easier for an author to navigate without hired assistance. And of course, self-published authors — now often calling themselves “indie” authors, a label that used to mean authors published by small innovative presses — gained in experience and confidence.
Readers began to see that many indie authors wrote terrific books. And well-known authors who had been traditionally published for decades began to realize that they had choices — and that authors who made use of those choices were not necessarily pathetic also-rans.
My own experience provides a pair of anecdotes that illustrate this change.
In January of 2012, a few months after I published my novel Twin-Bred, I contacted one of my favorite authors. Her first novel had influenced me in many ways, and its themes overlapped substantially with those of Twin-Bred. In appreciation, I offered to send her a paperback copy of Twin-Bred. I made clear that the offer came with no strings attached, although I also admitted my pleasant fantasy that she would enjoy the book and tell others as much. Her polite reply: that she saw no publisher listed, and that she did not accept copies of “unpublished manuscripts.”
Just over two years later, in February 2014, I contacted her again, after reading an interview which suggested her knowledge of self-publishing had increased. I reminded her of our earlier exchange, mentioned my impression that her understanding of my offer might have changed, and added the sequel to the offered gift. Her reply: she had always regretted failing to send her first novel to a mentor of hers, and would be honored to accept my books.
And now for the bad news.
So many books are self-published these days, and their quality varies so much, that it’s very difficult for authors to connect with potential readers. There’s a great deal of advice online about how to do so, much of it excellent, but one can follow it all and still have minimal sales. Overcoming these obstacles to discovery involves perseverance and talent, but also a good deal of luck.
With the various ways that authors may give away free ebooks, it’s become harder to get readers to pay for them. Even the price of a latte seems too much for many readers with innumerable free books awaiting them. The best hope: hooking readers with the free first book in a series, then asking them to pay some small amount for the rest. But often, even readers who praise that first book will turn aside from its sequel in search of more freebies.
And there are still vanity presses out there, making their money off authors who don’t understand their alternatives, selling publishing “packages” for much more than authors could pay for the separate components of those packages.
What next? Who knows? But I, for one, am very glad to live in this transformed publishing landscape, for all its challenges. I may be a tadpole in a very large pond, but I’m paddling away. I have control of my content and its presentation. Most important, I have readers — and while I may hope for more of them, to have readers is enough.
Karen A. Wyle was born a Connecticut Yankee, but moved every few years throughout her childhood and adolescence. After college in California, law school in Massachusetts, and a mercifully short stint in a large San Francisco law firm, she moved to Los Angeles, where she met her now-husband, who hates L.A. They eventually settled in Bloomington, Indiana, home of Indiana University. They have two wildly creative daughters, and a sweet but neurotic dog.
Wyle’s voice is the product of almost five decades of reading both literary and genre fiction. It is no doubt also influenced, although she hopes not fatally tainted, by her years of law practice. Her personal history has led her to focus on often-intertwined themes of family, communication, unintended consequences, and the persistence of unfinished business.