As the DIY approach gains more and more writers and readers, traditional publishers must reinvent themselves
by: Alison Baverstock
After a boom year in self-publishing the headlines are getting a little predictable. Most feature a doughty author who quickly builds demand for her work and is rewarded with a large contract from the traditional industry. But in our rush to admire, there's a risk we overlook the wider cultural significance of what is going on. As publishers from all over the world prepare for next week's London book fair, here are 10 changes that they ignore at their peril:
1. There is now a wider understanding of what publishing is – and that it is more difficult than it looks. The industry has long suffered the irony that effective publishing is most evident when invisible; it is only when standards are less than felicitous that we realise how well what we read is managed most of the time. Now that school cookbooks, or fundraising brochures for sports teams, can be effectively self-published, people are learning the process and what is involved. In the past, the industry has tended to recruit heavily from those in the know (the offspring of former publishers and authors being particularly well-represented); wider awareness of publishing is now promoting wider diversity.
2. Gone is our confidence that publishers and agents know exactly what everyone wants to (or should) read, and can spot all the material worth our attention. Soft porn and fantasy have emerged as particularly under-represented in the industry's official output.
3. The copy editor, a traditionally marginalised figure, is now in strong demand. If you are well-connected through social media, can isolate what your writing has to offer and get the message noticed by a reading public, you can probably manage the marketing of your work. The one thing it's really hard to do is self-edit. Long ago publishers outsourced copy editing, relying on the freelance labour market – and freelancers are now being actively sought by self-publishing authors too. The price for services for which there is both high demand and scarce supply tends to rise.
4. The re-emergence of the book as precious object. Some publishers are marketing luxury books; limited editions available only from them. Similarly, it's becoming relatively common for people to self-publish their holiday photographs in book form; to produce a unique photograph/memory book for special birthdays or to mark a retirement. If these are being presented to those who are not big readers, or regular frequenters of bookshops, the social significance of self-publishing may be particularly strong.
5. The role of the author is changing. With the fragmentation of the media in recent years, publishers were already relying on authors to help with the marketing – and learning how to do so is empowering. Now, as authors meet their readers at literary festivals, run blogs or tweet, they know their readers well and are no longer solely reliant on their publishers to mediate relationships. Looking ahead, authors who understand how publishing works are likely to be vastly less compliant than their forbears.
6. The role of the agent is also changing. Literary agents used to introduce ingenue authors to those who might invest, and then work with them to build longer-term careers. Now that so many self-publishing authors are finding the market themselves, agents need to find new ways to make their work pay. If agencies are multi-faceted (film, television, after-dinner speaking) they may be protected, but smaller agencies will struggle. Selling manuscript development services to those in whom they might not otherwise invest their time is an unsatisfactory way to make a living.
7. New business models and opportunities are springing up, mostly offering "publishing services": advice on how to get published or self-publish; guidance on developing a plot or a whole manuscript; lifestyle support and writing holidays; editorial services and marketing assistance. New writing patterns are developing too: team writing; ghost writing; software to assist the crafting. Publishing is emerging as a process – accessible as a variety of different services to whoever needs them – rather than just being an industry.
8. It's not all about making money. If, as I believe, self-publishing means taking personal responsibility for the management and production of your content, this can be achieved as effectively via a single copy to be kept at home as the sale of thousands online. Self-publishing means recognising, and preserving, content that has value for someone – but the process does not have to yield an income to be worthwhile.
9. An end to the "vanity publishing" put-down. No longer the last resort of the talentless, these days self-publishing is seen as a homing ground of the instinctively proactive: identify your market; meet their needs; deliver direct. It's also a flexible solution; a process not a single product, for which the rationale can be very varied – from book as business card to ebook novel; from hard copy of a work-in-progress, to a team compilation for a local history group.
10. Self-publishing brings happiness. Publishers have long assumed that only if nearing professional standards could a self-published product bring any satisfaction. My research has revealed the opposite. It seems self-publishers approach the process confidently, are well-informed, and aware of how much the process will cost and how long it is likely to take. They emerge both keen to do it again and likely to recommend it to others. Finalising a project you have long planned feels good, and the process builds in the possibility of future discoverability – whether that is in an attic (whenever the family decides they are mature enough to want to know), or by ISBN from within the British Library. Self-publishing as a legacy – should we really be so surprised at its growing popularity?
• A former publisher, Alison Baverstock is Course Leader for the Publishing MA at Kingston University. The Naked Author, her guide to self-publishing, is published by Bloomsbury. The full results of her more recent research will be published in the journal Learned Publishing in July.