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Is self-publishing replacing traditional publishing?

14 November 2016

There's been a lot of discussion recently about how things have changed for writers over the last few years. In some ways it's a radically different picture, in others not so much so.

When WritersServices was set up in 2001, there wasn't really a market of writers. Compared to the situation now, the web was in its infancy and it had not yet been realised what a brilliant way this would prove to be for writers to self-publish and then market their work.
Our self-publishing service was ahead of the trend and we had to explain to writers the benefit of print on demand, in terms of not filling your warehouse (or garage!) with a big pile of books, since the idea of just-in-time inventory and printing books as they were ordered was just coming in. Self-publishing is now a big business, with major players involved, and it is possible for anyone who is reasonably technically adroit to publish their own book.

The question is whether they are prepared to put the work into marketing it, which really means primarily web marketing and promoting it through social media. Not every writer feels at home doing this, or is equally good at it, and many prefer to stick to writing with someone else promoting and selling their book.

The big things which have changed, for both publishers and writers, are the advent of Amazon and digitisation. For publishers the online retailer offers an instant route to potentially big sales through their site, to writers it gives the opportunity to publish and make their book available internationally. The impact of the giant retailer's involvement in the quiet world of book publishing has been mixed, delivering an international market at a high cost in terms of discount to both publisher and self-publisher. It's easy to see in retrospect that, for Jeff Bezos, books were only a starting-point in his plan to become the world's online retailer.

So, where are we now? For authors who have gone the self-publishing route it's a mixed picture, with a small number achieving bestsellerdom and many with more modest or even rather disappointing sales. But at least self-publishers can feel they're in charge of their own destiny. For those going the traditional route, agents have become more powerful and are now largely the gatekeepers, with many publishing firms not accepting unsolicited submissions. Publishers have also cut their lists radically, the ‘midlist' has disappeared and the search is on for the next bestseller.

Next week: the more positive aspects of the revolution in writing, publishing and bookselling.