Self-publishing used to be largely a vanity thing. You’d plunk down around $10,000 and a book would pop out. Friends and family were the primary target, although a lucky few actually managed to find distributors and large readerships.
Epublishing has dramatically lowered the costs of publishing, distributing and buying books, triggering a revolution at least as profound as that roiling the music business. As in music, authors can increasingly bypass publishers entirely, while lower barriers to entry and piracy will eventually drive prices toward zero. In that environment, publishers (like labels) can only remain relevant by becoming marketing juggernauts — packaging authors, arranging book tours, selling related merchandise, and so on.
We’ve been printing on paper since around 1439, the year when Johannes Gutenberg started using movable type. By 2039, I’ll wager that books published on paper will be as relevant to most people as CDs are today. Bookstores, to the extent they survive, will be boutiques that sell a lot more than books, just as Amazon does today. Don’t worry: the cafes will survive.
Take a look at this recent Wall Street Journal article,
Cheap E-Books Upend the Charts. The cut line “99-Cent Titles From Unknown Authors Put New Pressure on Big Publishers” reveals a surprising truth: many people are buying books online based more on their price than whether they were written by famous authors. Of the top 50 Amazon best-sellers, 15 were books priced at $5 or less, according to the Journal; Louisville businessman and part-time thriller writer John Locke, whose CIA thrillers sell for 99 cents, accounted for seven of them.
That compares with the big publishers, who sell their books for $9.99 and up on Amazon and generally give authors miniscule royalties. Locke gets 35 cents from Amazon for his books, and claimed to have income in March of $126,000.
For writers, this is good and bad news. The good news is that authors can now choose to bypass publishing gatekeepers who often judge a book’s merit solely on how well it sells, and who cut most authors only a tiny piece of the revenue stream. Like Locke, some authors will make a fortune.
The bad news is that self-publishing without proper promotion is generally about as successful as putting a book in a closet and closing the door. And, of course, if you write a book that stinks, no amount of promotion will help.