The Coming Death of Self-Publishing

It won’t be long before self-publishing as a concept is dead.

Dance Macabre dans l'Imprimerie by Mathias Huss, Lyon 1499That’s not to say that the activity of publishing, whether it’s done by an individual, a small loose-knit group, or a corporation, is in decline. In fact, it’s healthier and growing faster than ever. But as an implicit indicator of quality, the idea inherent in the phrase “self-publishing” increasingly serves no purpose (other than a historical one).

In the book world, at least, it’s been common to distinguish between three types of publishing: traditional publishing, vanity or subsidized publishing, and self-publishing. (As Joel Friedlander notes in his excellent Self Publisher’s Companion, there is a fourth model, cooperative publishing, that blends aspects of traditional and subsidized publishing, but it is relatively rare.)

The traditional model is built around a system of gatekeepers—agents, acquisitions editors, and other publishing professionals whose role is to make judgments about what will and won’t be published. Until recently, the only practical alternative for aspiring authors was vanity publishing: paying a company a large sum of money to produce their book, with little or no marketing or sales assistance.

These distinctions were once a reliable measure of quality. Traditionally published works were probably good; vanity publications were probably bad.

But the rise of self-publishing has complicated the equation. Digital technology has made it possible for authors to produce, market, and distribute their own high-quality, low-cost books, whether in electronic or paper form. And by cutting out the middlemen—all those traditional gatekeepers and their expenses—authors now have the potential to make much more money from their works. It’s a compelling opportunity: all those bad, amateur writers who self-publish are now being joined by hordes of good, professional ones.

As a result, traditional publishers are losing their monopoly on quality. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they are going the way of the dinosaur—though Joe Konrath might say otherwise. But it does argue that who publishes a book, or how it is published, will ultimately no longer bear on the quality of the book. Traditional publishers produce lots of crappy books. Self-publishers, increasingly, are producing lots of great ones.

It won’t be long before we can safely say, to paraphrase someone or other, that there are no traditional publishers, there are no self-publishers, there are only publishers.

16 thoughts on “The Coming Death of Self-Publishing

  1. I love this post, particularly the way you show how the playing field is leveled – quality isn’t always a given with those traditional gatekeepers.

    I wrote about this last year as a matter of risk: publishers have tilted their model toward the Hollywood blockbuster model. A book needed to do BIG things or they wouldn’t take the risk.

    Now, with the model shifting toward authors having a more direct relationship with readers, the risk at hand is one the reader is asked to absorb: spend $15 to $.99 to take the risk on whether a self-pubbed work will be worth it or not.

    I like this new model for the opportunities it opens up to all parties. It’s quite exciting!

  2. Thanks! Of course, this trend puts a greater burden on the author to connect with the reader beyond the bounds of the book, but that’s a good thing.

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  5. It’s true the playing field is being leveled but it is also true that the old rule of thumb regarding quality still applies. In the transition period, you can find formerly traditionally-published authors who are now self-publishing and who are probably quite good. There is a handful of new self-published authors who have made a name and a lot of sales and they’re probably quite good too. But the vast majority of self-published authors are a completely unknown quantity and, while their work might be dirt cheap or even free, you have to plough through dozens and dozens of book samples before you can find one that is worth reading.

    Life is too short.

    The gatekeepers actually do a very good job on the reader’s behalf and you don’t really appreciate how good a job until you start wading through self-published ebooks looking for something good to read.

  6. Thanks for the comment, Graham. I don’t really disagree that the rule of thumb still applies. But I think it applies less than it used to. And if current trends continue, it will apply still less in the future.

    I share your frustration about finding good self-published books. What they lack so far (I think) is a filter that will help readers distinguish the ones they’ll like from the many more they won’t. If such a filter evolves, then the traditional gatekeepers will be that much less valuable.

  7. Good post, John. I’m interested in hearing your and your readers opinon: Do you think this also applies to individual articles or beat coverage by reporters? Could a freelancer specializing in a particular niche – for example biotechnology – publish her own articles and build her own “qualified circulation?” If the info was valuable and the reporting/writing quality was high, would niche audiences pay for this (paying directly to the reporter)?

  8. Thanks, Tam.

    Oddly, perhaps, I think it’s less possible for freelancers to do what you’re suggesting now than it was 20 years ago. A lot of trade reporters in my field back then, health technology, did it quite successfully. But the Internet has made the specialized information they dealt in much easier to come by, and so reduced the value of what they did. I’m sure it can still be done, but it’s harder, and success probably reflects the personal insights and appeal of the writer more than the obscurity of the information.

    With books it’s a different matter, because the readers that buy them are not in search of information as much as inspiration, entertainment, or convenience.

    Of course, the bottom line is that getting people to pay anything for either form is damnably hard, and requires not just talent, but lots of luck and persistence.

  9. I’m glad you mentioned that traditional publishers put out lots of low quality books. I recently read a book from a best selling author and was taken out of the story again and again by punctuation mistakes. Someone dropped commas everywhere, confusing the meaning of sentences so I had to backtrack and reread. The gatekeepers are slacking though I’m sure most of their offerings are edited better than my example.

  10. Thanks for the comment, Susan.

    It’s odd, really. Where traditional publishers should have a huge advantage over self-publishers is in production quality–including copyediting. But what seems to be happening is that they are cutting back on the very thing that sets them above most self-publishers. And though the trend is just starting, self-publishers seem to be taking advantage of the many talented freelancers that once worked for those traditional publishers.

  11. This was a refreshing twist on the topic that seems to take up so much blog space these days. Unfortunately, a lot of self published work (and I mean A LOT) is substandard simply because there are no ‘gatekeepers’. but your comment that this is changing is duly noted. For those who have self published quality work, it will be a relief to shake the stigma, if it really can be shaken ….

  12. Thanks, Tracy.

    Ultimately, what makes a book good is not who publishes it, but who writes it. There is enough appeal now to self-publishing, it seems to me, that more and more good writers will try it, and the number of high-quality self-published books will increase.

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  14. I think the idea of a cooperative sounds great; mutually supportive, keeping a control on quality and yet working for everyone’s benefit. Good one

  15. Great post. Hadn’t heard of Cooperative publishing, but it makes sense.

    Just wanted to add a thought regarding quality of writing belonging primarily to the big trad publishers. I’ve never written one query letter. NOT ONE. In fact, I hadn’t even considered it, and just a week ago published my first book. The entrepreneurial appeal of doing it myself was the draw. Who wants to wait around for rejection letters? Let readers decide what they want to read. Does that say something about traditional publishing as gatekeeper? Hmmm, maybe. All I know is writers are finding new ways of doing old things… and they’re succeeding.

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