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.