Issues on the Ether: How Is Self-Publishing Maturing?

In Discussion by Porter Anderson

4 February 2014 iStock_000002845516Small photog PacaYPalla texted story image

Table of Contents

  1. Our Live #EtherIssue Chat is Wednesday
  2. How Is Self-Publishing Maturing?
  3. The “Self-Expression Tier”
  4. Cul­ture vs. Cause
  5. Wednesday’s #EtherIs­sue: 11 a.m. ET / 4 p.m. GMT
  6. Last Week’s Topic: Authors and Profit-Sharing

Our Live #EtherIssue Chat is Wednesday

Quickly the routine for newcomers (welcome!):

  1. Each Tuesday, “Issues on the Ether” looks at one issue or a set of related issues. (We’ll also give you a very brief recap on the previous week’s chat.)
  2. Each Wednesday, we want to hear from you. Publishing Perspectives Editor in Chief Edward Nawotka and I will host a live Twitter chat on that week’s Ether topic(s) at 4 p.m. GMT / 5 p.m. CET / 11 a.m. ET / 8 a.m. PT. We’ll use the hashtag #EtherIssue

Feel free, as always, to leave comments for us at the column here, as well, and join us Wednesday. Watch for @PubPerspectives and @Porter_Anderson on Twitter.

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How Is Self-Publishing Maturing?

By Porter Anderson

We hear a lot about self-publishing “maturing,” are you getting that? Here’s a good example:

As self-publishing matures further, industry watchers expect that authors are going to have to raise the bar on their own offerings, collaborating with editors and designers while taking a more entrepreneurial approach to their work.

And:

At the same time, as technology makes self-publishing ever easier, the industry will hear new voices from around the globe and from places that have been underrepresented in the past, giving readers a greater variety of indie titles than ever before, but making it more vital for authors to find a way to stand out from the pack.

Publishers Weekly PWThis is Alex Palmer writing at Publishers Weekly in PW Select January 2014: A Look Ahead to Self-Publishing in 2014.

To those working close to the trade, these may seem to be the most obvious of statements about the development of self-publishing in the industry! the industry! And thus, they’re a good place to start today’s consideration.

Palmer quotes the very capable Beat Barblan, who directs Bowker’s identifier services (the ISBNs), this way:

Beat Barblan

Beat Barblan

“It’s almost been a giddy feeling about all the new opportunities, but I think we’ve reached a slightly more mature period. We are seeing more authors who say they want to be an author beyond just a hobby, and recognize that they have to be much more entrepreneurial.”

One quick aside here to keep some pitchforks in the garage where they belong: Our purpose here today is not to get back into the swamp of the ISBN debate. When Palmer uses Bowker’s figures to suggest that self-published ISBNs were up by some 60 percent in 2012, what we know, of course—and what Bowker is the first to say—is that many more self-published works are out there than are being tracked by ISBNs.

The problem of what an ISBN costs a self-publishing author vs. what it costs a publishing house is one of those pack-a-lunch debates for another day (or maybe for every day), but not our task at hand.

In this #EtherIssue focus, what we’re interested in, instead, is a parallel discussion going on within the author corps.

After all, the business structure of publishing sees self-publishing as just that, a business development. Rightly so, from the corporate viewpoint. And it’s right that the main impetus of this debate be centered in the North American market. Indeed, Barblan goes on to tell Palmer, that the US “is ahead of every other place in the world” in self-published ISBNs, with Australia, he says, coming in strongly in self-publishing.

Die Self-Publisher-Bibel BibleIntriguingly, Palmer’s story ran five days before Munich-based journalist and author Matthias Matting in his The Self Publisher’s Bible reported in Ein Tag für die Geschichtsbücher: Die Amazon-Kindle-Top-10 komplett von Self Publishern belegt that every one of Germany’s Top 10 Kindle sellers on Amazon were self-published book on January 29, a first.

Univeristy of Lancashire UCLanAnd it was reported Monday that the University of Central Lancashire in the UK is opening the country’s first MA program in self-publishing? The Bookseller’s report from Sarah Shaffi may have raised some eyebrows in quoting the university’s announcement. The UCLan goal, we’re told, is “to help writers gain the skills they need to ‘become the next E.L. James.'”

These and many other indications, of course, tell us that despite our inability to measure the true breadth of self-publishing—as long as the key metric, the ISBN, depends on authors to pay much more for their identifiers than the industry does—we know that self-publishing is growing.

What comes across as a more volatile debate, in some ways, is the question being asked among some authors themselves about their goals.

Why are self-publishers self-publishing? Seems a crazy question, doesn’t it? But maybe not.

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The “Self-Expression Tier”

Joanna Penn

Joanna Penn

Many close to the publishing industry assume that writers self-publish with very similar goals to those of traditionally publishing authors.

As I said to London-based self-publishing author Joanna Penn, my first guess about a writer who self-publishes is that he or she would like to be a full-time author.

This, she tells me, is not what she’s seeing out there.

We were in touch on this as a result of her helpful audio podcast with Ashleigh Gardner, content chief at Wattpad.

How To Use Wattpad As An Author With Ashleigh Gardner is a useful discussion between the two, not least because Gardner dispels a lot of misconceptions about Wattpad, itself.

With some 24 million active members, Gardner says, for example, more than 90% of them are readers, not writers.

“Just under 10 percent of our users are writing to some extent,” Gardner tells Penn, “and many of those writers are also reading.”

Ashleigh Gardner

Ashleigh Gardner

Wattpad is not a publishing platform, Gardner clarifies, it’s a social network the backbone of which is reading and commenting. Its users create 8 million comments per month about what they read there. An average user is spending 30 minutes there per visit, which represents serious stickiness, by the way. 85% of Wattpad’s users are accessing it on mobile devices.

Serially posted chapters of something a writer is putting onto Wattpad are read by users who leave their responses. So one way Gardner positions Wattpad is as “a storytelling platform.”

And here’s what strikes me as I listen to her talk with Penn:

Most users on our site aren’t aspiring to be novelists or to be professional writers. They’re just creating fun stories to share with their friends.

WattpadA good, rich, encouraging response from those friends on Wattpad or in other places, of course, can be expected to lead some writers to consider self-publishing their work. Mind you, the exposure to Wattpad’s readers and their interactions and comments during the writing of a piece may well help generate some very good work. There’s no intent here to suggest that there’s something wrong with Wattpad’s approach.

What it appears we’re talking about, however, in many cases are hobbyists.

Gardner uses the memorable term “self-expression tier” to describe, if I follow her correctly, people whose main interest at Wattpad is just that, expressing themselves in their writings and engaging with other users.

There are many other places, of course, in which such self-expression is facilitated on the Web, notably fan-fiction forums and similar venues. And as Gardner points out, there are many places to self-publish, as well, should a Wattpad user or someone else decide that’s their interest.

But to carry on with Gardner’s phrase, what does that “self-expression tier” mean to serious, professionally oriented self-publishing authors?

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Cul­ture vs. Cause

Chuck Wendig

Chuck Wendig

One of the most important spellings out of what this distinction in self-publishing motivations has come from the hybrid author Chuck Wendig.

Whether you agree with his two seminal posts, Self-Publishing Is Not the Minor Leagues and Readers Are Not Good Gatekeepers, two things we can probably get together on are that the first has drawn just under 200 comments (199, as I check it while writing), and the second has drawn more than 230 comments. Huge debate.

In the first, Wendig argues for acknowledged differences in writing and publishing. That may sound as crazy as me asking “Why are you self-publishing?” but he has a serious point:

Writing is how you improve your craft — by doing a whole lot of it, by reading, by having your work read by friends and family and by other writers and by editors. Publishing is not where you improve your craft. You don’t learn to pilot an airplane by taking a job with U.S. Airways…You wouldn’t expect that of other careers, so why are we okay with it when it comes to author-publishers?)

If anything, Wendig might say that Wattpad, for example, is just right — a place for authors to work on their writing and get feedback on it, not to publish it.

His concern is one shared by many: the digital capability to publish can mean that material that’s nowhere near market-ready goes out into the market. If anything, he feels that enthusiasm for self-publishing may have overtaken the need to do it responsibly.

The culture says, “Just click publish!” The culture criticizes the faults of traditional-publishing, but excuses (or celebrates) its own.

And in his follow-up piece, Wendig examines the idea of asking—or expecting or allowing—readers to be the people who choose what work succeeds and what doesn’t. In his view, making readers the “new gatekeepers” of published work is an abdication of a writerly responsibility to make that work as strong as it can be.

Because the moment you go somewhere — Amazon, Smashwords, B&N, wherever — and you start charging money, that changes the equation. By a strict reading, that’s no longer Hobbytown, Jake. You’ve entered pro grade territory. You’re asking readers to take a chance on your work for one buck, three bucks, five bucks, etc. You’re not hosting a party. You’re running a lemonade stand.

So stop pissing in the lemonade and asking people to give you cash to drink it.

Comments at Wendig’s site are, for the most part, seem mostly supportive.

One reader writes: “A couple weeks ago, my 12-year-old complained to me about a book she found unreadable due to spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors. She giggled as she told me the author needed to go back to elementary school.”

The voluminous KBoards responses to Wendig’s commentary have been far more mixed, and in some cases shrill.

One of the more level-headed efforts to dismiss the concerns Wendig raises is found in this comment there:

I understand what Chuck’s point was. I hoped that he could understand that as a large self-publishing community, we aren’t experiencing the problem he describes. That there is no need for a call to action — that most indies can and do self-police, and the ones who don’t sink pretty fast in this competitive marketplace. And that the readers who are burned by a bad self published book (despite resources like reviews & Goodreads) — and suddenly seek out only trad pubbed books – are so few as to be negligible. They are not our target market, and that’s ok.

And one of the most insightful, perhaps, is an author’s opinion that self-publishing is, by definition, so new that its practitioners must be, as she puts it, “self-correcting”:

While I guess it’s nice to say lets all hold ourselves to higher standards, the thing about self-publishing is it’s really self-correcting. Your book flops, gets poor reviews, guess what. Most likely you’re going to grow as a self-publisher or quit.

Hugh Howey

Hugh Howey

One of the voices of reasoned disagreement with Wendig has been that of self-publishing author Hugh Howey, who does support that “self-expression tier,” if you will, as a valid part of the community of self-publishing. Howey maintains that weaker material isn’t a problem for the wider community and that our perception of success and failure in the marketplace is a matter of attitude.

In Most Books Don’t Sell, in fact, Howey takes the discussion into what may be the next stage of the debate’s maturity. While his intent is primarily compassionate in this essay—”Don’t think you’re doing something wrong or that you aren’t successful if your book isn’t keeping up with your neighbor’s”—Howey is, in fact, positioning self-publishing as a community and a sector of publishing that might have a chance to redefine “success” in an industry those business-based interests have always quantified in numbers. He writes, emphasis his:

As authors, we can be thrilled with a handful of sales a month or miserable with “only” 10,000. Our desire for and belief in free will makes us think we choose this reaction. Those same beliefs make us doubt study after study that tells us otherwise.

Looking for the reality of a tough market as his baseline, Howey proposes that the very wide-open field for self-publishing that concerns Wendig. He’s responding, in part, to such comments as this one in an author forum: “I can’t tell you how many times I have felt inferior or less-than because such and such is selling 1000 books of their debut without lifting a finger to promote.”

Howey’s concept calls on the individual, not the wider apparatus of self- or traditional publishing, to determine where “success” and “failure” lie:

Most books don’t sell. Knowing this as a writer, how are you going to feel about publishing your book? One choice will have you turning to the next story with a smile on your face, disbelieving that you can make your works available for them to be discovered or not. The other choice is to give up in frustration, your expectations unmet. Are we free to choose between these two options? I like to think so.

These two strong voices, each followed by a great many people in the entrepreneurial and traditional worlds, together do, in fact, describe a maturing dialog in self-publishing.

A couple of years ago, railing against “New York” was the leading note in many such debates.

Now, as we look at Wendig’s willingness to challenge the “culture” of self-publishing—and at Howey’s efforts to widen that culture as a field welcoming even to the hesitant—we may not hear agreement all the time, but we get, surely, a more worthy debate.

While self-publishing, of course, can mean everything from the arrival of a masterpiece on the hand of its maker to the release of a pamphlet full of bad recipes, serious writers and author-service providers are at last reaching a time when the sheer fact of self-publishing is no longer the point.

What’s done with self-publishing’s capabilities and what that means in literature is a good conversation to be having.

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Wednesday’s #EtherIs­sue: 11 a.m. ET / 4 p.m. GMT

And so, here we are: our #EtherIssue for Wednesday’s Twitter debate, and we want you to join in. Just to get you thinking about things, I’d invite you to consider these questions:

  • What impact do you feel self-publishing of unworthy material might have, overall? (This goes to Chuck Wendig’s point about the cheerleading stage being over.)
  • How easily can self-publishing float both boats, if you will?—the boat filled with hopefuls whose main need, as Howey identifies it, may be to manage disappointment, and the one filled with professionals who, as Wendig tells us, shouldn’t expect readers to be the “gatekeepers” of what’s good and what’s bad?
  • Do you agree with Wendig that asking readers to delineate good work from bad is a shifting of the writer’s responsibility to the consumer?
  • Do you agree with Howey that self-publishing’s greatest strength may be, in fact, the capacity it offers to such a wide range of experience and capability?
  • And do you agree with Joanna Penn that many people writing today are not, in fact, hoping to do it professionally? How widely, in other words, has the digital dynamic enabled and encouraged what Gardner calls that “self-expression tier?”

These questions, and yours: let’s have them all on Wednesday at 11 a.m. Eastern, 8 a.m. Pacific, 4 p.m. GMT on hashtag #EtherIssue— see you then.

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Last Week’s Topic: Authors and Profit-Sharing

28 January 2014 iStock_000004471003Small photog YuLiang11 texted story image 2As you’ll recall, our Issues on the Ether column last week, Profit-Sharing Authors, picked up London-based writer Ian K. Ellard’s winning essay for The Bookseller, “The Toast.”

We then asked you to discuss with us the concept Ellard so entertainingly proposes—a pattern of self-publishing authors trading shares of their books’ performance in the market in exchange for the assistance of book-publishing specialists.

Right out of the gate, we heard from a leading hybrid author based in Los Angeles, James Scott Bell:

Boston’s Grub Street executive director Eve Bridburg joined us with doubts that the Ellardian vision of a profit-sharing publishing community would fly economically.

In several instances, it was suggested that Amazon might be in the best position to broker author services to writers. Here’s Carla Douglas of the Beyond Paper Editing site.

Author and editor Roz Morris in London isn’t optimistic that editing can be handled well in a profit-sharing arrangement.

We were glad to be joined from London by essayist Ellard for part of the discussion. He has pointed out that his essay is not intended to say that self-publishing should be adopting a profit-sharing model but that it’s an interesting concept to consider.

Morris and author Carol Buchanan agreed that what’s not being proposed here is editing-by-committee:

And writer and poet Cody Sisco cinched the risk factor which, everyone agreed, will be a key part of any effort in profit-sharing as self-publishing grows. Suw Charman-Anderson was on board with that.

If on the whole the discussion didn’t seem to support near-term profit-sharing of much extent in authors’ work, the conversation was full of interest. Alas, our time isn’t good for everyone, as Maureen Crisp of New Zealand good-naturedly reminds us:

Today the tweets. Tomorrow the time zones.

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Porter Anderson is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, a 32-year journalist with several newspapers and three networks of CNN, as well as a producer posted to the Rome headquarters of the United Nations’ World Food Programme. His Issues on the Ether column appears here at Publishing Perspectives on Tuesdays, followed by an #EtherIssue live discussion on Twitter on Wednesdays. Anderson’s Writing on the Ether is read on Thursdays at JaneFriedman.com, and he is a regular contributor to WriterUnboxed.com. He writes the Porter Anderson Meets column weekly for The Bookseller‘s Friday magazine in London with a live #PorterMeets Twitter interview with a newsmaker on Mondays. More about him is at PorterAnderson.com. Find him at Google+


Main image – iStockphoto: PacaYPalla / Marsala, Sicily

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He is also co-owner and editor with Jane Friedman of The Hot Sheet, the newsletter for trade and indie authors. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook, at London's The Bookseller. Anderson has also worked with CNN International, CNN.com, CNN USA, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media.