No doubt this piece, Self-publishing in 2017, from Publishers Weekly infuriated the indie-booster crowd. What makes that mouthpiece of the traditional publishing industry think it has any right to talk about us super-virtuous, totally un-self-interested indie authors? Such condescension! I rather agree that PW probably shouldn’t be trying to cover self publishing. It’s just a different business, and much too hard to get your arms around to allow of any sensible general coverage. PW does appear to have moved on; they now have a site, BookLife, devoted to helping self publishers. They even offer “free reviews”. Traditional publishers are fully cognizant of the existence of self publishing. Some keep their eyes open for individual publications in that area, but by and large the influence of the one business on the other is negligible. They coexist.

But the 2017 article actually seems to be fairly even-handed, pointing out that times were likely to be hard for self publishers, just as they looked like they would be for traditional publishers. (Sales for traditional publishers in 2017 turned out to be not that bad: they were just a bit down. Who knows what self publishing sales may have been?) At any time, this book or that book from one or the other strand of publishing may become a big seller, but overall sales are likely to remain fairly close to “normal” annual totals. Surely we cannot imagine that there’s likely to be a sudden increase in the percentage of the population interested in reading books. We work in a fairly mature business: expansion is liable to be pretty much limited to demographic growth. Still we can’t stop trying. Joel Friedlander is quoted as saying “Authors are starting to understand that the world of book publishing is much bigger than e-books and print on demand,” predicting that self-published authors will be exploring other formats beyond ebook and print. The fact that this seems to amount to audio isn’t amazing: one can see an individual author funding an audio book, while a movie might be beyond reach even of the biggest of the big five.

My sneaking suspicion is that the apparent fragmentation of the book publishing industry is pretty much played out. We have three different bits of it, and the divisions look like they may become permanent.

  1. There’s the self-published individual author
  2. Theres’s the indie publisher, gathering together and providing resources for several self-published authors, and then
  3. There’s the traditional publishing industry — which of course itself can be broken down into many different categories by size, organization, format and specialization.

None of this should be taken as disparaging the sensitive souls who cheer on the self-publishing community. It is great that anyone can self-publish a book (I’ve done it myself, and I know half-a-dozen ex-colleagues and friends who have also done so via the print-only route) and I wish every success to those who do it. There are however inevitably certain problems with the fact that anyone and everyone can publish — notably the resultant vast selection of material available and the difficulty of discovering and judging which bits you might actually like. This doesn’t have to mean that self-published material is worse than traditional published, just that the tools for making the judgement are not fully developed, and may actually be beyond man’s devising.

I would foresee a world in which category 1. above, self-publishing by individual authors, would end up being subdivided into

  1. Materials published almost as a pre-publication proof: bread thrown on the waters in the hope of hooking a traditional publisher
  2. Some genre fictions, though one could imagine say romance publishing ending up dominated by the indie publishing model — if it isn’t already
  3. Fan fiction, minority fiction or non-fiction — almost by definition community audiences which know where to find what they want
  4. Books published by authors who have built large social media followings
  5. Self-published materials directed at members of a club or society
  6. Family histories, photo albums etc., by intention private.

I wonder if the rate of self publishing might begin to slow down as all the pent-up projects have been brought out in a surge at the beginning. This is hard to judge as there really aren’t reliable industry statistics, but wouldn’t it be similar to what we saw with ebooks? After all the backlist had been dealt with sales stabilized — yes, yes, I know you can interpret these numbers in all sorts of different ways.

The world might be said to divide into two camps: those like Honorée Corder who believe that everyone should write a book, and those who believe that there are just some people who can’t or shouldn’t. For myself I really can’t see why everyone should have to make such a choice. I’m perfectly happy if you never write a book. But at the same time I can’t really see any reason why you shouldn’t do so. I may not like what you write, but I will “defend to the death” your right to do it — and also my right not to have to read the results!

I fear that the world is also divided into two different camps: those who read books, and those who don’t. Maybe we can hope for a slight increase in the proportion belonging to the first group as education continues to spread, but I really don’t imagine that we are going to see any sharp increase in book reading. We are lucky to be living in a world where we all have access to a vastly larger number of books than any previous generation has enjoyed. Though at the end, does it really matter that there were a few million books you didn’t manage to get round to reading while you were capable of doing so rather than just a few thousand?