On self-publishing, community and convergence: An article round-up

self publishers

Some of English literature’s most celebrated self-publishers; Stein, Austen, Proust, Whitman, Woolf, Twain

I’ve been thinking a lot about self-publishing lately, in part because of the discussions going on at a slew of book conferences – from the Frankfurt Book Fair talks to E:PUBLISH and Futurebook (from afar). Partly it’s from seeing the slow acceptance of self-publishing here in Germany, where authors have been fighting an uphill battle to be taken seriously in the industry. Also, in doing my own research on small presses, I found that independent authors’ strategies are often similar if not even more committed when it comes to directly marketing to readers (Joanna Penn and Suw Charman-Anderson are 2 great examples). Below I’ve tried to create a snapshot of the current discussion taking place about the advantages of independent publishers and the role of community in promoting books.

The marketing catch-22

Lately, a few articles on independent authors’ role in publishing have really stood out, such as this wrap-up of a CONTEC panel, in which Jane Friedman asks “Is self-publishing the most important transformation in the industry?”. Statistics show that readership and sales of self-pubbed books are growing fast – on one hand because they get more exposure via Amazon promotions, but also because the ebooks are being promoted to a wider audience (Amazon Singles are a great example of this, since many non-book readers are more open to reading short-form prose).

Friedman’s article also points out an interesting contradiction: whereas one study found that most self publishers (75%) saw marketing as the main advantage of being traditionally published, the Bookseller found that 53% of traditionally published authors contemplate switching to self publishing because they aren’t satisfied with the marketing of their books and the communication with the publisher. Add to that the fact that hybrid authors seem to be making more money than traditional or self publishers at the moment, and it seems like shouldering at least SOME of the book marketing is paying off for many authors.

Touchy-feely community

Another red thread running through the panel was reader relationships. Friedman observes that “Everyone working in the industry is thinking more about how to directly reach their specific reader community in an era of declining bricks-and-mortar stores and an increasingly digital environment,” and quotes Hugh Howey, who found that “everything is more focused on the reader experience,” these days, from the content to customer-oriented prices.

Recently Matthew Wayne Selznick wrote on why building a reader community is more important than marketing books. He emphasizes the value of having real, two-way dialogues with readers to build up a more loyal readership (and consequently sell more books). Direct contact with readers can also motivate writers and discipline them to hone their work for an audience. Talking about how writing Tumblr affected his approach, Tim Manley writes that “My standards for my work became higher because I was writing for a real audience—[…] readers who want something to be worth their time.”

Many talk about “community” or “community-building” to describe the one-on-one style of book promotion often used online in social media. Mike Shatzkin likewise underscored the importance of these direct relationships in a recent piece, in which he considered how publishers need to become more “audience-centric” to compete with self publishers and stay relevant. Amazon’s Jon Fine considers that self-publishing and traditional publishing will soon converge, a tendency which is supported by all the hybrid authors whose approaches fall somewhere in between the two models. As Porter Anderson elaborates on Publishing Perspectives: “The shifted economics of less-expensive ebooks and the joyous camaraderie many readers enjoy with their favorite authors in this space may well be firming up an eventually discernible, separate readership—interactive, socially engaged, participatory counterparts to the more traditional, largely passive readership of standard publishing.”

The tortoise and the hare approachSmart-Rebecca-@RebecSmart-150x150

At last week’s Futurebook conference, several speakers also touched on this. Simon Scott (Push Entertainment) talked about the value of rewarding fans to spur on word of mouth. At the “Big Ideas” panel, which Andrew Rhomberg writes about here, Rebecca Smart (Osprey Group) encouraged publishers to focus on lean publishing to get books out faster. That’s because indie authors can upload (ie publish) books instantly, without the long production chain. On the other hand, Jamie Bing from Canongate Books advocated a less-is-more approach; Canongate wants to reduce their number of titles to really focus on giving each book the time and attention it deserves.

But I don’t see these two approaches as being at odds – while Smart is in favor of getting books to market faster, Byng wants to promote them longer and more individually, making sure titles find their readers all the way down the tail. Both aspects are also incredibly important to authors, who want to get their content to readers as fast and smoothly as possible, but also understand that their books need to be continually promoted long after the launch.

Whether indie author or indie press, I think those publishers that “get it” are the ones nurturing those reader relationships, however subtly. I know this as a reader when I find myself rooting for certain authors or independent presses. Although I’m probably in the “fanatical five percent” in those cases, once I’ve shown my support, whether through a Tweet or book purchase, I’m more likely to spread the word about an artist or organization.

In the spirit of Seth Godin, author of Tribes, Selznick says “We thrive in our tribe. We want the people in our tribe to thrive,” which is why writers need to “build a tribe around your creative endeavors”, a community that supports one’s ideas and wants to be involved in the conversation.

This high frequency of communication with one’s readership is hard work, and authors can really benefit from a support network/sounding board when figuring out what’s necessary for each project. These allies can include fellow authors, editors and a publishing team, or an increasing number of start-ups and publishing services providers. In a way, this means that neither indie press nor indie author is ever truly a one-woman operation. As Andrew Laties says, “There’s no such thing as independent… Interdependent. That’s what being a person means. None of us exists without all of us” (Rebel Bookseller, p 140).

In this sense, the convergence has already happened, and now it’s up to individual creators to get (or hire) the expertise their book needs to be published and promoted. Shatzkin calls this the “atomization” of publishing, while Friedman refers to authors active in both traditional and self-publishing as hybrid. Whatever label you give it, though, this is definitely the age of the empowered author, and it will be interesting to see how traditional presses change their value propositions in this new publishing landscape.

Here are links to some of the studies mentioned at CONTEC:

Click to access Global-Ebook-Report2013_final03.pdf