Something has happened to self-publishing over the past few years. No longer the last resort for local historians and wannabe poets, it is now a sign of entrepreneurial spirit, an alternative to the limitations of attention-starved journalism, and a way of kicking against the pricks of mainstream publishing. Self-published books have almost tripled in number over the last five years, with a number of authors making the bestseller lists. More than one in ten ebooks bought by UK readers is now self-published.
This year I finally joined that group, as I made a long-planned move away from writing for traditional publishers towards publishing my own ebooks. In fact, I published three. So what’s the appeal?
Firstly, self-publishing allowed me to write for markets which would be too small to justify traditional print publishing. Scraping for Journalists, for example, is a niche subject which would only be of interest to a few dozen people (or so I thought – it’s actually sold over 300 copies)
Secondly, it allowed me to write to lengths which would normally fall into what writer Fred Strebeigh calls “the 4,000 to 40,000 word problem.” My first ebook - 8,000 Holes: How the 2012 Olympic Torch Relay Lost Its Way - was essentially a piece of longform journalism that came in at around 8,000 words – too long for a magazine article but too short for traditional publishers. And my third ebook - Model for the 21st Century Newsroom: Redux - is essentially a 10,000 word report.
But perhaps most importantly, ebook publishing is quick and interactive. Being able to publish a book about an investigation into the allocation of Olympic torch relay places while the relay was still taking place was an incredible idea to me as a journalist. Adding a new chapter every week to Scraping for Journalists is a great way to pace the learning process within – and incorporate reader feedback. I chose the ebook publishing platform Leanpub precisely because it allowed for this publishing in installments, but other platforms offer other advantages: Volpen is a collaborative writing platform which allows for shared royalties; Unbound helps you crowdfund. And BookBaby and Ganxy offer additional services such as promotion, cover design and analytics.
Then there are the ebook publishers which are offering something slightly different to the traditional edit-market-and-distribute proposition. Hyperink offers a sort of validation (they don’t let anyone publish), as do longform journalism publishers Byliner and Mampoer. 40k and Red Lemonade offer access to their online community.
Traditional publishers still have something to offer – and I would work with them again. But they will need to re-evaluate their strengths.
A good, active editor is their biggest asset – especially with collaborations or for a market they know better than you. Being able to market and distribute effectively is important too – but that means having plans beyond mailshots and inspection copies.
And of course the publisher should have a clear ebook and website strategy themselves.
But for specialist books or those aimed at a niche market, ebook publishing is a serious option. More timely, more direct, and often more profitable: ignore them at your peril.
UPDATE: One commenter asks where I see the peer-review process fitting into this. Here’s my response:
It depends on the subject matter. If the subject is well established, for example, I’d say that’s one of the factors in using a traditional publisher with a network of reviewers who can cast a helpful eye over it. In new areas, however, publishers can be out of their comfort zone, and either choose a reviewer who knows too little about the field, or ask the author for suggestions for reviewers (in which case the author may as well have approached them directly anyway).
Also, when you no longer have print production to consider, the peer review process does not have to take place before first publication, but can take place after and during. Print’s permanence is both an advantage and disadvantage: it compels you to try to get it as ‘right’ as you can; but it also sets mistakes and omissions in stone, while some elements may become out of date and irrelevant. Online’s editability means you can update the content in response to peer review after publication, and in keeping it updated and relevant.