Self-publishing is growing at time-warp speed—422 percent since 2007, according to Bowker. This past year, Kirkus Indie reviewed more than 3,600 books. Instead of going solo, self-pubbed writers are becoming micropublishing houses and hiring a team to edit, copy edit and design their books. Businesses are developing and expanding to fill indie authors’ needs.
The production values of indies have gotten better. Glossy, full-color art books are becoming more common, including Jean-Pierre Weill’s unusual, beautifully illustrated The Well of Being, based on the philosophy of an 18th-century Italian Jewish mystic. Excellent sci-fi titles were always part of the self-pubbed world, but now we’re seeing more literary titles, some of which are making their ways to the traditionally published side, like Sergio de la Pava’s A Naked Singularity. There’s no shortage of well-done noir. Kirkus Reviews called the Hollywood Murder Mysteries series by Peter S. Fischer, the co-creator of Murder, She Wrote, addicting and thrilling.
Many independent booksellers responded early to the rise in self-publishing and have been watching and participating in its ascendance. “One of the changes that I’ve seen is a move toward ‘indie-publishing’ rather than ‘self-publishing,’ ” says General Manager Paul Hanson of Village Books in Bellingham, Wash. “The distinction is that in self-publishing, authors try to do much of the work themselves. Indie publishers know when to hire professionals to help them do the work that the authors can’t (or shouldn’t) do themselves.”
As quality has improved, some writers are finally grabbing the attention of mainstream publications. “Local media is becoming more interested in writing about self-published local authors than before,” according to Casey Coonerty Protti, the owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz, Calif. “That means that self-published authors are getting more traction than ever before.” The local news coverage benefits both authors and the bookstores stocking their works.
Not every bookstore is on board, however. Often, indie booksellers encounter self-pubbed writers who don’t understand that shelf space is at a premium. Hut Landon, the executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, says, “The bookstores that have established programs for self-published authors (Bookshop Santa Cruz is a good example) seem to manage it well. For others, it’s hit or miss. Authors often don’t understand why booksellers won’t carry their book…their understanding of how a bookstore makes business decisions can be lacking.”
In Colorado, the Boulder Book Store has an established consignment program and works well with their local authors. “We treat the author like a publisher and allow them the same access that the publishing houses have,” says Liesl Freudenstein, a buyer and consignment coordinator at the store. “I think that the authors/publishers appreciate this and realize that they also must behave professionally.”
In fact, Bookshop Santa Cruz modeled their consignment program on Boulder Book Store’s, and it has become a profit center in just a year and a half. They sell tiered promotional packages and other services, including graphic design, layout and cover design, e-book conversion and social media marketing support. “Now we can offer services from the writing of the book all the way through supporting it in the marketplace,” says Coonerty Protti. Village Books’ manager Paul Hanson credits the store’s success with their personal service and a buffet of options for authors.
If an author does get her book on the shelves of a local bookstore, there’s still the hurdle of distribution if the book is to have any legs. “It’s the issue that I deal with the most when self-pubbed authors call our office,” says NCIBA’s Landon.
To simplify the issue of distribution for both print and e-books, Ingram Content Group launched IngramSpark this past July. “For print titles, a publisher uploads PDF files and for e-books, an EPUB file,” explains Robin Cutler, IngramSpark Manager. “When titles are validated and in the IngramSpark system, books are available for order from more than 39,000 retailers.”
Indie bookstores can help with distribution too. Village Books produces perfect-bound books for authors’ books in-house—short runs or hundreds at a time—for local distribution, and they can assist their authors with national distribution for e-books and print books via Kobo and other distributors.
Other corners of the industry are also responding to a maturing indie market. Agent Rita Rosencranz, who’s sold 14 self-pubbed books to publishing houses, says that “more agents and publishers are trawling self-publishing sites to recruit successful authors….I think the wall between traditional and self-publishing will be even more permeable, with even more established authors going it alone for pet projects that their publishers aren’t interested in acquiring.”
Author Neal Pollack’s experience certainly speaks to that permeability. He went from traditional to self- to (sort of) traditional publishing. “My last published fiction with a big house had been a commercial disappointment, so it was obvious that I wasn’t going to get an advance or a contract,” he says. “But I believed in myself as a fiction writer even if no one else did.”
So, Pollack self-pubbed Jewball, a novel about a 1930s New York Jewish basketball team, and sold 500 copies. “It didn’t exactly catch fire,” he says. The novel seemed to be at a dead end. He contacted Amazon Publishing, which republished it with no advance but with a full royalty structure. Amazon Publishing also re-edited, redesigned and rereleased the book, which sold more than 10,000 copies in the U.S. He’s currently under contract with Amazon to write a sequel.
Pollack recommends self-publishing: “I wouldn’t do it without an editor, though. If you self-publish, you need to do it professionally, with pride. Don’t half-ass it.” But he underscores the perennial problem of discoverability. Without Amazon’s marketing muscle, he would “just be another noodle in the content soup,” he says. “But I wouldn’t discourage anyone from trying. It’s a legitimate way to break in, and I fully credit self-publishing with revitalizing my dead fiction-writing career.”
The collective effect of self-publishing could bolster more than individual writers’ careers. With all of those self-pubbed authors sitting down to complete a noir novel, literary memoir, World War II history or YA intergalactic paranormal adventure, they’re making an impressive commitment to the discipline of writing. They’re developing characters, fine-tuning their plots and prose, and researching their subjects, which can only lead to more book buying and a stronger community of arts and letters.
Karen Schechner is the senior indie editor at Kirkus Reviews.