In early February 2013 Alison Baverstock, publishing guru and author of several books on the trade, spoke at an event put on by the PublishED society at Edinburgh University. The key topics of her talk were the often unexpected opportunities that self-publishing holds not only for authors but also for the publishing business, creating job prospects that go beyond the traditional self-understanding of the industry.
Researching the field of self-publishing for the last four years at Kingston University, Baverstock wrote a book about her findings in 2011, titled The Naked Author: A Guide to Self-Publishing (Bloomsbury). Here, she looks not only at the ‘how-to’, the process and the steps that one needs to take to successfully bring a book to the market without the professional backing of a publishing house, but foremost addresses the ‘why’, the reasons behind the decision to take this path instead of a more conventional one. The universe of self-publishing does not, as often assumed, consist of only rejected works that passionate authors want to see realised even if every single publisher said “No”, but range from personal memories that were only ever intended to be read by a limited audience to works put out there to test if a market exists for a particular niche genre. In previous years, (originally) self-published ‘bestsellers’ have shown us again and again that the industry often misjudges what people want to read, or is rather slow to react to trends, opening that window of opportunity to individuals who go ahead without their support (the fantasy genre and soft porn à la Fifty Shades being prime examples). Another factor is that validation and satisfaction rates are immensely high with self-published works (a lot higher than with the ones published in a traditional manner), prompting publishing houses to reconsider their relationship with their authors. Indeed, cultural capital is created here, as the process allows for a greater number of authors to reach out to their readers, consequently influencing their reading behaviour and the perceived value of the book.
The changes that the roles of both author and publisher have undergone in recent years lie at the basis of Baverstock’s research. While the reliance of authors on their publisher and on traditional retail outlets has diminished significantly (epitomised in the rise of sophisticated self-publishing mechanisms, social media campaigning, and effective distribution channels) the author is expected to take up an increasingly central position within the marketing strategy. This development naturally questions the role that people fulfil at each step of the process, and the value they add to the final product. But, and here Baverstock is very persistent, the result of this disintermediation is not the oftentimes loudly proclaimed death of traditional publishing, it rather spreads out and opens up the industry. Opportunities arise for freelance editors and out-of-house marketing managers to provide their services to authors that do not wish to work with a publishing house. Indeed, many self-publishing authors already seek help from professionals in the departments they feel less confident about. Furthermore, new companies emerge that strive to monetise the business of self-publishing. For the Society of Editors and Proofreaders, for example, this is great news as increasing demand and competition create a vibrant commercial climate around those professions.
After all, however, many authors have also come to realise that publishers, if their work is done effectively (and “effective publishing is only noticeable when absent”, stresses Baverstock), actually do add great value to their content. It can be dangerous if authors get too hooked on the technical aspects of the process and lose sight of their content, since this should remain to be the focus of their commitment. While it is laudable to take personal responsibility of ‘your book’ at all times, the writer’s core task will remain to be writing, to produce great content; packaging and promotion are only secondary tasks (although obviously still crucial). This prompts many authors, who venture into the brave new world of self-publishing to rid themselves of the industry’s shackles, to re-consider the quality of the work a committed publisher brings to a project.
Self-publishing is still often regarded to be literature of a lesser quality, but I believe that much of this image stems from those fearing its impact on the traditional publishing world. In her talk Baverstock has highlighted the various opportunities that arise not only for authors but also for those working or striving to work in a publishing profession. We will see what the future brings, but Baverstock is sure: “Self-publishing is here to stay!”