Self-published books gaining global success

Loren Smith

Fifty Shades of Grey

E. L. James’ hugely successful Fifty Shades of Grey novels were initially self-published as fan fiction.

E.L. James

EL James

“There’s never been a better time to do it,” says Andy McDermott, Director of Publicious, a self-publishing service provider. Self-publishing is indeed flourishing. A July 2014 report by Author Earnings indicated that 13 per cent of books on the Amazon e-book bestseller list were self-published, with self-published books comprising 31 per cent of all Amazon e-book sales.

“Because of the internet and the online stores, authors can distribute their books worldwide, quite inexpensively and quite easily,” Mr McDermott says.

The self-publishing tsunami is occurring at a time when the profits of traditional publishing houses are dwindling exponentially as they struggle to compete with cheaper online publishers. Penguin and Random House trimmed expenses with a 2013 merger in an attempt to rival online bookselling giants such as Amazon.

Authors were the key casualties of traditional publishers’ cost cutting measures. The first service slashed was marketing support. Another was in the area of content and structural editing.

According to David Vinjamuri, writing in Forbes, this forced contracted authors to essentially go it alone on marketing, but without the corresponding rewards of independence. Mr McDermott puts it in a nutshell, “Whether self-published or traditionally published, you’re the one promoting your book.”

So what are the benefits of publishing independently compared with traditional publishing? There is control over content and preservation of rights. By contrast, if a writer takes the traditional publication route, he or she may have to renounce such privileges.

Print on demand has revolutionised the self-publishing industry. “In the past, self-publishing in Australia was always more difficult because the author had to print a lot of books for the price to come down but now some of our authors are just selling 24/7 and that’s how it should be,” Mr McDermott says.

Another innovative monetary factor is the ability of writers to set prices lower to encourage sales. Self-publishing royalties, too, are vastly more favourable when compared to those of traditional publishers. On average, royalties can be set at 70 per cent, compared to 15 per cent with traditional publishers.

Aside from this, Andy McDermott says, “In reality, there’s not many authors who are going to get published traditionally nowadays. Publishers are looking for authors who are full-time writers.”

If self-publishing sounds too good to be true, it is, to some extent. Self-publishing still carries a stigma which, in Mr McDermott’s view, is due to an abundance of low quality self-published books on the market. It also does not help that when major news publications review literature, they routinely favour traditionally published books.

However, the fact that some major newspapers seem to shun self-published work hasn’t proven to be all that financially harmful to the self-published. A 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest survey of more than 9,000 authors revealed that 5 to 10 per cent of hybrid, that is, both self and traditionally published authors earn over $100,000 annually, compared to only two per cent of traditionally published authors. However, these facts refer only to the apex of authorial success.

“I think it’s really important for authors to realise, right off the bat, that most books don’t sell very well. It doesn’t matter if your book is self-published or if your book is traditionally published”, says Jim Azevedo, Marketing Director of Smashwords, a US-based self-published e-book distribution company.

Nevertheless, some of the most esteemed and successful authors in history are self-published. Works by Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Marcel Proust were self-published. More recently, bestselling authors like Stephen King have chosen to self-publish, despite offers from traditional publishers.

Who are today’s successful self-publishers, other than the esteemed Mr King? Experts often view the question through a gendered lens, buoyed by the notion that 65 per cent of those who self-publish are women, according to a 2013 study entitled ‘Who are the self-publishers?’

Jim Azevedo explains, “A lot of the self-publishing boom started with romance writers, who are mostly female. A lot of these authors weren’t getting the respect from traditional publishers 5 or 10 years ago, in the very early days of self-publishing.”

But self-publishing is not necessarily female-biased. Andy McDermott says self-published business, cookery and self-help books tend to sell particularly well. These genres are not gender-specific.

So, whether female or male, romance or recipe writer, self-publishing is not only viable, it is, in many ways, preferable to the traditional alternative.

“There’s never ever ever been a better time for authors to reach readers,” Jim Azevedo says. From an Australian perspective, Andy McDermott thinks more writers should jump on the self-publishing bandwagon. “I think Australia is still a little bit behind but it’s happening, it’s slowly happening.”