Self-Publishing Isn’t The Next Big Thing

But we don’t know what is yet.

Anyone who first enters the world of being an author makes the grandiose statement that “Self-publishing is the future!” Traditional publishing has a lot of obvious problems, such as:

  • Authors receive 10–30% of the revenue from their books, over their lifetime, and that’s it.
  • Publishers retain a massive amount of control, telling authors what to write, how to design their covers, how to structure the book - generally, just what to do and how to do it.
  • Publishers don’t do any marketing or publicizing for authors, unless their books prove to be a big seller. If you self-publish a big seller, you’d be able to afford your own marketing and agents anyways.

Seth Godin has spoken before on the problems with traditional publishing, and self-published The Icarus Deception. Tim Ferriss is a longtime proponent of self-publishing, and recommends treating your book like a startup. Really makes it look like self-publishing is the wave of the future. But despite all this, it’s not.

Self-publishing is never going to become mainstream.

Self-publishing is never going to become mainstream for the same reason self-distributing music or self-directing a tv show is; most artists just don’t want to bother about with being an entrepreneur.

Self-publishing is entrepreneurship; it’s standing up and declaring that you will be starting a business producing and selling your books. You control every aspect, not just the product creation. Most authors don’t want that,

They want to get back to doing what they love, and paying businesspeople to figure out the rest.

But traditional publishing is still broken. Why?

Traditional publishing is a very old industry. It began with the printing press, when authors had to find the money to do large print runs of books, and market their work manually to bookstores in the days where people still used snail mail to send information and make deals.

It was impossible to get connected to bookstores and newspaper editors when communication wasn't instant. The publishers were the connections to these marketing and distribution chains, so that instead of spending years sending snail mail, authors could just contact the publishers.

Additionally, since the startup cost was so large to print hundreds of copies of a book, and then ship them all over the country, the publishers created connections with printing presses and shipment companies. The publisher became the one-stop shop for an author.

This is the marketing publishing companies always did; publishing companies never did anything more than utilize connections to get books in front of bookstores. After that, it’s left up to fate — bookstores may buy the book, and put it in front of readers who may buy it.

That’s why publishers had so much gate keeping — each book was a serious investment into printing and distribution, so each book added to the portfolio needed to be chosen carefully.

It’s no wonder that the publisher got to keep most of the value of books. Authors became employees of the publishers, the creators of products just like tee shirt companies employ graphic designers.


But we’re not in the days of snail mail anymore. Connections to bookstores are a LinkedIn message away, and people are buying books online, not in bookstores anyways. It’s stupidly easy to get your book online, even in print, for 30% of the revenue or less. It’s just as cheap for publishers as it is for you, which means publishers don’t have to keep 70% of the revenue to pay for it.

But they need that 70% for marketing expenses, publicist costs, and sales efforts, right? Not exactly. Publishers do pay for your book signings, tours, and marketing expenses, but only if your book starts selling well in the first place. When you’re a new author, publishers:

  • Put your book in their catalog (give stores a chance to buy it)
  • Take that catalog to trade shows, give that catalog to retailers, and spread that catalog far and wide.

That’s about it. That’s promoting the entire catalog, not your book. Publishers will even take credit for marketing work you did — “How big is your platform?” is a standard question on proposal forms, so they can measure how much marketing work is already done for them.

So it’s easy to get the book distributed (thanks to the Internet), and it’s easy to distribute their catalog (thanks to the Internet). Makes traditional publishing a bit of a rip off.


So what’s the answer here?

Authors don’t want to do it all themselves, but they recognize that traditional publishing is a bit of a rip off. If the industry has no solution for the problem, it calls for an innovation. Like Uber for taxis, everyone says.

Innovation doesn’t just burst into the minds of the geniuses; it comes from hard work. So where are places we could look for innovation?

  1. Other industries that have solved a similar problem. One industry that strikes me as alarmingly similar is the app industry. They have made it incredibly easy for people to list their own apps, so much so that there are hundreds of millions on the market in a few short years. App developers list their apps at will, and then hundreds (if not thousands) of agencies exist surrounding the space to help these app developers with production, marketing, whatever their needs are.

This mirrors the book world; Amazon, Barnes & Noble and others serve as distributors, and people list their books to those distributors at will. What’s lacking is the surrounding agencies and companies dedicated to taking care of marketing for the author. Plenty of self-publishing distribution companies exist, but none that does the marketing for the author.

This model has already been set up for authors for a couple years, though, and they have not taken advantage of it. It doesn’t seem to be the solution to the industry problem.

The thing the customer seems to be pursuing, most of all, is peace of mind. If anyone has an idea of what would bring customers that, I’d love to talk about it.

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