Self-Publishing, Publishing, Technology, and Reader Habits

by | Jul 25, 2012 | Behind the Scenes

I’ve always been interested in self-publishing—I even self-published my MFA thesis, Say Poem ($4), a couple years ago. But recently I’ve become even more invested, as I’ve started consulting on it. I have complicated feelings about the work, which I’m still puzzling out even as I enjoy it. Things are moving beyond me, though. Self-publishing has become a huge business, constantly growing. Last week, Penguin bought Author Solutions, which is a self-publishing company. I think this marks an important shift in what publishing means, and what books are.

This deal is a revolution on the scale of the Gutenberg press. Interestingly the development of mass printing technologies made publishers necessary in the first place. In those olden days, printers were craftsmen who made Bibles and books that they knew would sell, but they were reluctant to risk the expense on untested manuscripts. So publishers intervened, filtering for quality and structuring the business. Fast forward 500 years and Amazon is nudging out publishers while POD technology removes all the risk that made them necessary in the first place. The Penguin/AS merger just illustrates that the mainstream is figuring out how to flow into the smaller creeks.

Which I’m supportive of. This growth means good things.

As mainstream publishers continue to pare down their literary catalogs, moving instead toward sure-things like how-tos and massive bestsellers, readers are opening up to “fringe” outlets like small presses and self-published books. Small presses and self-publishers still have a few miles to travel before they are able to fully stand in that gap, but mergers like this will help cover the ground. And the world is getting ready for the change. It’s not uncommon to see reviews for literary journals and articles about indie books in The New York Times, The Guardian, and the like. NYLON has a nice small press news section every month.

The July issue of Poets & Writers has a feature on Folio, a literary agency, which now has an agent who specializes in self-publishing. I don’t know what that means, what value they can add for a self-published writer, but it too signifies a change in the way Doing It Yourself is perceived.

(My work as a publishing consultant is primarily the same work that I do for PGP books; sometimes it’s editing a manuscript comprehensively, or doing the layout, managing the printing, gathering reviews, even mailing books—it’s work that I’ve come to understand over the past six years. I also understand that a writer can do this work herself, which is part of the point of self-publishing, but she might have to learn how, might have to understand trends, purchase software, devote hours and effort. The intricacies of publishing a book can be as simple or as complicated as you want to imagine.)

Along with these back office developments, there are constant user implications as well. I’m interested in this eBook store,, which seems to have all the bases covered for selling eBooks. And here is the craziest, smartest development I’ve seen yet (via MHP)—something called Paperight, a system which allows copy shops anywhere to print out books directly for customers. Obviously this lets go of certain printing considerations, but it’s not hard to imagine a number of advantages to, er, offset that (getting a rare book quickly, say). Here’s an entertaining video introducing the concept, which was developed in South Africa (thus the accent).