Opportunities in Self-Publishing

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Self-publishing has always suffered from PR problems, but its days as the ugly duckling of the publishing world are numbered. Readers are showing a willingness to buy titles from no-name imprints, and it’s becoming more common to hear about traditionally published authors making the choice to go the self-publishing route.

Publishers have long viewed self-publishing as something to be ignored at best and a threat to their bottom line at worst. A panel at Technology Forum 2013, Self-Publishing and New Opportunities, focused on the ways self publishing can complement traditional publishing, and how publishers must refine their value proposition to better communicate their value to authors.

Rebecca Albani of Bowker set the stage for the discussion (beginning at 2:35 in the video below), presenting statistics that demonstrated the rapidly increasing popularity of self-publishing among US and Canadian authors. She also ran down the slate of services self-publishing firms are now commonly making available to authors, including ebook conversion, POD, copy editing, cover design, metadata services, distribution and marketing.

Traditional publishers have developed different strategies to react to the popularity and growing attractiveness of self-publishing for both new and established authors. Panelists Douglas Gibson of Douglas Gibson Books, Valerie Gray of MIRA Books (Harlequin), and Mark Lefebvre of Writing Life (Kobo), shared some of the lessons their companies have pulled from the successes and limitations of self-publishing.

If It Isn’t Broken, Don’t Break It

The self-publishing boom is a great moment for traditional publishers to reexamine and develop their strengths. Editorial quality, print production logistics, and branding are areas of strength for publishing houses that aren’t necessarily strengths for authors who go it alone. Publishing houses are experienced and well-suited for “handling the business side,” which is something that can take 50% or more of a self-published author’s time, when many would rather be writing.

During his segment (9:20), Douglas Gibson gives publishers some straight talk on what they’re doing right, and points out the key strengths of traditional publishing that truly resonate with modern authors. He suggested that some of the strategies publishers are currently employing to cut costs run counter to the value proposition that authors see in publishers. For example, publishers are reducing the amount of expert editorial support provided to authors. This is a publisher’s core competency and removing it from the equation blurs the line between traditional and self-publishers in the minds of authors.

If what self-publishing authors are seeking right now is control, Gibson argued (19:15) that publishers could increase their value to authors by letting them be more involved in the process and decision-making, whether it be having more say in cover design, release date, or marketing strategy. In the future, he predicts, book marketing will become much more of a collaboration, with the experience and authority of the publisher supporting the personal voice of the author.

Try Out a Hybrid

But self-publishing isn’t something to compete with; it presents new opportunities for traditional publishers, like the hybrid author. Not too long ago, many publishers would habitually pass on self-published works with respectable sales, under the assumption that these titles had probably reached as much of an audience as the title is ever likely to get. But a slew of successful titles that started their lives as self-published works before achieving even wider success through a traditional publisher, have shown this assumption to be a faulty one.

Valerie Gray (23:25) was enthusiastic about the possibilities of hybrid authors. At Harlequin, she signed romance author Bella Andre, who has seen huge success with her self-published ebook titles. Andre is retaining her ebook rights, and Harlequin is putting out print editions of the books. Gray thinks (25:25) that this kind of non-traditional, “hybrid” arrangement will become increasingly common because it’s a win-win situation for authors and publishers: authors retain control of their digital content, while publishers can use their strengths in print production, marketing, and distribution to increase the author’s reach and presence.

This Is a Business After All

Rounding out the panel, Valerie and then Mark Lefebvre (26:38) drew some extra attention to two key themes that we should stay aware of: first, that it is important to remain reader-focused, and second, that each book is a business. As Valerie said, “The consumer is king. And the consumer tells us what they want to read […] and any responsible publisher or self-published author is going to be cognizant of those rules of the marketplace and try to deliver what the consumer wants.” (25:47) Lefebvre points out, that self-publishing is full of opportunities for publishers, but if left ignored it creates a threat—leaving the publishing market open for business-minded self-publishers to take advantage of the needs in the market that traditional publishers aren’t reacting to quickly enough.


The full video of the Tech Forum session below is jam-packed with frank business discussions and useful advice for publishers—and some great insight for authors, too. What comes out throughout the session is a clear view of the unique and valuable services traditional publishers can offer to authors, and the areas they can focus on moving forward to meet the needs of authors and readers.

Click here for the Tech Forum video archive.