Who Needs a Publisher? Exploring Self-Publishing From Content Creation to Distribution

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May 02, 2012

May 2012 Issue

Self-Publishing vs. PoD

While the term self-publishing is generally used to refer to individuals who make their content available without the assistance of a traditional publisher, there is a finer distinction to be made that is extremely important, says Kuritz.

"People mistake self-publishing with print-on-demand [PoD] all of the time, and they mistake vanity publishing with self-publishing all of the time," he says. "Self-publishing is probably one of the most over-used terms in the publishing industry."

What self-publishing really involves, says Kuritz, is going out to start an imprint just as publishers such as Knopf and Random House, Inc. have done. Wanna-be publishers can then use that imprint to publish only their own books, their own books and others' books, or only others' books. The key distinction is that self-publishing allows for the use of traditional distribution methods in the same manner that traditional publishers use these methods. In other words, it allows the self-publisher to get its products into bookstores.

"It means that if someone orders through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or what have you, [those distributors] will ship that book," says Kuritz. Those that opt, instead, for a PoD model may miss out on these distribution channels.

The same distinction, based on distribution, is applicable and important in the e-world, he says. "The first question that should be asked when looking for a service provider is, ‘Are they able to convert to all three major formats?'"

Kuritz says the second question that should be asked is, "Where will the ebook be distributed?" He adds, "If I go to Barnes & Noble and use their free service, my book is only available in Barnes & Noble format on the Barnes & Noble website, as opposed to if I go and have my book properly e-converted in the three major formats and have it properly distributed, which means it's going out to e-wholesalers and e-retailers at every major outlet throughout cyberspace. And there are literally hundreds of them."

The proliferation of new models for distributing content beyond the traditional definition of "book" holds both benefits and potential drawbacks for content creators.

Benefits: For Authors and Readers

An obvious benefit for those who have content they would like to distribute but who have been unable to convince the traditional gatekeepers of the value of that content is the ability to do it themselves. There are additional benefits as well.

Speed to market, for instance, is not such a big deal for authors of fiction, but speed to market can be a big deal to authors of knowledge-based content, notes Bloom.

"Speed is a clear advantage," agrees Winick. "If you go to a big publishing house today, from time of deal to bookshelf is about 18 months. With self-publishing, if the book is written it's 2 to 3 months; if not written, 4 to 6." That benefit is one that is not being overlooked by the traditional publishers who are also increasingly exploring electronic publishing options.

Gina Panettieri is president and executive editor of Talcott Notch Literary Services in Milford, Conn. "I'm a literary agent representing scores of writers in both fiction and nonfiction and have worked in this industry for more than 20 years," says Panettieri. "Major publishers are learning to play the game and establish revenue to support themselves with this," she says. In addition, she notes, the ability to produce books through both traditional print and new online means allow publishers the option to test the water with unknown authors.

Self-publishing and epublishing models also allow for the availability of much more targeted, niche-related content, notes Bloom. "There is no need to have mass-market appeal because there is no upfront cost involved." It's the long tail of publishing and akin to what we see in the indie music and movie industries.
With traditional publishing, says Panettieri, "The book has to appeal to a large enough market sector; it can't be so esoteric that only 15 people are going to buy it."

John Conley is Xerox Corp.'s vice president of publishing. "We are not a content provider," he says. "We're a final form enabler and, in the EBM [Espresso Book Machine] space, we're actually a channel. We create the opportunity to create content." From that perspective, he says, "We see a lot of self-publishing." And the types of production he sees includes things such as family histories, personal cookbooks, and anthologies of poetry. "There's a great deal of poetry that comes out because there's just not a market for it as a whole anymore. But, on a small, regional basis, they can do it."

Bright agrees. "It's a means to transfer knowledge that wouldn't necessarily have been transferred without self-publishing," he says. For example, he says, suppose someone in a small village in another country knows how to farm a certain type of crop. "That knowledge has generally been passed by word-of-mouth, generation by generation," he says. "Now they have the ability to self-publish a book, no matter how big or how small, and that knowledge will be there for all generations to take advantage of."

Authors who already have an established name and a base of followers may not need traditional publishers to find their audiences, says Panettieri. Seth Godin is a good example of this. In 2010, Godin announced that he was going the self-publishing route after several successes through traditional publishers. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Godin said that he has so many of his own relationships with customers that he doesn't need a traditional publisher. When authors such as Seth Godin turn to self-publishing, they get to keep a bigger share of the profits.

The prospect of making money without being required to "share" with a publisher can be appealing. "From a P&L standpoint, if you believe your book is going to be a success, then you should self-publish because from a profit perspective, you're going to keep the lion's share of the profit," says Winick. And some have found that there is money to be made (see the sidebar, A Self-Publisher Achieves Success).

Despite the benefits, of course, there are also drawbacks for both authors and, importantly, content consumers.

Issues: For Authors and Readers

Sheer information overload and legitimate concerns about quality top the list of issues for both authors and readers of self-published content.
In some respects consumers can certainly benefit from a self-creation and publishing model that allows more information than ever before to be made available. On the other hand, the sheer volume of that information can present some challenges.

"One of the great things about having all of these different publishing methods is that there will be more products on the market," says Kuritz. "But, that's a double-edged sword because there's also a lot of junk in the marketplace."

Again, Kuritz makes the distinction between true self-publishing and PoD. Self-publishing, he stresses, like traditional publishing, involves a vetting process that PoD does not. With traditional publishing, that vetting process involves an agent, the publisher, and the publisher's sales reps. With self-publishing, he says, "You have to get the book vetted and picked up by a distributor, and that distributor has a sales force that sells to retail outlets both online and bricks and mortar."

There is an important role for publishers to play in the vetting process, says Panettieri. "I think that readers are still very much looking for the brand or seal of approval from a traditional publisher," she says.

Bloom, though, believes that this issue will be addressed through alternative means. "We are strong believers that the next wave of book technology is going to be around discoverability," says Bloom. That discoverability may rely on the credibility that publishers bring to a project-or the credibility of the author. "I don't have to convince you that the author has written a great book. I have to convince you that the author is an expert in their field. These authors bring their audiences with them."

Ultimately, it's that audience that matters. Because regardless of the method used to create content, it is the distribution of that content that represents the Holy Grail for both publishers and authors.

The Future of Do-It-Yourself Publishing

While he is highly supportive of the many new options available to content creators to get information out to their audiences, Bloom notes that a decided downside is that "there are a ton of charlatans out there." Those charlatans, he says, generally neglect a very important piece of the publishing process: distribution. "You can apply that litmus test to every proposed method of publishing to see if it's actually going to be as legitimate method," he says.

Self-publishing is not the same as print-on-demand he cautions. "With print-on-demand there is not complete traditional distribution; there is only dot-com, or online, distribution," he says. "There is no availability in any of the retail outlets, no warehouse, and a limited role of distributors. PoDs are not accepted into bookstores for a multitude of reasons." Although it can be a great business model for some people, he says, it is an expensive model.

Confusing? Yes. And the confusion is likely to continue as publishers, authors, and other providers of content continue to explore new methods for getting their information in front of their markets.

"This is the beginning of a terrific journey, but no one has the answer yet," says Conley.

Bloom agrees. "I think it's safe to say that the entire publishing industry is in a time of great upheaval. I would love to tell you I had a crystal ball and knew exactly where everything would end up, but it's safe to say that self-publishing and publishing through e-readers and econtent is going to continue to be the direction that the publishing industry moves."

And, he adds, "This is a fun time to be in the publishing space."


Information Strategies, Inc.
Lulu Enterprises, Inc.
Talcott Notch Literary Services
Thought Leadership Leverage
Xerox Espresso Book Machine

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