What's the Same about Self-Publishing and Blogging?

by | Sep 26, 2011

In some ways we’re at the confluence of two of the biggest changes in the media landscape of the written word: self-publishing and blogging.

Self-Publishing, an American Tradition

Publishing a book without intermediaries has a long and erratic tradition in the United States. Examples of early self-publishers are largely irrelevant, since the modern notion of self-publishing depends on the opposition of this type of book publishing to traditional publishing. In the dominant form of publishing, publishers acquire rights to literary properties, improve and complete the transition of the property from a manuscript to a book, from raw materials to a consumer product.

They then advertise, market, promote and sell the products of their efforts, while paying the creator of the original manuscript a rather small percentage of their revenue as a royalty. The creator is an equity partner in the enterprise of the book, but a decidedly junior partner. The author is at the mercy of the contract she has signed, the scruples of the publisher she has signed with, and the vagaries of the marketplace, about which she may know nothing, since the entire structure and mechanism of publishing keeps writers isolated from both their readers and the ways that publishers actually work.

In opposition to this, or sometimes parallel to the track of traditional publishing but largely unknown to it, there have always been authors who, for whatever reason, did not participate in this whole mechanism. Perhaps they objected to the publishers acting as gatekeepers who only allow a certain few writers into the world of published authors. If you didn’t have what the publisher or his agents wanted, you didn’t get published.

Some authors chose vanity publishers, companies that are not truly publishers at all, but who sell services and books to their own authors, who are, in reality, their true customers.

But many other writers set up publishing companies of their own, and became true self-publishers. They obtained ISBNs from Bowker, listed themselves in various directories, established discount schedules and distribution plans and acted in every way just like traditional publishers, but only published the works of one author—themselves.

And Some Personal History

When I decided to self-publish in the 1980s, it was still a time when self-publishers were looked on as third-class citizens, not truly members of the publishing industry. Consequently, like many other self-publishers, I made lots of ­efforts to appear to be an actual small independent publisher. Various family members were listed as officers in the company, and correspondence was sent out over the signature of someone who was not the author of the only book on our list. We used a post office box at the Grand Central Postal Station on Lexington Avenue in New York for our mailing address. Even the name of the press was generic­—Globe Press Books—and designed to evoke associations of other, better known publishing houses.

I followed the advice and gained from the encouragement of Dan Poynter, whose Self-Publishing Manual became my bible. My books were typeset by real typesetters I knew in New York, and printed by real book printers. And while there were always self-publishers who were successful, who took a businesslike approach to publishing, it remained a sideline, and an unloved stepchild of the publishing indsutry.

So What Changed?

Today the picture is radically different in some ways, maddeningly the same in others. But over all, the entire world of self-publishing has been yanked out of the shadow of the conglomerate publishers by technological innovation.
First, print on demand, using digital printing, revolutionized book printing and distribution by eliminating the need to print—and pay for—thousands of books just to gain entree to the publishing world.

By eliminating the risk associated with an investment of $10,000 or more, print on demand allowed the tens of thousands of people who had always dreamed of publishing a book to do so at almost no upfront cost.

Companies have sprung up to take advantage of the ease of publishing with this technology, and sometimes to take advantage of the authors who rushed to fulfill their dreams. We now have another category of companies, subsidy publishers, to account for this development. Sometimes erroneously referred to as “self-publishing companies,” these firms occupy a position somewhere between vanity publishers and book printers, who don’t claim to be publishers at all, even though they may offer services similar to the functions once found only inside a traditional publishing company.

Blogging, Another Form of Self-Publishing

The other technological innovation that has changed publishing is the widespread adoption of the internet. When we finally gained the ability to create a two-way interaction with this powerful new media, the social network was born.

The first social media was blogging, a form of posting articles to websites that’s easy enough even for writers to do it. But what made blogging social was the function built into blogging software that allowed readers to take part in the conversation, to interact directly with the writer by commenting on the articles she was writing.

The interactive nature of blogging, and then of other social media innovations, is changing many aspects of our life. But blogging itself has continued to grow and adapt to widely different contexts and means of delivering information, entertainment and opinion to interested readers. And while blogs have grown to include audio and video, they are still predominantly text.

Two results of the continuing rise of blogging as a media activity of importance in our culture have been reinforcing the primacy of text and reading to the online experience, and reinforcing the importance of writers as influencers. Text dominates the web, and writers produce that text. The writing that makes a difference in people’s lives, that causes mass movements, or that sells huge numbers of products are from the keyboards of copywriters, journalists, bloggers, enthusiasts, and passionate followers of a cause.

Things Come Together

When I started blogging in late 2009 there was already a rich landscape of publishing blogs, book blogs, review blogs and, of course, technology blogs without end.

But there was little that I could find that talked about self-publishing as a part of the long tradition of bookmaking, about the design of books as an intrinsic part of how books are positioned, marketed and sold. And a lack of many of the basic book-building skills that self-publishers need to create professional-level books.

So TheBookDesigner.com was born. I tried to find the subjects that would be of the most interest to potential readers who were interested in this whole new world of personal, do-it-yourself book making. And people responded. Articles about typography, about type design, book layout, copyright, about the minutia of publishing like how to decipher bar codes, they all found readers.

It’s rewarding when you’ve spent most of your life pursuing a field that’s unknown to the average person to all of a sudden wake up to a whole world of readers who want to know those arcane bits of knowledge and who are eager to read your next article. As a writer, it’s damned rewarding. Instead of boring family and friends with nuances of type design, I could talk to people who were actually interested.

As I’ve continued to blog and to interact with the lively and educated community that takes part in conversations on my blog, I’ve learned a lot. Now the talk is all about e-books, the technology that will cause the next big shift in book ­publishing.

Throughout the time I’ve been blogging, it has become apparent to me how much blogging has in common with self-publishing, and the happy confluence of these two ideas in my own life.

They really are very similar, don’t you think? Blogging is, in fact, a subset of self-publishing as far as I’m concerned. Like a bridge between the printed books of the past and the electronic books of the future, blogging puts the power of the media in the hands of an individual, so that a guy sitting in his spare bedroom in San Rafael, California, can write an article on any subject that interests him and have it read by people all over the world within hours. And then enter into an ongoing conversation with those readers about the ideas and practices contained in that article.

This scenario presents me with most of the results I hoped to get from self-publishing all those years ago, and in a more immediate and interactive way. Truly, it is a golden age for self-publishing of every kind.

Unlike self-publishing, in which we intentionally create a manuscript for a book, taking care to make it consistent, readable and cohesive, blogs are made up of bits and pieces of ideas, often written in the context of a particular moment in time.

There are, today, 667 articles on this blog. Some are instructional, some newsy. Some seek to warn you of mistakes that are easy to avoid if you only know about them, and to encourage you to use these tools to pursue the publication of your ideas, your history, your dreams, and your personal story.

I am a self-publishing advocate.

The fact that many self-published books are unreadable, dreadful to look at, or otherwise flawed, means nothing to me. I applaud them all. Each book represents a writer reaching out to share something of herself with the wider world. Each has a readership, no matter how small. And for every hundred dreadful books, there will be gems, transformative reading experiences, practical knowledge you can’t find anywhere else, or life changing memoirs that amaze us.

So my message to you is: go out and publish, make your voice heard, spread your word in the world. It’s all good.

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form as the Introduction to A Self-Publisher’s Companion. The rest of the book is just as good. You can find out more on the page for A Self-Publisher’s Companion. Photo by e3000.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit

22 Comments

  1. Eli Strange

    This is a great overview, and very informative. Thanks very much.

    Reply
  2. bowerbird

    joel said:
    > while blogs have grown to include audio and video,
    > they are still predominantly text.

    i believe that statement is a bit ironic, considering that
    you obviously spend some time and energy in selecting
    a graphic for each of your blog entries, as evidenced by
    the quality of the value-add which it typically exerts…

    i daresay that many blogs would fail to be so interesting
    were it not for the _color_photos_ which they often use,
    which can be important in capturing reader attention…

    one of the best things about e-books is that _color_ is
    not a thing that’s burdensome in cost and complexity.

    -bowerbird

    Reply
  3. Matt Syverson

    Joel, your blog to me is like an online magazine with a daily article. So many blogs focus on the mundane inanities of the blogger’s daily life. I thank you for the information you convey in the most professional way. It has been vital to me as I attempt to become a better self-publisher. Another point – you could be hired to do many of the things you teach others to do, which is very altruistic. I appreciate that!

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks, Matt. I feel I can help many more people through education and training than I can by producing their books because, after all, there is only so much time!

      Reply
  4. Joan Chamberlain

    Joel, First, I don’t comment very often but I want you to know that I’ve followed you daily for almost two years and it’s because of your encouragement (and a little more writing time) that I now have a WordPress site up and am blogging (I promised any readers I have) once a week on Tuesdays. I figure I’ll see if I can post more soon.

    About your post today, my past path is almost identical to yours. I followed Poynter’s book just as you did, bought my set of 10 ISBNs from Bowkers and then, unlike you, did nothing to market. I had a too-healthy practice as an individual/marriage therapist to write anything more. About a year ago my granddaughter, whom I’ve raised since birth, turned 16, I cut back my practice and now I think I’m on a roll. The roll is so new, though, I want to test it before I say any more.

    I particularly liked your post today because it gives a little history and brings us up to date with today: blogging and putting out more information, no matter what form it takes. I really like your inference that publishing will continue to evolve: change in publishing (as in life) is inevitable. So, the best thing and the most exciting thing is to roll with it. Yippee!!

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Thank you, Joan. You obviously have a lot to offer and your readers will be grateful you now have more time to devote to publishing. If you run into any rough spots, leave a question on the blog and I’ll try to help. I deeply appreciate your readership here as we explore all these changes together.

      Reply
  5. Judith Briles

    As a huge advocate of the independent publishing route … I love the idea of the blog as a daily (or weekly .. or monthly) magazine article… actually, they’ve morphed quite a bit over the year–reminds of my 10 years as a columnist for the Business Journals. Let’s encourage … actually, I demand it, that out self-publishers embrace the art of editing…get help and eyes here. My concern is that with the massive e-volution, the pollution factor is too huge to ignore.

    I just came from a 4 day conference. The mini-book, less than that 100 pages–mostly double spaced, loosely layed out looked fairly pathetic. The vanity press of today. Participants were encourage to combined all their blogs, their articles and create “the book.” They were being touted as “business cards”–my response to several of the “proud” owners of 2000 each was: if this is your business card, don’t you want it to look and read its best?

    Blogs, and articles, are a fabulous starting point. All books have beginnings–and middles–and ends … just as a great blog does.

    Reply
  6. Andrea Bandle

    Interesting article. I appreciate the historical references and your struggles to remain independent when it was not a popular choice. It’s always inspiring to see the journey of an entrepreneur.

    Regarding blogging, I think depending on the style and genre, I consider many blogs to take on another publishing tradition: the newspaper and magazine. Many blogs remind me of the standard Opinion Section, with the comments making up the Letters to the Editor. Blogs can also be the new advice columns. Remember Dear Abby?

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Andrea, I think you are right, and over the two years I’ve been blogging I frequently think of the blog as a kind of one-article-per-day magazine, and it also bears a strong resemblance to the op-ed page of a newspaper.

      Reply
  7. Robert Francis

    Joel,

    It was interesting to hear about your experiences in the 80s, and your point that “like many other self-publishers, I made lots of ­efforts to appear to be an actual small independent publisher”.

    I assumed that this only began to happen more recently, and mainly with the web. But it makes sense that it’s a long-standing practice.

    It also confirms a widely shared sense that indie and self-publishers can often promote more effectively if they create more of an impression of being a publisher.

    Reply
  8. Will Entrekin

    Nicely said. What’s been funny to me, lately, is that, as I’ve been sending review copies of The Prodigal Hour out, I’ve noticed a lot of book bloggers who outright and without exception simply state they refuse self-published books.

    And my thought-response is, “Er. You realize you’re a self-published book reviewer, don’t you?”

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Both sad and ironic at the same time. On the other hand, we’ve had a lot of success getting online reviews for A Self-Publisher’s Companion which is blatantly self-published. Have you used Christy Pinheiro’s great list of reviewers who welcome indie books?

      Reply
  9. Barbara

    This is very informative Joel. I published through a POD company in 2005. It’s a company that only published childrens books. They have since expanded, but my 2nd attempt with them was a bust.

    The entire industry is changing daily, it’s hard to keep up. Now with book stores closing left and right I think we may be seeing the end of traditional publishing. I really have mixed feelings about that.
    Thanks for all the great info you provide.
    b

    Reply
  10. Lee Ann Rubsam

    Thanks for all your fine articles. I am learning a lot to fine-tune my books for greater excellence.

    I agree that blogging and self-publishing are closely tied together. My blog posts often eventually grow into full-blown books, blogging has expanded my customer base, and best of all, interaction with my blog readers helps me to find out what they need and want to hear about within the niche I serve. I can then produce books that fill their needs and enrich their lives.

    Reply
  11. Marcia Richards

    A beautiful post, Joel! Thanks for including the historical reference to self-publishing. I find so many who think it’s a new idea. I agree that blogging is much like self-publishing. We are creating content that in many cases, the readers devour like the pages of a book. It serves the reader differently, as you said, but serves, nonetheless. Since it’s free content and up-to-the-minute information, in some ways it serves the reader better. You are serving your readers well with your optimistic take on this topic. Thanks!

    Reply
  12. Ryan Bradshaw

    Thanks, Joel. Great article! I’m glad to be a part of your audience (and have learned somethings by hanging around)!

    Reply
  13. M.J. Murphy

    Thanks for this excellent post. You give a much needed historical context to what is happening in publishing today and show a genuine enthusiasm for where it is all headed. It is a pretty exciting time to be a writer, and a reader!

    Reply
  14. Michael N. Marcus

    Michael Lipsey: blogs don’t have to be ephemeral.

    I once wrote five blogs, five days a week. When it stopped being fun, I cut back. Some blogs are on possibly permanent hiatus, and some are added-to just a few times a year. One blog is written five to seven times each week. Even my “dead” blogs still attract readers and comments.

    The old blog posts will survive as long as Blogger lasts. Even if Blogger (owned by Google) doesn’t last forever, archives such as the Internet Archive “wayback machine” captured words I put on the web starting in 1978.

    Also, while magazines and newspapers don’t go back as far as the Dead Sea Scrolls, I still have cherished magazines I bought more than 50 years ago, and two newspapers from the 19th century.

    Michael N. Marcus
    https://www.BookMakingBlog.blogspot.com
    https://www.BookFur.com (information, help and book reviews for authors)
    https://www.RentABookReviewer.com (pre-publication book assessments)
    — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series: https://www.silversandsbooks.com/booksaboutpublishing.html
    — “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),” https://www.amazon.com/dp/0983057249

    — Just out: “STINKERS!: America’s Worst Self-Published Books,” https://www.amazon.com/dp/0983057257

    Reply
  15. Michael Lipsey

    I don’t see book publishing and blogging as comparable because while books are objects (even e-books) and commodities, blogging is by its very nature an ephemeral art. At the beginning of blogging there was the notion that it could be a paid service by subscription, but except for a few financial newsletters, that was soon abandoned. There are many blogs that function as commodities by selling ads, but so do magazines and newspapers, which are also ephemeral. We have books that go back to the invention of printing, and manuscripts, scrolls, tablets, etc. that go back to the invention of writing. The idea of a book is to make something enduring – at least that is my hope. But I blog on tumblr to test epigrams, show drawings or sketches, or just to have fun, ephemeral fun.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Yes, I love the idea of “ephemeral fun” but I’m not so sure a lot of genre fiction or comedy titles don’t fall into the same category. But your point is well taken, and (as I say farther down the comment stream) I most often think of the blog as a kind of one-article-per-day magazine.

      But I think the blogging world is also evolving. Where in past years ephemera dominated the blogs, there seem to be a lot more people publishing substantive articles and these can undoubtedly be used to create a book as a more durable form for the content. That’s what I did with my last book, anyway.

      Reply

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