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.