Self-Publishing: Are We There Yet?

POSTED ON May 3, 2010

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

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Yesterday’s New York Times Magazine had a brief and cheery write up by Virginia Heffernan in a section called The Medium. Heffernan uses the release of last year’s numbers of books published to contrast the self-publishers of old, disrespected by the marketplace for their odd, not “booky” books, with the situation today.

I also covered the release of these numbers and what they might mean for the outlook for self-publishers. But Heffernan at first ignores the fact that the vast majority of the 764,448 books attributed to “self-publishers and micro-niche publishers” are in fact public domain reprints coming from just two or three vendors. The top three of these vendors produced 687,565 of the books cited (just amazing) so the maximum number of truly self-published books would have to be about 76,883.

Compared to the output of traditional publishers, put by the survey at 288,355, self-publishing is a small but growing phenomenon. This doesn’t support one of Ms. Heffernan’s main conclusions:

Book publishing is simply becoming self-publishing.

Stranger and Stranger

As I’m reading this article I’m a little dumbfounded. I know what the survey said, and I’m astonished that Ms. Heffernan, who I enjoy reading, is playing so fast and loose with the facts. Anyone who read the original article by Jim Milliot in Publishers Weekly is aware that the numbers don’t support the contention in these articles.

At one point she even says,

. . . reprints of public domain titles account for the biggest category of self-published books.

But it gets stranger as the article continues, and Ms. Heffernan starts to describe the companies that produce the majority of the books cited in the report, the so-called “micro-niche” publishers.

These companies scan public domain books—those which have either lost their copyright or never had one—and “publish” them, but only in the sense that they are available on a server somewhere. In the unlikely event someone wants a copy for research or some other individual purpose, they will be ready. It’s an interesting business model but one that has, obviously, absolutely nothing to do with self-publishing.

Every Which Way But Up

Ms. Heffernan acknowledges that “self-published books also look great these days—altogether booky. This is no trivial matter.” Well, that’s nice to hear, although soon Ms. Heffernan is back chasing the stereotype of the self-published author as a “crackpot” and his books as “vintage kookery.” Perhaps attitudes haven’t changed as much as Ms. Heffernan implied at the beginning.

I get pretty excited when I see news articles about self-publishing, or about authors who’ve had a big success, or broken a story that no one else bothered to tell. It’s a little like seeing your town on the national ten o’clock news, you perk right up and glow with some kind of reflected glory.

But this article was disappointing and rather superficial. The Medium isn’t a place for deep thinking or long arguments, it’s a brief piece in the front of the Sunday Magazine that’s intended to survey or introduce trending topics to the paper’s readers.

The story is accompanied by a sidebar offering ways to find out more online, and it’s nice to see April L. Hamilton getting a little well-deserved media attention there, as well as

For the rest, a list of possible resources that lumps together,,, BookSurge (which announces on its website, for those who click through, that it no longer exists, having merged with CreateSpace) and rounds out the choices. We’re also treated to the opinion of David Canoy that “indie books are bad.”

Frankly, this whole report reminds more of something I’d find in our local Marin Independent Journal, not the New York times. Inaccurate, out of date information and dubious conclusions all to serve . . . what? A “trending topic?”

I did guess what kind of argument I was going to encounter in this article, when I read Ms. Heffernan’s statement:

Perhaps a book is just a cluster of symbols, printed and bound and distributed, or not.

Oh, right.

What Self-Publishing is Really About

Self-publishing is incredibly healthy and growing at a pretty amazing rate. Even the “low” number of almost 77,000 books published amounts to over 210 books a day, 365 days a year. And as far as quality, why is it that no one ever looks through the huge piles of schlock that are included in the 288,355 books from traditional publishers?

The self-publishers I’ve been dealing with since the 1990s routinely turn out books that are every bit as good as those coming from traditional publishers. And we’ve been doing it the same way for the twenty-odd years I’ve been involved in independent publishing: by paying attention to detail, hiring in professionals where needed, and knowing the market because we are the market.

There’s no secret to this, just intelligence and hard work. You can find these books, and the people who produce them, throughout the self-publishing world. They’ve been there for quite some time. And I hope someday Ms. Heffernan gets to meet them.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your opinion. Am I asking too much of the New York Times?

Takeaway: Although it’s gratifying to see self-publishing getting some media attention, sloppy, inaccurate and out of date information doesn’t help anyone.


Joel Friedlander

Written by
Joel Friedlander

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