Monday, June 16, 2014

Self-Publish And Be Dammed?

We read today of rise of self-publishing and the claims that ‘Self-publishing boom lifts sales by 79% in a year’ made by industry analysts Neilson and published in the Guardian.

Steve Bohme, Research Director at Nielsen, claims that of the 80 million ebooks sold in the UK at a value of some £300 million, 18 million were self-published at an average price of £1. So whilst the volume of self-publishing was a little under 25% of the UK ebook market the value of the sales was only half that at some 12%.

There are many questions about these and other self-publishing statistics. How much of the research is qualitative and how much is quantitative? How much is actual sales of all self-published books and how much is restricted to tracking industry identified book units (ISBN)? It is easy to be subjective, but the actual detail often remains inaccessible and therefore any statements and predictions often carry a word of caution. The time old practice of measuring the market by number of new books published a year, is becoming meaningless in this new virtual world, where multiple renditions often exists and the front list, or ‘new’, is increasingly hard to define. The industry failed to adopt the ISTC (standard work identifier) and as a result relating different renditions can be a challenge. Separating out the self-publishing titles is even harder as digital self-publishing is also not restricted to authors and is being used by agents and small publishers and we must not forget that it also includes print on demand channels such as Create Space and even audio.

We are however where we are and it is hard not to appreciate the massive explosion in digital self-publishing. This has been enabled via no cost and self service programmes such as Kindle Digital Publishing (KDP). The number of titles now taking this or similar routes to market is hard to accurately measure and therefore too are the sales.

We understand some of the self-publishing drivers, but we often lack the actual sales that are actually being achieved. Whilst some authors claim huge sales, some works sit on the shelf untouched. Prices fluctuate from free to a few pounds, but owners are often continually manipulating these prices in order maximise visibility and sales. As a result prices, although low, are all over the place, which in turn put pressure on the pricing of more traditional works.

Traditional publishing has developed, honed and established processes, relationships and practices from the author to the reader over many years. Although these characteristics may vary from sector to sector, in many sectors the prevailing model still remains largely one based on spread betting that is controlled by the publishers, where the winners compensate for the losers. Some bestsellers may be manufactured and according to their marketing spend be hits before they have hit the streets.

However, publishers are increasingly becoming risk adverse and in doing so are potentially now shrinking the number of wild punts they take.

For many readers the publication date has not been the buying driver and ‘latest’ often only means the newest to be discovered, not latest to be published. However, the publishers remain front list focused with what some would see as a mission to discover the next ‘50 Shades’, ‘Harry Potter’ and Christmas celebrity blockbuster etc. In the physical world the promotion and development of the backlist does not always generate the returns offered by a new bestseller. However in the digital world a strong and visible backlist can provide stable and sustainable income with little cost. This potential quick win is not lost on authors who have often got reverted backlists that are potentially waiting to be rediscovered.

The size of the content of a title is still being driven by the economics of the physical rendition. The distribution and metadata is still conforming to the physical supply chain needs. The rewards, rights and royalties remaining locked in a time warp as if digital never happened. We still think in terms of library and bookshop shelves and not virtual ones and restrict how we describe works to filling in predefined boxes. Digital books are still often restricted to sitting on limited shelves even though their appeal may be applicable to many genre. We are managing ebooks as if they were pbooks which again is opening up opportunities for self-publishers to self-publish and appear more relevant and focused.

The market share of digital to physical continues to be an industry obsession and in part is driven by the majority of the physical book content remaining identical to the digital with the physical content merely being poured into the digital container. We have created a cannibalising engine which although like other media will not entirely replace the physical, could seriously undermine the supply chain economics on which it works today. However, this is not the case with much of the self-publishing market which now sidesteps the often uneconomic print rendition. So despite Amazon’s Create Space print on demand service digital self-publishing is growing disproportionately to traditional digital publishing.

Self-publishing is being championed by those who control virtually all current ebook sales. The likes of Amazon, Kobo, Nook not only assign their own identifiers and do not make the ISBN mandatory for ebook self-publishers they actively promote their services for free with royalty rates that make even the best publishing digital royalties look miserable. Yes, publishers can add value by promotion, marketing, and generally help raise the visibility of their works and that may be appropriate for front list titles and those released in print but doesn’t always apply to back list, mid list which now find themselves fighting for attention alongside increasingly more professional looking self-publishing titles. It is very questionable why any author should allow publishers to simply digitise their back list without term time break clauses and a revision of royalty terms. The ebook services also add value to authors in showing current sales activity, royalty earnings and even pay on a monthly basis.

If we finally accept self-publishing is a growing force and segment within the market, how do we relate to it, measure it and respect what it offers authors and readers alike. Merely brushing it under the carpet or closing one’s eyes to it is not the answer as this will only deliver aftershocks and surprises. Locking authors into perpetual contracts for their backlist as well as front list will surely only come home and bite hard. Paying authors poor digital royalties that look to some greedy and to others just stubborn will only increase the flow to self-publish digitally.

It is often one thing to identify the threat and another to focus on the opportunity. Publishers are not structured to absorb self-publishing and by their nature are selectors and curators. We now live in an environment where anybody can publish a video on YouTube, perform their music in the social network arena, review whatever, write blogs, stories etc. This is to be embraced and supported and even though many still see it as a threat self-publishing actually compliments and can enrich traditional media publishing.

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