DIY Publishing: Vanity or Good Business?

DIY photo

Growing up in a publishing family, I’ve always been deeply immersed in the stories of the business. One that my mom loved to tell me is that before she became an editor at Random House in the 1960s, her first job was answering phones at a “vanity” press, the kind of publishing house where people paid to get their work published. She was young and naïve and didn’t know that if you were trying to make it as a writer or editor in New York, then this first job was the equivalent of being dressed up as a large fuzzy animal handing out flyers advertising a used-car lot.

Almost fifty years later, the only vestige of that time is the power of a good story. No industry disruption will ever kill that. But as for the business: it’s evolved dramatically for both the good and the bad. In my parents’ era, if you got the attention of a publishing house you actually got attention from your editor, unlike today, where the big houses reserve their attention for their solid money-makers, which we all know makes up a shorter and shorter list. For the many aspiring authors and those published by big houses—those who are often referred to as “mid-list,” authors—self-publishing today has nothing to do with vanity – or self, for that matter – and everything to do with doing smart business.

A few factors explain this shift. One is a direct impact of the Internet and technology on culture and business in general. I can remember back in 1997 when I was working as an intern at Wired magazine, and I read the now classic story published by Tom Peters in Fast Company called The Brand Called You, about how the Internet has made it possible for anyone to become a free agent, and establish his or her “own micro-equivalent of the Nike Swoosh.” This shift gave way to millions of authors becoming their own publishers as book authors or bloggers on every micro-culture under the sun, gaining followings and building the now all too familiar concept known as “platforms.” Many of these bloggers, some of who have some writing talent, have paradoxically become the bestsellers of the big five publishers, further hurting those on the mid-lists who often have more talent. Many more have instead invested in self-publishing–-not out of vanity, but because they also figured out that they can actually make more money as writers that way.

High Howey, a science-fiction writer, recently collaborated on a report with another author who also had some advanced coding skills. The coder built a software program that can crawl online bestseller lists, and they used it to generate a report showing for the first time some hard numbers. The big shocker of the report was that indie authors are actually outselling the big-five publishers. The entire group of them! According to the report, Indie and small-press books account for half of the e-book sales in the bestselling genres on Amazon. This means that the “average” author earns more from a self-published book than if he or she was to be published by one of the big five publishers. It also means that these authors have more ownership and more control of their work. Publishing on your own often means spending less time writing and more time hustling, but those doing it argue the freedom is worth it. They can choose their price. They can release as many books as they want, as often as they want, and in more than one genre, and they can work with a pool of talent and services of their own choice.

There is now an entire ecosystem of free agents out there who can help make publishing happen for an author. This includes cover-artists, packagers, and hundreds of new Internet companies that support them. Its include authors like Holly Payne, who is also a writing coach and runs an award-winning indie publishing house called Skywriter Books; Girl Friday Productions, which offers everything from editing to production services, and StoryMade Studios. Best of all: this new model means authors can have a direct relationship with their readers. This new eco-system explains why doing it yourself and hiring people to help is no longer the horror my mother saw it as she worked her way up the old-school ladder. If you’re interested in disrupting the way that stories are produced, published and distributed, there is no ladder anymore. The only constant that remains is the power of a good story.