When Anyone’s an Author: A Cultural Analysis of Self-Publishing

by Margherita Bassi

Many have studied the art of writing from elementary school to college, but few are familiar with the ideas of small-scale publication and distribution. Even rarer are those who can claim to have successfully pursued and signed a contract with a well-known traditional publishing house. Having been a small group of individuals in the first place, they are practically an extinct race now. Since the invention of the printing press, unpublished or rejected authors have tried to work around these publishing houses by self-publishing, aiming to make their voices heard without the need for such a highly selective intermediary process. Yet, only recently has it begun to be considered a successful means to the same end. Why?

To better recognize the cultural implications of self-publishing, it is necessary to first understand the workings of traditional publishing. A traditional publishing house is a company to whom one sells the rights to their written work in exchange for its assemblage, official publication, distribution, and marketing, according to a contract agreed upon by both parties. The publishing house is paid through a percentage of the book sales, and the author gets the rest of the revenues, which are called royalties. This set-up seems simple and fair, but is complicated by the specialists hired by the publishing houses and dedicated to all aspects of the business, whose interest lie with the success of the publishing house. Thus, it is very difficult for a private individual to bargain a fair contract on their own. In almost all cases, authors are represented by a literary agent who gets paid a percentage of the authors’s royalties to be the intermediary between the latter and the publishing company. Since authors are not expected to pay them upfront, the payments for both the publishing house and the literary agents depend completely on book sales. This means that all those involved are taking a financial risk by representing or publishing someone else’s book, which can be traced to the negative aspects of traditional publishing. Because of the financial risk, successful publishing companies and successful agents are extremely selective; the companies rarely accept unsolicited or unrepresented novels and the agents rarely represent unpublished or inexperienced authors. Thus, new authors have tremendous trouble breaking into the industry. In the case that an author is able to overcome these obstacles, he or she is still at a disadvantage when it comes to the actual publishing because they have little to no say in the process after selling the rights to their written work. Many authors, however, find these troubles worth the struggle because they believe a team of specialists dedicated to their book and a publishing company invested in their rise to fame translates into an elevated chance of success.

Self-publishing, also called “vanity press” or “subsidy press,” entails a different process. Self-publishing companies usually sell publishing packages: a numbered amount of literary services sold to an author for a certain price. A basic publishing package usually includes design; publication in either e-book form, print-on-demand, or both; and distribution to resellers. The author must pay for these services up-front. Logically, the more services included in a publishing package, the more it will cost. A publishing package can range anywhere from two hundred dollars to two thousand dollars, and most companies receive a large percentage of the book sales as well. The obvious con of self-publishing is the extensive costs that need to be paid upfront and by private funding, but self-publishing authors also risk losing the marketing and distributive support of their companies once they are paid. Still, authors decide to self-publish—mainly because they do not relinquish any rights to their books after purchasing a publishing package. Meaning, authors stay in control of the publishing process. This is good news for those who have extensive knowledge of the publishing process and their target audience, and bad news for those who do not, who must either teach themselves or pay for a specialist.

Despite its downsides, self-publishing is becoming more and more common. To more fully understand the significance of this trend, it is important to remember that there was a stigma around self-publishing only a few years ago. Originally, the only people who self-published were those who, despite being rejected by traditional publishing houses, believed their work to be good enough for publication. These authors were shunned by the traditional publishing world for their decision to publish after having been rejected by “experts”—thus, the term “vanity publishing.” But the negative connotations of the term have since become obsolete, marking a shift in at least readers’ attitude towards self-publication. In fact, a blogger on the Self-Publishing School Blog writes: “Vanity publishing is an outdated term that the publishing industry tosses around to protect its interests” (Bolt). Traditional publishing houses may continue to use the term in the hopes of stymying their rapidly growing rivals like Chandler Bolt suggests, but this strategy likely won’t be enough. Many intellectuals believe that self-publishing has had and will continue to have revolutionary effects on the publishing industry. For example, Robert Budden in his article for The Financial Times describes Pearson’s purchase of Author Solutions, a provider of self-publishing services, not only as “the most significant move by a traditional book publisher into the fast-growing world of author-published books” but also as “a significant moment for self-publishers.”  With this integration, Pearson has established a legitimate foothold for itself in the self-publishing world as well as a legitimate foothold for self-publishing in the traditional publishing world.

The rising popularity of self-publishing sheds light on interesting cultural movements linked to the newer generations. In the age of Internet and social media, anyone can present their writing and themselves to a diverse audience from all over the world. Recent statistics show that there are 317 million monthly active Twitter users, an average of 1.79 billion monthly Facebook users, and that 78% of America’s population has some sort of social media profile (“Social Media Usage in the United States”). These numbers have shown growth over the past decade and grown even more rapidly over the past couple of years, meaning that more and more people approve and demand an informal sort of publication that doesn’t necessitate an official submission, rounds of revision, or a fee. But this leads some to wonder: now that this sort of free-for-all e-publishing is available, how has self-publishing grown in popularity as well? It seems the ability to post and read written texts in various forms and lengths freely on the Internet has not replaced the demand for books. In an interview with Jason Tselentis, the vice president of design at Inkling Peter Cho explained his preference for paper versus technology through a childhood memory:

Digital can expand and enhance print content, or do things print content can’t. But there’s something digital can’t do. As a boy, my parents supported my reading interests, allowing me to subscribe to comic books. The anticipation of finding that comic book in the mailbox and then having it in my hands was—and is—akin to opening a gift on my birthday…There’s joy in the tactile experience of it, the delight in seeing the thing in print arrive in the mail, the pleasure in unwrapping it. Digital experiences don’t have the same tactile quality. (Tselentis)

Without leaving behind Cho’s and so many other’s nostalgia for the feel of a new book, self-publishing offers a route to print that combines the tradition of publishing and the innovation of social media. In recent years, the turn to self-publishing by younger generations correlates with a rising demand for more flexible, innovative, and involved work opportunities. While few have been published by a bigwig house like Pearson but almost everyone has posted some type of written work on social media, self-publishing can be seen as a middle ground for authors who have developed their works beyond a Facebook update but don’t feel the need to be represented, or validated, by a publishing house. But publishing and Facebook are by no means mutually exclusive. Self-published author Jane Ward emphasizes the importance of utilizing social media like Twitter to promote her novels: “‘I wanted to have a good solid foundation so that I wasn’t just sending out a vanity project” (Boretz). Will social media therefore be the final demise of the very term “vanity publishing” and the negative connotations surrounding self-publishing? Or, has this cultural shift in attitude already taken place?

The self-publishing movement is only a microcosm of much larger trends taking place beyond the publishing realm. In response to the Quora discussion “Why are there so many startups in America?”, the Co-Founder of Retention Science Jerry Jao writes that “there is a rising cultural acceptance of risk.” People have begun searching for faster ways to satisfy their own career goals without having to muddle through bureaucracy: this is an age of instant gratification that people are customizing according their own needs and ambitions. Jao continues in his explanation of this increasing cultural embrace of risk: “Many self-made entrepreneurs no longer fear social stigmatization from failing in founding their own business. Rather, it has become acceptable.” This insight is easily seen in the publishing world. Most authors and readers have come to understand that a rejected work does not necessarily mean poor quality; rather, it is a reflection of the limited availability but high demand for traditional publication which often results in good work being overlooked along with thousands of other submissions. Although self-publication imposes an economic risk on authors, it reduces the chance of being rejected because a publisher never read it or didn’t like it while increasing the chance of receiving feedback and revisions. Like a startup, self-publishing offers more possibilities for input, skill development, and trial and error, especially for emerging and unestablished authors. Ultimately, as Matt De La Pena explains in his Newsweek article, the fate of a book—self-published or not—rests with the author.

Traditional publishing used to be the only respectable way for authors to get their books in front of an audience; however, the process of traditional publishing can be aggressively selective, stagnant, and disadvantageous for authors. The solution? Self-publishing. Combined with the rise in demand for published works on social media and the continued demand for the feel and smell of a new book, self-publishing offers the tradition of publishing with the convenience and inclusivity of social media. Because this culture has more readily embraced risk-taking and failure, we can read a whole slew of work from fiercely independent, committed, self-published authors that may have been lost in other generations.

Works Cited

Bolt, Chandler. “Vanity Publishing: What It Means for You—Self-Publishing School Blog.” SelfPublishing School Blog. 24 June 2016. Web. Accessed 9 Nov. 2016.

Boretz, Adam. “The Mosaic Artist: Jane Ward.” Publishers Weekly, vol. 258, no. 42, 17 Oct. 2011, p. 48. General OneFile, Web. Accessed 1 Dec. 2016.

Budden, Robert. “Pearson purchase boosts image of self-publishing.” Financial Times, 20 July 2012, p. 12. Academic OneFile, Web. Accessed 1 Dec. 2016.

Jao, Jerry. Comment on “Why Are There So Many Start Ups in America?” Quora, 28 Aug. 2014. Web. 8 Nov. 2016.

Pena, Matt De La. “Publishing: Just For Vanity.” Newsweek, 28 June 2004, p. 60. General OneFile, Web. Accessed 1 Dec. 2016.

“Social Media Usage in the United States—Statistics and Facts.” Statista, Web. Accessed 21 Nov. 2016.

Tselentis, Jason. “Print is dead // long live print.” Print, vol. 69, no. 2, Spring 2015, p. 78. General OneFile, Web. Accessed 1 Dec. 2016.