Self-publishing not only is changing the traditional publishing industry and the relationship between authors and editors, but also the ways readers are connecting with books.
This affirmation is based on a major, multi-year investigation into the alternative publishing industry led by a research team at the University of Arizona's School of Information Resources and Library Science, SIRLS.
Convened and led by Jana Bradley, a SIRLS professor, the team since 2007 has studied how the recent emergence of digital self-publishing has resulted in major shifts in the industry.
Mainstream trade publishing still dominates print sales. But self-published, print-on-demand for private, local or niche audiences is faster, said Bradley, founder of the Research Group on Non-Traditional Publishing Practices, RG-NTPP.
That growth was propelled by a number of things.
Since about 2010, "the stigma of self-publishing was quickly diminishing," Bradley said, adding that the cheaper, growth market is the self-published e-book.
Amazon, in launching Kindle Direct Publishing, was at the forefront in disrupting traditional models of publishing, Bradley said. The company allows authors to post their digital files to an automated publishing system, which then made them available as Kindle products on Amazon. Other companies followed.
"The major disruption, however, was that they allowed the authors to set the price," Bradley said, noting that the most popular prices were between 99 cents and $2.99. Companies also offered authors royalties ranging between 35 and 70 percent, depending on a range of factors.
RG-NTPP research also shows that the reading public is, indeed, embracing self-published titles at the low price points. About one-third of the top 100 paid titles on Kindle are by self-publishing authors.
RG-NTPP members have published a series of articles, including "Non-traditional Book Publishing," published by First Monday, about the shifting industry and digital self-publishing. That article was co-authored by Bradley, Bruce Fulton, the digital projects librarian at SIRLS, Marlene Helm, an associate librarian at the Arizona State Museum, and Katherine A. Pittner, a SIRLS doctoral student who teaches history at Pima Community College. Other studies are ongoing.
All told, RG-NTPP's investigations and subsequent findings indicate an industry on the cusp: The traditional publishing mode by which publishers front authors a cut of money then handle publishing and marketing, all the while hoping for the best on the buyer's market, is in transition.
The team noted that the contemporary world of self-publishing can be understood as consisting of two major and different segments.
The first, print-on-demand self-publishing, produces books in print and came of age around 2007. The second segment, digital self-publishing, is the faster growing of the two, and often indistinguishable from digital mainstream publishing.
The team's results of a multi-year study of print-on-demand self-published books were published in April by The Library Quarterly. The article, "Self-published Books: An Empirical 'Snapshot'," was co-authored by Bradley, Fulton and Helm.
RG-NTPP members studied a random sample of 348 books from the nearly 390,000 self-published titles available in 2008 through fee-based services, like Lulu, AuthorHouse and iUniverse.
The team found that self-published authors enjoy more freedom in making decisions about editing, design and marketing.
"This freedom, in the hands of inexperienced authors, can lead to inconsistent writing and grammatical errors, enforcing the view of self-publishing as inferior publishing," Bradley said.
Yet the team also found a greater variety in self-published books.
"Self-help books on subjects from exercise to grieving were written by people with considerable experience. Authors wrote convincingly about local events, stories and history that would probably never interest mainstream publishers," Bradley said.
Also, the “private” tribute book surged as ordinary people began writing and publishing about family histories, life events, vacations and wildlife, among other things. Also, established mainstream authors republish their out-of-print books.
This has resulted in a "blurring of the boundaries" between the traditional and digital publishing, Bradley said, adding that one major difference emerging is who makes the publishing decisions, pays the bills and gets most of the profits.
Such trends not only are changing what is happening at the publishing level, but also how readers connect with books.
"I don't know if readers realize it, but they are part of this market shift that is happening," said Fulton, also a doctoral candidate at SIRLS whose minor is in communication.
Another trend is that readers increasingly turn to social media and social networks for information about books.
Increasingly, mainstream authors are expected to handle their own marketing, which they tend to do through their on Webs and through social media, like Facebook, Fulton said.
For self-published authors, this is essential.
Fulton, whose dissertation work involves the study of publishing and reading given the influential nature of social media, said the same appears to be true for readers.
"Changes in traditional media, like magazines and newspapers, indicate a downward slide where there are fewer reviews in those publications," he said. Simultaneously, there is an emergence of sites dedicated to amateur editorials and reviews of books, including those that are self-published.
"People are beginning to pay more attention to those," Fulton said, adding that with the emergence of self-publishing, readers also have a much more diverse range of titles to select.
"There is this notion of traditional and mainstream publishers having been viewed as gatekeepers," Fulton said. "But people can now choose who they want to be the gatekeepers, so the reader has gotten a lot more power to drive the industry."
Also, self-publishing titles tend to include books that are locally focused, narrate family histories, are niche and at times more risque – around religion, politics, sex and sexuality – than what a traditional publisher might wish to handle, Fulton and Bradley said.
"There is a real value in self-publishing. There are stories self-publishing offers that simply wouldn't be told any other way," Fulton said. "So what we're seeing is something we didn't have a mechanism for before."
But self-publishing authors still struggle to make a big break. So one question remains evasive: What does it take to produce a blockbuster bookshelf hit?
"The industry still isn't very good about predicting what will sell," Fulton said about both the traditional and self-publishing sectors. "It is still very much an art, not a science."