While the role of traditional publishers is in no immediate danger - they still account for 98% of the overall book market - self-published works have slowly began to develop a significant market share in the e-book sphere. New research estimates 12% of all digital sales are from authors who have taken matters into their own hands. The statistics increase to 20% or more in genres such as humour, crime, science-fiction and romance - the latter two particularly beloved genres of hobbyists and fan-fiction writers.
The increased popularity of self-released e-books has been enabled by services like Kindle and iTunes that allow authors to put up their own work without the need for a third-party - Amazon or Apple notwithstanding. Frustrated writers no longer need to be quite as frustrated, and it is a valuable outlet for experimental or commercially unfeasible content.
Writers can also dictate their own price, and are likely to have few expenses. A self-published e-book can easily be put together by just one committed person in their spare time - although perhaps ideally with the assistance of a designer and proofreader.
There are some technical barriers, but also many guides to help authors through the various online publishing and formatting requirements.
Quality vs quantity
Of course, the situation is far more complicated than that. With more content comes more noise, and it becomes more difficult to attract an audience and raise awareness of your work. Many successful self-publishers have had to employ designers, publicists and editors, with author and journalist Tom Standage observing during one online discussion that they’re not really self-publishing at all:
— Joe Abercrombie (@LordGrimdark) June 2, 2013
Completing a novel might be an achievement, but standing out from the crowd is another challenge altogether. Many great writers will simply have no interest in or aptitude for the publishing processes. It also goes without saying that in most cases self-published authors will be stuck with digital formats, still a minority market - you can print your own book, but it's a prohibitively expensive process.
In a Guardian report on the new statistics, publisher Andrew Franklin is quoted as saying an “overwhelming majority [of them] are terrible – unutterable rubbish. They don't enhance anything in the world." Quality concerns remain a significant point of contention for many readers when huge percentages of self-published novels are of a low quality. Again, the genuinely worthwhile content is often lost in the overwhelming noise.
The controls imposed by publishers may limit the amount of literature on the mass market - even some very interesting books - but also act as a filtering process that supports popular or talented authors. The editorial process, some would argue, could even significantly enhance the quality of the final book.
A bright future?
For many writers, however, self-publishing will remain the only viable option. Many readers will also continue to navigate the sea of independently released works, especially as they tend to be low priced (if not released for free). There’ll always be the breakthrough successes too, however rare - Fifty Shades of Grey being one well-known example that started life as an Internet release before becoming a mainstream publishing phenomenon.
Literature isn’t the only medium seeing momentum in self-publishing, either. Independent musicians can now release their music globally through multiple platforms. Many independent game developers have enjoyed significant critical & commerical success. Even some filmmakers have decided to experiment outside the comfort of the traditional distribution system, including Kevin Smith.
The foreseeable future is unlikely to see the collapse of the major or minor publishing company as we know them, even as they struggle with a changing landscape. But while self-publishing is unlikely to prove an absolute revolution, it will undoubtedly be an integral part of the future.