Levelling the Playing Field

Self-publishing and its bigger brother Indie-publishing are starting to really make it mainstream, which is a bit of a contradiction in terms really. But it is becoming well known and is seen as the easiest way to get your book published.

It is easy too, so much so that on some websites offering the service all you need to be able to do is upload a Word document, tick a few boxes, and press publish. In less than ten minutes your manuscript will be available on the internet as an e-book for people to buy, with its own ISBN number. Within a couple of weeks it will then also be available through Amazon, iTunes and Nook. Without much more effort you can turn it into a hard or paperback version too, and with an entry in book distribution catalogues people can order it from their local bookshops.

So it’s understandable why the big five publishing houses (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster) are starting to get worried. It’s said that everyone has at least one good book in them, and now everyone can publish them without needing the help of traditional publishing companies, and the fees that they entail.

If you read the media then it’s obvious that self-publishing is the way to go, and that it’s killing the traditional publishing route. The problem is though, the traditional publishing route has carved itself out such a deep niche that the self-publishing route currently doesn’t really affect it. Self-publishing currently has two very major drawbacks that mean it will take some major changes before it starts to compete with traditional publishing on anything approaching equal footing. However, those changes are already happening both on the part of the self-publishing side improving, and the traditional side becoming lazy and less caring.


When you go down the traditional publishing route, one of the things that they take a cut of profits for is quality control. Editors, proof-readers, typesetters and cover artists all work on your manuscript to produce a final product.

A good editor that can work well with the author is worth whatever you can pay them, they’ll pick up on all the little oversights, the parts of the plot that contradict each other or don’t logically work out. All the things that as an author you don’t notice because you’re so involved with your work. No matter how well you go through your manuscript, you will never do as good a job as a proof reader at picking up all the typos, grammar and context mistakes, because you will always be reading the story whereas a proof reader will be checking your use of words. Once the manuscript itself is polished, it needs to be laid out properly for publishing. Different publishing methods require different techniques and skills, and a good typesetter knows all these and can turn your bunched together words into something that is pleasing to look at, something that is easy to read in bursts of longer than five minutes. When that’s all done, there’s the cover. With so many books on the packed shelves and screens, yours needs to get people to pick it out to see what it’s about. And that’s where a good designer can make a difference. No matter how good your story inside, unless the cover gets it noticed, your words will sit there unread.

Far, far too many self-published books like the quality of publication that traditionally published books achieve. Text published in block capitals throughout, spelling and grammar mistakes that even Word should have picked up on, sentences that don’t make sense, line height and spacing that make you have to screw your eyes up tight to be able to read and covers that are frankly shocking.

These generally occur because as a self-publishing writer you also had to do everything else yourself, or pay a lot of money up front to hire a professional to do it for you. That’s changing though as self-publishing becomes a bigger market. More and more companies are setting up that offer these services, and with more competition the prices have started to come down. Even a lot of the traditional publishing companies provide these services on their own, although they’re more often than not provided through a subsidiary that isn’t obviously linked to the parent.

With these services available the quality of self-published books is getting better and better, and at the same time the quality of traditionally published books is starting to suffer. Bookshops report books coming in with pages of text missing, sometimes whole chapters and after having my own book professionally proof read and seeing what gets picked up, it’s now impossible for me to read a book without noticing all the errors that have slipped through. As for the all-important cover design that gets the book picked up, it’s got to the point where Private Eye magazine run a semi-regular Bookalikes feature showcasing the overly generic use of clichéd covers that make the use of stock photos on websites look original.

But no matter how many publishing services a self-published author may take advantage of, and no matter how great their book, they will still hit the second very major drawback.

Distribution and Marketing

The largest chain of bookstores in the UK is Waterstones, and they have very strict rules about whose books they will stock. No matter how good your book, no matter how well it sells independently, unless it is available through one of their recognised distributors there is no chance of it being available to even order through their stores. Getting a printed copy of a self-published book into stores is limited to the ever diminishing number of independent bookshops. The majority of printed books bought in shops is from the main chains, or increasingly from supermarkets. This largest part of the book buying market is shut off from the independent publisher because of deals and agreements that were put in place to support the traditional publishing system.

What’s left then for the self-publisher is the internet. Amazon is the largest and most easily accessible portal for self-publishers to get their books to market, both printed and e-books. But the ease of getting the books to this market place means that it’s swamped, there are over two million books available on Amazon for the Kindle alone. Not just self-published titles, but also those from well-known authors and the big publishing houses that the independents have to compete against. Without the marketing budgets of the big publishers most of the self-published books aren’t likely to sell more than a few copies, but because they’re e-books and haven’t have an initial financial investment to get them to this stage there’s no monetary loss, only time and tears from the authors. An author can’t self-publish their book and then just leave it amongst the hundreds and thousands of other titles and expect it to sell. It has to be promoted, found, bought and recommended.

As with getting the book ready for publishing, there are now also services that a self-publisher can purchase to get their book promoted, and as with the publishing services a lot of these are also provided by subsidiaries of the traditional publishing houses, under a different name that isn’t always obviously linked. Using these marketing and promotional services can start to cost a lot of money, sometimes tens of thousands of pounds which is out of the reach of most self-publishers. There are other services out there, for instance book review blogs. The reviewers will read an advance copy of your book and tell their readers about it, they’ll also leave reviews on sites such as Amazon and (the Amazon owned) Goodreads amongst others.

And as with the publishing side, while the independents are getting more professional the traditional publishing route seems to be getting less profession and less trusted, especially where e-books are concerned. Over the last few years the big publishing houses have been in a mad rush to get their back catalogues available on the different e-book formats, and sometimes corners have been cut. Chapters or paragraphs are missing, tables of contents not linking through to the right places, or missing entirely and cover images being of very low quality, or sometimes just text. And perhaps the thing that rankled most with the customers was the price. Even still it seems strange, a new hardback edition of Terry Pratchett’s Raising Steam costs £9 on Amazon, and the Kindle version costs £8.55. It seems strange to a customer the electronic version that entails no additional manufacturing or shipping costs should cost the same as the hardback version. While more and more people are starting to use e-book readers, the savings in book publication to these formats doesn’t appear to have been passed on to the customers, making the traditional publishers seem slightly shady.

The Future?

Overall what we’re currently seeing is a levelling of the playing field. Self and Independent publishing is getting more professional from start to finish, and a lot of that is because the traditional publishing companies alongside smaller, independent companies are providing the separate services that before you would only have got through a publishing contract.

We’re starting to see a hybrid publishing route emerging where publishing companies are no longer having to invest their own money in getting books to market, but will take the author’s money to do so, a system far more like the old vanity publishing of the late 90’s. But this hybrid route takes away a lot of the independence that self-publish gives, and can still cost a lot of money and still leaves the author up against the distribution wall.

Thankfully though, we’re also starting to see something else emerging. Smaller publishing companies are recognising the need and are starting to help, and I know of a couple of different groups also looking to start up new publishing companies specifically for self-publishers, to provide the services that they need, at a cost that is a lot lower than those available at the moment, or for a share of any profits that may accrue. These existing and emerging companies provide the filter that is seen as being needed for self-published authors, a trustworthy recommendation of the quality of the work along with distribution channels that can get the books to market.

The publishing world is changing, and the speed of that change is increasing. Hopefully the big five will learn from the mistakes that both the music and film industries made with restrictive distribution, and will embrace the emerging wave of self and independent publishers without trying to lock them into overly complicated legal agreements and pricing structure, or lock them out of the market altogether. Because if they do, they’ll soon find themselves left behind as the smaller companies start to take over.

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