For centuries, the author of a book has been a revered figure, a symbol of intellectual achievement, wisdom and wit, brilliance and, above all, prestige. Indeed, the book, whatever its contents, has been an item of iconic significance.
It is no wonder that a large percentage of people want to write a book. Some have motives that their composition in the covers of a book, however defined as a physical entity or a cyber product, will make them rich and famous; some see such an achievement as an expression of their persona, their point of view, their record of a life lived, a work of the imagination and the fulfillment of a secret wish for immortality.
Some harbor hopes that they can establish careers as full-time writers in genre fiction, or self-help, or advice to improve the lives of others or on subjects that display their knowledge of cooking, history, politics, religion or whatever has absorbed their interest.
Whatever their motives, their ambition is an obsession and they are willing to take the time and muster the discipline to pursue their dreams of authordom, hoping that the words they compose will be read, contemplated and engaged with by others. It is, indeed, a noble aspiration.
Before the advent of the Internet and the e-book reader, publishing was dominated by a hierarchy of professionals who bought, judged, edited and distributed books through a process of middle men and a chain of brick-and-mortar outlets to sell their book offerings for a profit. For those who, for whatever reasons, were rejected by these professionals, there was always what has been called “vanity publishing,” whereby the author pays for the production of his or her book that rarely, if ever, found its way into the distribution channel.
The divide between the professional publisher and the vanity author on the Internet has disappeared. The two are now on equal footing in the Internet distribution chain, which is surging and will eventually dominate the book business. Now, any author who writes whatever book he or she chooses is on equal distribution footing with the professional publisher on the Net.
The result, which I view as an unintended consequence, is that the floodgates have opened for the wannabe writer of book content and all those who hungered to write a book and see it distributed to a point where the self-published book will undoubtedly outpace the traditional book publishing industry by huge numbers, perhaps by millions.
Consider, too, the vast number of out of print books and the back list books of published authors that will be reincarnated on the net. Ten million available books on the net is not an unreasonable possibility.
It has spawned a huge new industry that covers every area of the book production and marketing chain. There are hundreds of outlets that can convert a manuscript into formats that will fit any platform. Apparently, any book content properly formatted is acceptable to the main e-book and POD retailers. Write a book and it can enter the system in days and theoretically compete with every other book in the marketplace.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands of book bloggers have emerged offering reviews, some paid for, presenting themselves as advertising mediums. Once respected and allegedly neutral industry review publications like Kirkus will review any book for a price that will undoubtedly offer some favorable quotes for marketing. Other such sites have sprung up as well.
Promoters of every ilk have emerged with the promise of getting one’s book publicized and getting the author on TV and radio outlets. Social networking “experts” abound, promising to create author awareness on Facebook, Twitter and other open venues on the Net. Every form of promotion will have its “stores” on the net, many providing videos, apps, enhancements, and whatever else can be devised for a price. Determined authors with ample funds will be happy to part with their money in their attempt to realize their hopes and dreams.
Many sites offer free conversions and a distribution deal that takes a piece of sales revenue provided the author pursues his own individual marketing program, many of which are offered on the Net for a price.
Because of the vast volume of self-published authors who have been rejected by traditional publishers, it has become a numbers game, where the outlet who designs the content for sale in the online marketing chain takes a percentage of any sales generated by the author. The truth is that the vast majority of self-published authors will barely sell more than fifty to one hundred books, after his chain of friends and relatives have been exhausted. Thus, the company that produces the formats for distribution has found a way for the individual author to be a freelance sales agent for the company who has put the book into the marketing chain.
The company with the most books under contract can make a fairly hefty living with its battalions of authors out there beating the drum for their book sales. Small sales numbers for each self-published book adds up.
As for the quality of the book offering which, in any event, is subjective, the honest filters of the past will be rare. Anyone can be a self-proclaimed literary critic. Perhaps they will attract clusters of fans but there will be so many of them it will be difficult for a layman reader to make a choice.
The fact is that there is little chance for a self-published author to expect to earn enough to do such work full-time, unless he keeps his day job, has a pension, or is independently self-sufficient. Some might do it. Good for them.
I do not wish to cast any aspersions on the business practice of those who have discovered the benefits of catering to the self-published. It is legitimate and in many ways satisfies the hopes and dreams of the author who can now say he is a published author with his book in a respectable catalogue featuring books by other authors. A novelist can be in an online bookstore with the likes of Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald. A mystery writer can be in an online bookstore with P.D. James and Ruth Rendell. And so it goes for writers on any subject or genre.
This is not to say that there won’t be breakout commercial books for self-published writers. The media will cover them, although some might be contrived or suspect. But even if legitimate, they will be few and far between.
I must confess that although I have been a pioneer in promoting the concept of e-books, I have been stunned by the vast explosion of self-published books. Perhaps this essay has stressed what some might consider the downside of the process.
Actually, the upside is far more gratifying. Writers whose voices had been silenced by the old system now have a chance to present their creative talents to a vast audience despite the difficulties of gaining traction in readership.
They can legitimately call themselves authors and be recognized as such, a satisfaction of great personal import. A press of a button will acknowledge that their work is out there for now and perhaps for all time for their descendents to acknowledge with pride. In some ways, they might consider themselves to have achieved some tiny piece of immortality.
Note I offer no judgments on the quality these ventures only on the virtue of intent and accomplishment. To separate the wheat from the chaff will pose a monumental problem for readers and many talented writers might disappear in the vastness. Who knows how this will play out over time.
Nevertheless, I take my hat off to anyone who can sustain the creative process and find the discipline to write a long form work of the imagination, or can stick with the enormous mental effort to write a book on any subject. In the end, after all the dreams of fame and fortune fade with time, it is the work itself that really counted.