When Self Publishing Makes Sense

Back in the 70’s and early 80’s publishing was protected by a complex range of typesetting and print considerations which provided a barrier to entry for writers or would be publishers.

Publishers looked after the business side with distribution, marketing and printing all needing serious investment to make the numbers work.

The birth of desktop publishing in 1985 (Pagemaker) started a long term series of changes that have ultimately led to every person and his/her dog (lots of dogs! in old school publishing terms) having a go at self publishing. The largest of these is Lulu. Their corporate profile makes a few points as included below.

“To be clear, Lulu is not a publisher. It’s a digital marketplace guided by a vision of empowerment and accessibility, and built on a business model that has proven wildly successful.

The rapid growth of Lulu, which is being driven by over 15,000 new registrations a week and more than 100, 000 unique visitors everyday, is built on its proven ability to grab hold of the long tail of user-generated content and provide an empowering outlet for creators of all types.

Lulu eliminates traditional entry barriers to publishing, and enables content creators and owners – authors and educators, videographers and musicians, businesses and nonprofits, professionals and amateurs – to bring their work directly to their audience.

First, they use Lulu’s tools to format their digital content. Then they take advantage of Lulu’s dedicated marketplace, custom storefronts and advanced listing and distribution services to make their books, videos, CDs, DVDs, calendars, reports and more available to as many, or as few, people around the world as they like, earning 80% of all creator revenue, of which millions of dollars has already been paid out.

As the creation of user-generated content has grown exponentially, Lulu has been at the forefront of this still rapidly growing curve. Traditional book publishers in the United States published roughly 120,000 books a year.

Lulu alone published 98,000 new titles globally, created by some of our almost 1.2 million registered users. In addition, Lulu has empowered creators to post, sell, and share hundreds of thousands of videos, music downloads, artistic creations and great photography.”

Ross Dawson had some very pertinent things to say about when self publishing makes sense using the example provided by David Maister.

“Many more established authors and creative people are going to start making the same choices as David. Since much of the profitability of publishers comes from their big sellers, this is going to prove a problem.

There is absolutely a lot of value that publishers can create, but it is primarily for those early or in the middle of their creative careers. After that, the power and choice shifts to the author, now that it is so easy to self-publish, and the stigma is quickly disappearing.”

You should read his full post. Here is a great diagram from Ross.

“In my book Living Networks I proposed a basic “Creative Career” trajectory, illustrated below.

Ross goes on to say:

The most basic career strategy for content creators is quite simple. In the early stages, use the free flow of the networks to distribute direct, demonstrate that you can tap an attractive market, and attract the interest of a publisher. New York reggae and ska band The Pilfers sold 10,000 CDs at its concerts and on its website, using the leverage to secure a favorable record deal with Universal Music Group.

Many others have signed contracts with record labels on the basis of the success of their freely distributed MP3s.

In the next stage, you work with the publishers for as long as it is worthwhile, getting them to take much of the risk, and commit capital to advances and promotion. Finally, hopefully with reputation well established, you can once again distribute direct, taking all the profits.

Many rock stars later in their career, like David Bowie, Todd Rundgren, or the estate of Frank Zappa, sell directly to their fans. Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert cartoon, chose to publish his first non-Dilbert book, God’s Debris, directly as an ebook, later also selling a hardcopy version. He had full creative control, and could reap all the profits. This generic creative career strategy is illustrated above.

David Maister’s step fits exactly into this analysis. Having used publishers to help gain credibility and a strong audience for his work, it no longer makes sense for him to sell through a publisher. He can self-publish, and take all the value for himself, instead of giving the bulk to a publisher for little value.”

I do recommend reading the full post which includes quotes from David Maister. I’m just dashing out the door for a week in NZ’s deep South so don’t have as much time to write  this week.