Will Self-Pub Dwindle When There’s Less Backlist for Authors to Exploit?

Smart Set

Welcome to the weekly The Smart Set, where I curate new smart reads about the publishing and media industry. I also point to issues and questions raised, and welcome you to respond or ask your own questions in the comments.

“To seek: to embrace the questions, be wary of answers.”

—Terry Tempest Williams


When an Author Should Self-Publish and How That Might Change by Mike Shatzkin

Industry insider and analyst Mike Shatzkin lays out the value of a traditional publisher, and then goes on to explain when it makes more sense for an author to self-publish. Those scenarios include:

  • Releasing more than one book per year
  • Releasing material that isn’t traditional “book” length
  • Releasing backlist titles — and this one especially

However, Shatzkin finds reason to believe that the desirability of self-publishing may wane over time as publishers adapt to the new market and:

  • Have digital-first imprints with more flexible contracts or attractive deals
  • Publish a wider range of work, of varying lengths
  • Raise royalties

Shatzkin concludes:

Self-publishing and new-style digital-first publishing can grow more to the extent that the book-in-store share of the market shrinks more. But while that’s happening, the big publishers are also adding to their capabilities: building their databases and understanding of individual consumers (something that all the big houses are doing and which the upstarts seem not to believe is happening, or at least not happening effectively), distributing and marketing with increasing effectiveness in offshore markets, and controlling more and more of the global delivery in all languages of the books in which they invest.

Questions raised:

  • Will self-publishing diminish in attractiveness when there’s less backlist for authors to capitalize on?
  • If publishers raise royalties, how much less attractive does self-publishing become?
  • How big of a role does autonomy play in authors’ decisions (as opposed to earnings)?
  • How much will traditional publishers be able to match the dynamic pricing and release models that successful self-pub authors have pioneered?

Is Reading Anti-Social? by Laura Miller

Miller’s piece is sparked by the recent sale of Readmill, a social reading platform, to Dropbox. (The service will not be continued.) Some in the publishing industry have taken it as a larger sign about the viability of social reading—that reading doesn’t want to be social.

The Readmill sale doesn’t particularly interest me, but the idea of social reading does. Social reading—at least as it’s perceived today—means seeing and sharing comments on a text, or building a conversation around a text, usually within a particular community. Thought leader Bob Stein has laid out a taxonomy of social reading here.

We all tend to take it for granted that reading is a solitary (even sacred) activity, but that behavior is fairly new in our history, as Stein would tell you. He argues that as texts move from print to digital, the social aspect of reading (and writing, for that matter) moves to the foreground. Read more about his ideas here.

Questions raised:

  • Was Readmill before its time, or will social reading never take off?
  • Might social reading take off if implemented by Amazon?

Toward a Fair Non-Compete Clause by James Scott Bell

Author James Scott Bell discusses a disturbing clause he recently saw in a New York publisher contract: a very far-reaching non-compete clause that would not allow the author to write, publish, or produce similar material outside of that particular publisher.

Why are these clauses becoming so restrictive and unreasonable? To crack down on self-publishing efforts, primarily.

Questions raised:

  • How prevalent are these clauses? Are agents seeing them too?
  • Are such restrictive clauses going to become the new normal?
  • We’ve now come full circle to questions raised by the Shatzkin piece: if publishers are to become more “current” with their deals and contract templates, these kinds of clauses couldn’t possibly be acceptable to authors—right?

What questions do you have? Share in the comments.

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Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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10 Comments on "Will Self-Pub Dwindle When There’s Less Backlist for Authors to Exploit?"

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Hugh Howey
I agree with Mike. If publishers move to 50% of net, it will stop some of the bleeding. But there will still be more great books written than publishers have the infrastructure to publish, and publishers will never pay 70% of gross or allow authors to control price, so there will always be a competitive force from self-publishing. I think it’s possible that self-publishing sees massive growth before publishers initiate sufficient reforms. When top-notch authors start self-publishing, as Joss Whedon is doing with film, Macklemore & Ryan with music, and Louis CK with comedy, the game will change once again.… Read more »
William Ash
Wow, lots of ideas here. I think Mike’s argument is really limited in that he is just picking a small section of what publishing is and then building an argument. How many self publisher just wanted to get that one book inside them out? How many self publisher use self publishing to support their business like motivational speakers where the book is not the main “product”? Naturally, the backlist, at least for consistent returns, is really important. Author really only have a backlist to do that–a publisher and call up a hundred authors and create a hundred books a year.… Read more »
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Angie Dixon
Interesting question. I self-publish because I want to, though I do fit into one of the scenarios mentioned. I write a LOT. I can put out three or more books in a year. Good books. I happen to write very fast and I work a lot. So a publisher might not want to put out three self-help or writing books by me in a year. There is that. But the reason I self-publish is that I want to. I have had a couple of bad experiences with publishers, and I’m happier as indie author. No one is ever going to… Read more »
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