Self Publishing Changes All the Rules?

On my regular blog, I recently wrote an entry about self publishing in response to a question from Jason Fried at 37signals. On the Radar backchannel, we discussed why I hadn’t put it on the new radar blog. Now, with even the NY Times weighing in on self-publishing, it looks like self-publishing MUST be a major trend on my radar. Let me explain why I think the old order will be recreated, merely with new players.

Every time there’s a new technology for democratizing information dissemination, everyone gets all excited about the idea that this time, the playing field has been leveled. We saw it with the WWW in the early 90s. Now, at last, everyone could be a publisher. Yet within a few years, we saw the rise of new concentrations of media power within the hands of players such as Yahoo!, Google, and other search engines. Before long, small sites are paying search engine optimizers to help them get better placement, or writing for larger sites in order to reach more people.

OK, just kidding. It’s blogs that are going to change all the rules. Anyone can have his or her own pulpit But before long, we start hearing about power laws, blog aggregators are the new media darlings, and suddenly the blogosphere doesn’t seem so flat any more.

No, it will be podcasting. Oops. The aggregation begins again.

OK, really, self-publishing will level the playing field.

No, not really. As “self-publishing” companies like those described in the NY Times article take off, they become the new publishers. They are publishers with a new business model, monetizing the long tail of print publishing by selling a few hundred copies each of tens of thousands of books, but they are publishers nonetheless. They, not the authors, have the relationships with retail distribution (even long tail retailers like Amazon want to deal with centralized suppliers, not tens of thousands of one-book wonders); they, not the authors, have the manufacturing and distribution infrastructure. And now that Amazon is getting into the print-on-demand publishing business with its purchase of BookSurge, all this means is that Amazon is becoming a publisher, not that the fundamental rules of publishing have changed.

As I said in a talk I gave on the ecology of e-book publishing” back in August 2000:

“There are by most accounts 50 or 60 thousand books published a year. If we look at the Amazon-sized databases, we know that several million books are in print. Now, we also know that there are some tens of millions of customers. So, if we have an assumption that the model is the direct sales of all books to all customers, we have a massive mathematical problem. One million books times ten million customers means something like ten trillion possible matchups.

“Now, if you’re Stephen King, you’re visible enough that you can in fact build a direct business. But the reason why wholesalers and retailers exist in the print publishing world isn’t some plot, isn’t some kind of entrenched monopoly. We don’t have this seemingly inefficient distribution system because of diabolical market forces where people have seized the high ground and won’t let it go. You have to deal with simple mathematical reality. Wholesalers aggregate publishers for retailers. Retailers aggregate customers for publishers. They make this thing mathematically more manageable.”

What is interesting to me was the scale of some of the so-called self-publishing companies. According to the Times, AuthorHouse, the largest of the print-on-demand publishers, sold over a million units of 23000 titles in 2003, or about 44 copies per title they publish. One can only assume that the total sales volume has grown significantly since then. That is most definitely long-tail publishing, and that is indeed worthy of note.

P.S. For more of my thoughts over the years on the business of publishing, see the Publishing section of my archive site, There are a bunch of relevant postings from around 2000 that were inspired by the announcement of the now mostly forgotten