The dead end of DIY publishing

Self-published novelists – the Rodney Dangerfields of the book world — are finally getting some respect. But are they better off?
By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  July 3, 2012

JUST PUSH THE BUTTON! Novelist and blogger J.A. Kornrath has been outspoken in his hatred for traditional publishing and its “Machiavellian agenda.”

It all started with Still Alice. In 2008, after it was rejected by a flotilla of agents, a Harvard-educated neuroscientist named Lisa Genova self-published a novel about a 50 -year-old Harvard professor with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. It debuted at number five on the New York Times bestseller list, earned positive reviews, and was eventually picked up by Simon and Schuster.

In 2009, a writer named Karen McQuestion sold the film rights to her self-published novel, the first deal of its kind.

The following year, thriller writer J.A. Konrath claimed to make his living solely from the sales of his self-published novels.

In 2011, after moving over a million units of young adult paranormal romance, a group home worker from rural Minnesota named Amanda Hocking signed a $2 million deal with St. Martin's Press.

Earlier this year, 50 Shades of Grey — a novel that originated on Twilight fan fiction message boards — shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list and was purchased and re-published by Vintage.

Established authors are doing it, too. In the past year, Barry Eisler, Neal Pollack, and Stephen King all self-published e-books. Amazon has started a publishing division, Amazon West, to put out proven titles from self-published authors. These days, even literary agents — those revenants of the old guard — comb the Amazon bestseller lists for self-published authors with solid sales figures.

Back in the bad old days, after being rejected by traditional publishing channels, an author would shelve his dreams of fame and fortune, overcome his shame, and fork over the cash to put out his book himself. Some were taken in by unscrupulous fake publishing houses who promised them untold riches (as the blog of one victim reads, "There were no European book fairs, no Bowker reviews, no Carnival cruise, or no Hollywood movies.")

Our author would have to schlep his wares to area bookstores, where they would be subject to the approval of a beleaguered manager who already that week had to ward off 20 other self-published authors angry that their novels weren't in the center of the front table. Once there, barring some unlikely providence, the book would languish on the shelf until our author picked up the unsold copies after a few scant months of little-to-no sales.

Today, however, the Rodney Dangerfield of the book world is finally getting some respect. Amazon, e-readers, and print-on-demand services have all enabled those without third-party representation to reach a national audience.

Some self-published authors talk about the current developments in militaristic terms: it's a battle. It's a war. It's a revolution that will lead to the death of the publishing industry. Accordingly, the self-publishing sphere has rebranded itself "indie publishing," even though its venue, Amazon, is the largest, most dominant corporate force in the book world.

Recently, academic and Internet pundit Clay Shirky told, "Publishing is not evolving. Publishing is going away. Because the word 'publishing' means a cadre of professionals who are taking on the incredible difficulty and complexity and expense of making something public. That's not a job anymore. That's a button. There's a button that says 'publish,' and when you press it, it's done."

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