Before the 19th century it was common for writers to publish themselves, a practice that carried no particular stigma, but wasn’t always convenient. One author in Paris had to direct buyers of his books to his home on “Mazarine Street, above the Café de Montpellier, on the second floor using the staircase on the right, at the far end of the alley!” At least these days self-published authors can direct buyers more easily to their website or Amazon page.
As publishing became a mass market business however authors who self-published their books came to be seen as geeks or egotists, and marginalised by the burgeoning publishing business. Bookshops largely refused to stock self-published books and self-published authors were seen as those who simply didn’t produce work that was good enough to be published by the new “traditional” publishing industry.
Today however self-publishing has made a big comeback and offers writers new ways to be successful. At the London Book Fair earlier this year there was a stall rented by eight authors who between them had sold a staggering 16m books – all without the help of a traditional publisher. In the US, Bella Andre, a self-published romance writer got so mad when a publisher challenged her sales figures that she took a photo of her bank statement and sent it to him.
Last year Amazon’s sales of self-published books were around $450m, and in America about a quarter of the books that got an ISBN in 2012 – almost 400,000 titles – were self-published according to Bowker. In 2013 self-published books accounted for one out of every five e-books purchased in Britain according to Nielsen.
Publishers are starting to realise that they have to change. Some, hoping to spot the next hot thing, have started to scour online writing sites, such as Wattpad, where people receive feedback on their work from other users. “Publishers will only be relevant if they can give authors evidence that they can connect their works to more readers than anyone else” admits Markus Dohle, who runs Penguin Random House. Such connection is crucial because the same technology that is making it easier for writers to self-publish (and to keep more of the profits for themselves) , is also making it easier for writers to promote their work directly.
In Cicero’s day authors ready to launch their newest work would gather their friends for a spirited reading. Audiences would cry out when they liked a particular passage. Nowadays writers can achieve a very similar effect by posting their work on-line, and encouraging people to recommend their work to others. Self-publishing it would seem is back!