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The Cruel Paradox of Self-Publishing

Published in The Atlantic.

Earlier this summer, Penguin Group, long a distinguished major publisher of books, paid $116 million to acquire Author Solutions Inc. A leading provider of self-publishing services, Author Solutions said that since it was formed in 2007, “it has enabled 150,000 authors to publish, market and distribute more than 190,000 books in print and electronic formats.” The transaction is a significant breakthrough in what has become a vital factor in the publishing landscape of the digital age. For the first time, an established publisher, the second largest in the world, with about 40 imprints in the United States, is delivering its reputation and management resources to support the vast number of people who want to write a book that, for a variety of reasons, does not make it to a traditional list. By adding Author Solutions, with revenues last year said to be about $100 million, to such pedigreed Penguin names as Viking, Penguin Classics, Putnam, and Dutton, the concept of self-publishing has moved away from what was always known as “vanity publishing.” While these authors are still mainly paying to see their works turned into finished print or e-books, they are no longer consigned just to the margins of the marketplace.

In his remarks when the purchase was announced, Penguin’s CEO, John Makinson, was effusive: “Self-publishing has moved into the mainstream of our industry over the past three years. It has provided new outlets for professional writers, a huge increase in the range of books available to readers and an exciting source of content for publishers such as Penguin. … This acquisition will allow Penguin to participate fully in perhaps the fastest-growing area of the publishing economy and gain skills in customer acquisition and data analytics that will be vital to our future.”

Makinson’s enthusiasm, given Penguin’s commitment, is understandable, but the reality is that self-publishing is still mainly a place for writers to bypass the judgment of publishers and their editors prepared to make literary or commercial guesses about a book’s potential. A thorough assessment of self-publishing by Alan Finder in the New York Times recently observed these benefits: “Digital publishing and print on demand have significantly reduced the cost of producing a book. … Writers who self-publish are more likely to be able to control the rights to their books, set their books’ sale price and keep a larger proportion of the sales.” But he added this unassailable qualification: “Most self-published books sell fewer than 100 or 150 copies, many authors and self-publishing company executives say.”

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