It was reported earlier this month by the bibliographic-data provider Bowker that self-published ebooks now account for 12 per cent of the digital-publishing market. In the popular genres of crime, science fiction, fantasy and romance, the figure rises to 20 per cent.
One of the most significant factors in the popularity of the self-published digital book is price. The average self-published ebook costs 99c, a fact that propels the market. Across the digital platforms, ebook bestseller lists are regularly dominated by self-published titles. Last week, for example, five of the top 10 ebooks on amazon.com were by self-published authors, or authors who originally published their own work.
It is not insignificant that all of the self-published titles in the top 10 are adult women's fiction. This correlates with Bowker's research, which shows that the biggest readership for self-published ebooks is women over 45, carrying on what is now thought of as the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon. (Much has been made of the fact that digital formats allow women to read raunchy books in public undetected.)
But just because a book is popular doesn’t mean it is good, and the threat posed by the self-publishing industry is an issue not only of economics but also of quality. Many self-published books are also self-edited, with predictable results.
Literary merit is more difficult to judge, being a matter of taste rather than an objective reality. Adult women's fiction is a case in point: you either enjoy reading formulaic sexual fantasy or you don't. JC Reed's self-published Conquer Your Love and Surrender Your Love ($2.99), for example, which held the number four and number seven spots on amazon.com last week, observe the generic conventions of popular romance.
Cliches abound in both plot and writing, but this is exactly what attracts readers, who look for the familiar rather than for literary flourishes.
The advantages of the self-publishing model for writers such as Reed are clear, although Bowker’s figures also reveal that success stories such as hers are rare: the average self-published writer earns only a few hundred dollars for their endeavours. But the outlay is minimal, there are no high publishing costs, the royalties are almost entirely the writer’s own, and they can bypass agents and editors and appeal directly to readers.
It is not only new writers who are looking to self-publishing. Declan Burke, who writes a crime-fiction column for this newspaper, recently self-published two of his early titles, Eightball Boogie and The Big O, as ebooks, using Amazon's KDP programme.
“Epublishing seemed a good way of reinvigorating interest in the titles,” he says, “so I bought back the rights to both books from the [original] publishers.”
Burke had an advantage, in that his books “had been edited and formatted by professionals” already, and he could use the original reviews to help market them. “It’s true,” he says, “that esales are heavily dependent on me promoting the books, but for the great majority of writers, conventionally published or otherwise, that is the state of play anyway.”
The Pulitzer-winning playwright David Mamet has also recently converted to self-publishing. He will release his next book, Three Stories, through the Perseus Books Group's Argo Navis software.
In interviews, Mamet has been clear about the reasons for his conversion: the failure of traditional publishing, which is dominated by novelty and new trends. “Publishing is like Hollywood,” he says. “Nobody ever does the marketing they promise. I am going to promote the hell out of it.”
It is readers, however, who decide the scale of an ebook’s success. The digital marketplace is as trend-driven as any other, and good reader reviews and bottom-line pricing will determine a book’s visibility in a crowded market. Indeed, traditional publishers have been unable to ignore self-publishing trends, and some have begun to get involved in self-publishing to generate new revenue.
Simon & Schuster and Penguin offer self-publishing services, and Random House has developed an imprint, Hydra, that offers a business model to self-publication aspirants (though the terms of its contracts have drawn criticism: writers neither get the benefits of traditionally published authors nor enjoy the freedoms of self-publication).
Other publishers are on the lookout for self-published bestsellers they can bring into their imprints. Amanda Hocking's vampire fantasy novels, including the Trylle trilogy (94c each), had sold more than a million copies on Amazon when she was signed up by St Martin's Press and Pan Macmillan, so they get a new author on their books with no risk at all.
The literary snob who dismisses self-published ebooks as slush-pile seconds would do well to remember that self-publication was once the standard for classic writers. William Blake originally published the The Marriage of Heaven and Hell himself. (It is now available in a Kindle edition on Amazon for £4.74.) He wrote the text, produced the illustrations, and printed and hand-coloured each page.
You may have to look with a discriminating eye, but there are gems amid the flotsam.
Sara Keating is a cultural journalist who contributes regularly to The Irish Times.