Things have changed since the days of D H Lawrence, Alexandre Dumas and T S Eliot, all of whom self published. In the era since the media conglomerates took over and literary stardom is currency, self publishing has been tantamount to tattooing "not good enough to be published" across your forehead.
But there's a growing number of people publishing their books direct to their readers online, bypassing not just traditional publishers but paper altogether. What used to be a last resort is now a badge of honour with ebook self-publishers grabbing headlines and climbing best seller lists.
After making US$2m selling her own novels through her website and the Amazon Kindle store, paranormal romance novelist Amanda Hocking announced this week she's signed a four-book deal with St Martin's Press. Her fans love the way she's barnstormed the hallowed halls that rejected her so many times and the she's captured the public imagination to such a degree the movie deal has just been announced too.
The path to self e-publishing has been made considerably easier not just because the tools in the digital toolset have made it easy to produce an ebook, the long awaited explosion of ereading devices has made it easy for readers to buy and read them.
But it's not just the hardware and the content that have exploded in popularity. Services that bridge the gap between writer and reader have grown exponentially. Smashwords founder Mark Coker thinks even the big publishers are being caught on the hop. "It's difficult for most authors and publishers to fathom the rapid pace with which reading is moving away from paper to screens," he says. "Here in the US, ebooks accounted for about 9 per cent of book sales in 2010, up from 3 per cent in 2009, 1 per cent in 2008, and 0.5 per cent in 2007."
Where the difference between self and traditionally published books used to be simply about quality, the line is constantly blurring. With Hocking already a multimillionaire and big name authors getting lower advances while the book business bleeds profits, it's too hard to put a finger on what constitutes a 'legitimate' book release.
That's especially the case when even the biggest authors around have self published their work in ebook form. As far back as 2000, Stephen King posted a book called The Plant one chapter at a time through his website. He used an honour system where he'd post the next part if enough people paid for downloading the previous one. There was an initial flurry of activity but demand dropped off and King posted the last instalment of the as-yet unfinished book in December 2000. Perhaps if he'd done so in the Kindle and iPad age the result would have been far different - back then there was little to read on but a computer monitor.
The activity from both sides of the self publishing divide begs the question of whether the end point of self publishing your ebook is to get a contract from a big publisher, as it used to be for many. H P Mallory is an urban fantasy and paranormal romance author who, like Hocking, sells through her website and the Amazon store. She thinks it's still a legitimate goal, saying "it makes you much more attractive in the eyes of traditional publishing houses since you are less of a risk."
And the now-tired refrain that we'll never give up books on paper is not only true, it's still a commercial imperative, even for ebook publishers. A lot more people don't own Kindles than those that do, and most ebook publishers offer at least a print on demand version of a title.
"Some publishers release first in ebook and then paper if the electronic sales warrant it," says Laurie Sanders, founder and director of US based romance epublisher Black Velvet Seductions. Small publishers can't usually afford the returns policy of their bigger contemporaries, where perhaps 30 percent of a title is expected to be returned and pulped. But even though Sanders says she takes a hit at the bookshop point of sale where people make impulse buys, "We compete very well when the playing field is level."
But the big question is still quality. When anyone can log into their Smashwords account and upload their ebook for sale, won't the book content of the world drown in the mire of cliché and badly edited prose? Coker thinks there's been a bigger problem thus far that's driving the change. "Traditional publishing has failed readers," he says emphatically. "They controlled the printing press and access to distribution so they decided what got published. They value books through a myopic prism of perceived commercial potential, so books of literary merit with small potential audiences and books that are truly ahead of their time are denied publishing opportunity. Readers value diversity and freedom of choice."
HP Mallory goes further by arguing that the traditional method of the market still stands. In the world of instant Amazon rankings, reviews, blog post comments and tweets, readers will find the gems amid the dross and propel them to the top of the pile organically. "The beauty is that it allows the reader to be in charge of what he or she wants to read, not a gatekeeper in New York looking for the same old, same old," she adds.
You might have noticed a theme so far. Black Velvet Seductions is a romance publisher, and both Hocking and Mallory are paranormal romance writers. Have readers of the still-exploding romance fantasy category driven the ebook charge, or would ebooks still be the talk of the publishing world in a universe where Stephanie Meyer's Twilight never existed?
HP Mallory thinks it's simply because the demand is there so they stand out, but Black Velvet Seductions' Sanders goes further. The economies of scale of ebooks have allowed publishers to push the envelope to cater for reader demand, finding or creating niches catering to more specialised tastes - a need the likes of Harlequin and Avon can't meet with their mass production and broad (many would say "bland") appeal. "Many romance readers have wanted more erotic content in their romance novels for a long time," she says.
In the end, if you still aren't convinced self-epublishing is a viable path to follow, look at the numbers. Through a service like Smashwords or the Amazon store an author like Hocking or Mallory keeps 60-70 per cent of each sale, versus 10-20 per cent with a traditional publisher. "So the question," says Smashword's Mark Coker, "is changing from 'why would you self-publish' to 'why wouldn't you?'"
The Australian Scene
Despite the iPad and Kindle hype ebooks don't seem to have nearly the presence or popularity in Australia that they do in the US, even accounting for our smaller population.
Mark Coker of Smashwords has a different story to tell when it comes to authors. Many of your peers have already jumped on the bandwagon. "We're publishing over 1,000 authors from Australia and introducing them to a worldwide audience," says Smashwords' Mark Coker. "We're one of a small handful of authorised global aggregators for the Apple iBookstore [US, Canada, UK, Germany, France and Australia], and such a broad geographic reach gives us a unique perspective."
Coker also says we're buying ebooks in healthy volumes in Australia too. "When the Apple iBookstore launched in Australia it carried over 10,000 books from Smashwords. In February 2011 we sold more books in Australia than in the UK, France and Germany combined. Australia is our number two market in the Apple iBookstore after the US."
Coker also thinks the market here is doing us a disservice no matter how many parallel importation task forces we want to convene. "Here you have an extremely literate, affluent and well-educated population who are hungry for books, but they're too expensive. The average ebook at Smashwords is priced under AU$5."
Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing