The Gatekeeper is Dead and the Gate is Open

Some of you already know that I have recently been experimenting with self-publishing. With one small, less than stunning experiment I did about seven years ago, I have generally been skeptical of the process and, like most writers, saw my literary future in the hands of traditional publishers. In fact, two years ago, I published my first novel Dark Side of the Moon and a couple of shorter works with a fine small publisher. Nothing I say here diminishes my respect for my publisher or for the role traditional publishing plays and will continue to play in the production and distribution of literary products. (I hope this description doesn't sound too "commercial," but the nature of reading, how we do it and how those things we read are produced is changing and the books of tomorrow may bear as little  resemblance to today's volumes as a paperback bears to a cuneiform tablet or a parchment scroll.)

Anyway, the self publishing industry as changed dramatically just over the past five years. It has become easier, more accessible, more digital and more profitable. It has also killed the gatekeepers or, at least, seriously wounded them and distributed the keys to anyone with a computer.

What has changed can be summed up in one word - Kindle. Now, my personal favorite dedicated ereader is Nook, and I read most of my ebooks (both Nook and Kindle) on iPad, but you have to give Amazon props for making ereading accessible to just about anyone with an internet connection. It also made low cost publishing accessible to just about everyone.

Of course, self publishing has been around for a long time. Many evangelists and people on the lecture circuit self-published their books for sales at their events. And, certainly, many con artists running "vanity presses," took advantage of would be authors charging them thousands of dollars claiming to "publish" their books, when, in fact, all they did was print them up at exorbitant prices leaving the authors with a box full of books and no way to sell them.

The problem, of course, was that bookstores wouldn't carry self-published books. You can understand their reticence. They had only a certain amount of shelf space. They can't read everything they sell. They have to depend on the publisher acting as a gatekeeper to filter out the really bad stuff. Then they turned to the reviewers for the publishing trade journals. Since bookstores wouldn't carry self-published books, the reviewers wouldn't review them. See the problem. The bookstores wouldn't carry books that hadn't been reviewed and the reviewers wouldn't review the books bookstores would be unlikely to carry.

Certainly, some authors might get a local bookstore to carry their book. If the book dealt with local history or had another local emphasis, their chances were improved. But getting widespread distribution was virtually impossible.

Things started to change as early as the mid-90s when Amazon really started to become a major force in bookselling. They started taking self-published printed books. You still had to pay for the printing, ISBN number and send them several copies and keep them supplied with copies as they sold out. It wasn't perfect, but it was a kick in the shins of the gatekeepers. The volume was still low and cost per unit sold was high. That meant that you could not compete on price in any meaningful way against the Big publishers. Additionally, Amazon still accounted for a relatively small part of the book selling market. You might not remember, but in 2000 fewer than half of all households had internet service. Cell phones only made calls. And a tablet was something with paper you wrote on.

In 2010 approximately one in four books sold were bought through Amazon. Some suggest that this year, that number could be closer to half if you include ebook sales.

There is a very telling graph at http://www.fonerbooks.com/booksale.htm . It shows bookstore sales for Barnes Noble bookstores, Borders Bookstore and Amazon sales over the past decade.

In 2002 Amazon had sales of $2 billion dollars. Barnes Noble in store sales had roughly twice that volume. In 2010 BN had roughly $4.25 billion and trending downward. Amazon by contrast had over $7 billion and rising. In short fewer people are buying books in a bookstore. They are buying them online. Okay, you can call that blunt force trauma to the gatekeeper. With Amazon welcoming just about anyone with a book to sell and selling more volume than BN and Borders combined, the gatekeepers were pretty much down for the count.

But wait! Self publishing is still expensive and complicated, right? At one time that was the case. but then along came publish on demand and a little thing called Kindle Direct Publishing. First print on demand created a method where you uploaded a PDF of your book or even a MS-Word file to a POD publisher like Lulu or Amazon's own CreateSpace. The technology made the process simpler, but the product still produced units at prices that limited how much you could discount them and still show a profit. However, some good marketing, and, of course, some good writing could produce a profitable book.

But the real breakthrough for writers was Kindle Direct Publishing and, to a lesser extent Pub-it with Barnes Noble and Mark Coker's Smashwords. But Kindle is still the leader, and its association with Amazon, the internet's leading bookstore, provided unparalleled opportunities for writers, and pretty much wrote the gatekeeper's obituary.

With Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) a writer without any significant technical expertise could write their book using just plain old MS-Word and Kindle's own conversion software and produce an ebook which would be published live on Kindle within 12 hours if the formatting was correct. The cost of production - ZERO!

Even more important, the writer can set the price anywhere from 99 cents on up. They can receive 35 - 70% royalties on all sales. Compare that with standard traditional print royalties of 5 - 15% - often on the wholesale price and not the cover price. You could sell a $10 book and get only 50 cents. I get 35 cents selling books at 99 cents and I'm probably selling a lot more books at that price than at $10 a pop, especially as an "unknown."

Of course, there are reasons, publishing companies, especially the larger, more well established companies pay such a low royalty. First, most are print first, digital later. Producing a print book costs a lot up front. There's paying for editing, formatting, cover design, print setup, printing and shipping. Even "cheap" paperbacks are $8-10 making them anything but an impulse buy. Print books (and many ebooks by name authors) have become luxury items and not cheap entertainment.

But the self-published author has the advantage. S/he can set the price just about anywhere they want. I've chosen the 99 cent price point. It works for me. Since I'm an unknown quantity to most who will find my books on Kindle, charging 99 cents reduces their risk and they get to know me. Also it encourages impulse buying. However, a traditional publisher has to charge at least five times that just in order to make any reasonable profit.

So, the writer is no longer at the mercy of the traditional publishing industry. S/he has the direct to reader option. Now, this is more work, but more profitable. However, if the author prefers to write, submit and let the publisher take care of everything after writing, that is an option as well. However, for good books, traditional publishers can no longer rest easy knowing they are the only shows in town.

I'm not saying self-publishing is right for every one or that traditional publishers do not provide a valuable service. I am saying, that they day of the writer being at the mercy of the traditional publishing community. Yes, a lot of garbage is tramping over the gatekeeper now, but people will vote with their feet. They will buy the good stuff and ignore the bad. The marketplace, and not a few editors, will decide what finds its way into the public arena.

It's going to be a rocky ride for many of us, but it's also going to be an exciting one.

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