From blog to book: the art of self-publishing
By Jenny Roper Friday, 15 June 2012
Ten years ago, if you had something to say - fictional or otherwise - it was likely that no one would ever hear it or, more importantly in this case, read it.
For the frustrated writer, internet blogs were unvisited principalities of geekdom and a book deal was harder to win than the National Lottery. There was self-publishing, but the short-run printed product was so expensive most could not afford to indulge. Hence, those with the urge to splurge their thoughts on the world were muted by technology and opportunity.
Today, it’s a very different story for your story. While opportunities for a mainstream book deal are still scarce, technology has upped its game and blown open the routes to market for those with a desire to publish their words. Much of the activity occurs online, in the form of ebooks, blogs and web journals, with it being a simple click of a button in most cases to become a published author online. However, digital print advances mean that self-publishing in the print format is also a very different game from what it once was and one that is giving printers an interesting opportunity. How much of an opportunity, though, is debateable.
What is clear is that we are now in an age of feverish self-publishing. Leading blog platform Wordpress says that in 2011 100,000 new blogs were started every day, while ebooks, partly made up of self-publishers, have grown to outsell printed books on Amazon and on other online retail outlets. Print, though, has also seen a surge in self-publishing.
"If I think back to when we were doing self publishing 14 years ago when digital print first came out, we were looking at maybe half a dozen authors a month if we were lucky," reports Dale Burgess, sales and marketing manager at commercial and book printers Berforts. "Whereas now you’re looking at thousands of prospective clients every month."
"It’s all to do with the online revolution and that all being about having your say," adds Harriet Smart, an experienced ebook and print self-publisher, and co-developer of ebook creation software Jutoh. "Printed self-publishing is a sort of physical wing of that online movement," she says.
Print has very much earned its place as this wingman. Advances in digital print – as well as in the pre-media and finishing processes that have emerged around it – have meant that high-quality, short-run publishing is affordable and available from a whole assortment of print service providers, both big and small. In the best cases, publication of a print tome, like that of an epublication, can also be done via a single click of a button through a website.
Yet, as easy-to-use and high quality as digital print may be for the self-publishing author, the general publishing trends of late cannot be ignored if you’re a printer thinking of entering the market. Printed books, magazines and newspapers are for the most part declining as online media poach readerships. There are, of course, several publications bucking the trend, and it is by no means a given that the downward spiral will continue, but the reasonable fear for any printer rushing into the self-publishing market would be that he or she is hopping aboard a sinking ship.
The answer may well depend on the type of work in question. That is certainly the view of online self-published book vendors Bubok, which was recently launched in the UK market. Justine Petrenko, head of internationalisation, reveals: "If someone is publishing a novel or poems they tend to prefer a physical book, but if it’s something about technology, computers, the internet or marketing it will usually be published as an ebook," she says.
These are not strict battle lines, however, as some fiction authors and poets will launch a title as an ebook before moving into print. This is because the online platform is far cheaper than print, despite technological advances in digital print reducing the costs of a physical book.
"We see lots of people using ebooks to first test to see if people are interested in their work, and then ordering printed copies when they’ve built up a following," confirms Petrenko.
Self-publisher Harriet Smart did just this. "I published my first crime novel, The Butchered Man, as an ebook but then had it printed because people kept asking for it in print,’" she says.
Hence, keeping an eye on the self-publishing websites for good sellers and approaching those authors with offers for a print version may well be a good tactic for printers.
It’s not just ebooks where the potential print market for self-publishing lies, however – blogs are proving fertile ground. It is now relatively common for bloggers to either gather together their own best posts, or for others to gather together a collection of bloggers’ work, and to put them into a printed book.
This is not to say that the printed self-published book has to be a byproduct of an online experiment. Some more mainstream writers are opting to self-publish over getting a book deal in order to take control of their own affairs and this inevitably involves a print element as well as an online one.
Also giving ballast to the printed self-publishing boat is what Alison Baverstock, course leader of Kingston University’s MA in publishing and author of The Naked Author: a guide to self-publishing, calls photo-rich formats. She would add these to the categories Petrenko earlier singled out as print-first titles, as these picture-heavy books simply work better in print than on low-resolution computer screens and so are a stable area for printers in the self-publishing market. In this category, Baverstock includes art, photography, cookery books and, particularly popular at the moment, memoirs and local history books.
"I’m seeing an awful lot of people deciding to write down the stories of their lives and pass them on to family members, and those people are generally going for a printed format," says Baverstock.
She adds that in this personal history category, though, it is not just the more photo-orientated products that get a print-first outing – she says that even text-heavy memoirs tend to be self-published in print straight off. This suggests another dimension to the self-publishing market that many printers may overlook – the personal element.
Self-publishing is a highly personal area, with the end product often being the culmination of a lifetime’s expectation and many years’ work. Just because only close family may ever read it, the importance of the book is no less diminished for the author and, for many, that means a print book, no matter how uneconomical, is always going to be the first choice.
"Having the book available in print as well as an ebook was partially a sort of luxury on my part rather than a terribly well thought-out, strategic business move," admits Smart.
"As a newly published author, you want to have a tangible book that is proof of your efforts," adds Petrenko. "Lots of people have dreamed about publishing a book for so many years and when they actually have it in their hands, that’s huge."
For this side of the market, the personal side, it is not necessarily just digital print technology that the printer would therefore need – the customer is probably after the sort of bespoke service and finish more akin to traditional book binding. Indeed, Baverstock reckons a must for any printer looking at any area of self-publishing is a personable, hands-on service.
Good business opportunity
"If a printer can build a reputation for being friendly to deal with, offering good advice and being well connected, I think self-publishing is a really good business opportunity for them," she says. "Printing a book is much more than just a physical action; it’s an emotional connection with a process. So making a link with a local printer is a lovely human thing for a lot of self-publishers."
Ironically, then, amongst all this advanced technology that created the self-publishing market – with its aim of providing a modern, one-click-and-you’re-done service – a very traditional service appears to be of the most paramount importance for many self-publishers.
This is something Adam Roppert, print manager at book and journal printers Imprint Digital, certainly found. "Self-published items are clearly personal to people, so I think it’s important that printers provide a human interaction side to things," he says.
And part and parcel of this helpful, hands-on approach, is advising on other services besides print, adds Berforts’ Burgess.
"There is plenty of work around in the self-publishing market but you do need a lot of knowledge to compete," he says, explaining that offering extra publishing-related services, such as marketing, distribution, proofing and provision of ISBN numbers, is all very valuable to those looking to self-publish. At present, for Berforts that list does not include producing the ebooks themselves, but that service is something others have offered and is a useful way of gaining more market share.
However, there is more than enough work on the print side to keep printers busy if they do not opt to offer ebooks too. Much of the self-publishing work may originate and then stay online, and there may well be a downward trend in print formats in some areas, but there is also a whole range of products that do require a print format.
Advances in digital print technology and the personal touch printers are famed for mean that this is a growth market, one with real long-term potential, for those who wish to get into it
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