DIY books: Inside the self-publishing revolution

Why writers are turning away from traditional publishers

2nd August 2018

Over the last decade, self-publishing has established itself as a popular and lucrative alternative to the traditional publishing house. Did you know that EL James originally published the infamous Fifty Shades series in the print-on-demand arena? Or that Andy Weir self-published The Martian, a novel that would become an award-winning Hollywood blockbuster in 2015?

What used to be an industry for amateur writers is now attractive to any author who desires creative control, a quick turnaround and direct access to their readers. With the rise of Amazon, the e-book and the hyper-connectivity of the internet, self-published authors now have the tools to stand on equal footing to the “big five” publishing houses.

It’s surprisingly challenging to locate the exact number of self-published books as Amazon doesn’t disclose its e-book figures. However, Bowker gives a flavour of the industry’s rapid growth with its report that the number of ISBN’s (International Books Sales Numbers) for self-published US titles has increased by 218% since 2011.

Publishing your own work is a demanding process, yet it arguably reaps greater rewards. Indie authors are entrepreneurs who must handle everything themselves, from the design of the book cover to finding their own audience. However, they receive a higher slice of the profit in return — Amazon’s digital service promises up to 70% in royalties. Although you won’t be winning the next Man Booker prize, you’ll have total control over your work.

The Overtake spoke to self-published authors about why they’re shunning the publishing giants in favour of a DIY approach.

Andy Conway, a prolific self-publisher and co-founder of Birmingham indie collective New Street Authors, connects the surge of interest in self-publishing to the shocking decline in the income of published authors. Only last month, a report from the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society claimed that the average earnings for professional writers have fallen by 15% since 2013, and a huge 42% since 2005.

“More and more writers are cottoning on to the benefits of being indie,” he says.

“They’re seeing unknown, midlist authors making comfortable livings in micro-genres that corporate publishing tells us there’s no market for – I just heard of a writer making $5k a month from Westerns.”

The promise of creative freedom

Many authors turn to self-publishing after struggling to get their voices heard through publishing’s traditional avenues. Coming from a background in theatre, David Wake, Andy’s co-founder and fellow self-publisher, wanted that immediate audience reaction to his work.

Near future as a sub-genre doesn’t exist in book shops because, by the time it gets there, it’s in the alternative history section!

“Traditional publishers just weren’t even reading submissions and if they did, they took forever. I wrote a novel, ‘I, Phone’, set in the near future and it took two years before the publishers admitted they’d lost it,” he says. “Near future as a sub-genre doesn’t exist in book shops because, by the time it gets there, it’s in the alternative history section!”

Working with publishers is a collaborative effort — they provide the marketing muscle to reach a mass audience but they also have great influence over the creative direction of an author’s work. It’s no surprise that self-publishing is now facilitating some of the most unusual and ground-breaking stories, while traditional publishing continues to produce books with guaranteed mainstream appeal.

“Traditional publishers would have insisted I write this series and only this series,” Wake says.

“Whereas I’ve published Science Fiction, steampunk, a political novel and I’ve something set in Ancient Japan in the pipeline.

“Traditional publishing locked Douglas Adams in a hotel room to force him to produce another Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Imagine what someone of that genius would have produced if he’d been allowed to write what he wanted?”

Empowering the author

AA Abbott, a self-published author of urban crime thrillers, values both the speed and complete control of the self-publishing process.

AA Abbott
AA Abbott

“When I’m ready to publish, I can have a book on sale within days,” she says.

“A lot of people don’t realise that it can take 2 years for a traditional publisher to get a book out into the world, and they exert tight control over the creative process.

“I can choose the editor, cover designer and book description I want, rather than have them imposed on me.”

Alongside her traditional paperbacks, AA Abbott publishes dyslexia-friendly copies, complete with cream background and large print. The special editions are printed to order and AA, real name Helen Blenkinsop, urges fellow authors to use the freedom of self-publishing to make their writing accessible.  

10% of adults are dyslexic, but traditional publishers won’t print books for them

“Self-publishing enables me to take risks that traditional publishers won’t,” she says.

“For example, 10% of adults are dyslexic, but traditional publishers won’t print books for them.”

Creating a community

Wake and Conway are co-authors of Punk Publishers, a DIY guide to the self-publishing world that demonstrates how to get your work to a global audience at the touch of a few buttons.

Andy Conway and David Wake are founders of Punk Publishers

“It’s ‘punk’ in the same way that bands in the late ’70s gave up on the big music business and did it themselves, formed their own record labels, put their discs out there and built a following,” Wake says.

There are also many communities offering support and guidance to self-published authors, including the Alliance of Independent Authors and the Birmingham-based New Street Authors.

“You have to do everything yourself, all those publishing jobs including editing, cover design, marketing and making your own tea, so New Street Authors is a way of bringing fellow indies together to share experience and swap skills.”

The Amazon effect

Despite its bad press for crushing booksellers on the high street, the world domination of Amazon has kick-started a new era of self-publishing with the launch of Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) in 2007. By providing free access to the same channels of distribution as traditional publishers, Amazon has broken the glass ceiling of the publishing world.

Printed copies of the Milk and Vine book
Printed copies of the Milk and Vine book

And this accessibility certainly has its drawbacks. In a market saturated with titles, it can be a struggle for self-published authors to establish themselves. From “Facebook Killer” Derek Medina’s tragic range of self-help books to Kim Kardashian’s 445 pages of selfies, questionable texts have cast doubt over the credibility of self-publishing.

However, Amazon’s new model is also empowering to those writing outside the mainstream genres.

Adam Gasiewski, one half of the student duo behind Milk and Vine, could not believe it when their book, created as a joke among friends, became the number 1 bestseller on Amazon.

In October 2017, Gasiewski and co-author Emily Beck thought it would be a laugh to replace Rupi Kaur’s well-lauded prose with references to Vine, the home of viral six-second clips. Within a few days, their parody of Milk and Honey was live on Amazon through their KDP service.

“They make the process very simple,” Gasiewski says.“I made a Word Document, typed up the manuscript, created a book cover in Photoshop, and then submitted those files to Amazon. They even provide the ISBN for free.

“Within a day or two, it was approved and live for sale!”

After years of being told that his erudite writing would struggle to find a mainstream audience, Conway saw Amazon as a window into the world of literary fiction.

“When I discovered that Amazon had effectively democratised the means of distribution for publishing, I looked at that folder of rejected novels and thought ‘bingo’,” he says.

“Within a year I’d published eleven titles, including the first two books of the Touchstone series that now has fans around the world.”

Self-publishing in a digital age

Despite being angled towards an incredibly niche audience, Milk and Vine soared to the top of the Amazon chart after Gasiewski shared his venture on Twitter.

If you have an internet connection and a computer, you can publish a book

“We never expected this to reach more than just a few of our friends but now Milk and Vine is in the hands of hundreds of thousands of people around the globe,” he says.

“I still can’t believe that two kids in a dorm room were able to climb past opening-week releases from Barack Obama, Jeff Kinney, and more top authors with thousands of dollars of advertising and agents to promote their books.”

Adam praises the internet for removing the barriers of entry into fields such as book publishing and encourages others to try their hand at self-publishing.

“If you have an internet connection and a computer, you can publish a book,” he says.

“Independent artists, writers, developers, and more are now being provided with the platforms to really succeed, usually for free.”

Self-published authors need an active digital presence as they use platforms to attract new readers without the support of expensive marketing campaigns. AA Abbott is particularly savvy on social media, often engaging with potential readers and supporting the work of fellow writers.

“Social media has allowed writers to connect with readers. Through Twitter and Facebook, I’ve not only introduced readers to my books, but I’ve found great new books to read myself,” she says.

I didn’t think I’d have any problem actually selling books so it’d be silly to give some of my royalties to a publisher

Jess Shanahan, freelance journalist and director of Racing Mentor, is currently writing a book about motorsports to be self-published through Amazon’s services. As a first-time writer targeting a very specific niche, she’s decided to forgo traditional publishers and market her book directly.

“I’ve built an audience through my brand, Racing Mentor, and I didn’t think I’d have any problem actually selling books so it’d be silly to give some of my royalties to a publisher,” she says.

Jess Shanahan

“Because people are able to build an audience so easily over the internet, there’s less pressure to find a publisher that can send your book to the masses.

“Crowdfunding also plays a big part in this because if you can gather an audience who wants your book and will pay for it before it’s published, you can also raise the money needed to get things like cover design, a book trailer, as well as the printing cost of the finished book.”

It remains to be seen whether self-publishing will reach its peak but for now, its DIY ethos is certainly making waves in the publishing industry.

2nd August 2018