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Internet Opens a New Chapter in Self-Publishing

A scruffy middle-aged man often stands a couple of blocks from my San Francisco office holding a stack of photocopies and a sign reading, “Poetry--$1.” The desperate bards who populate street corners in many urban centers are more than a sign of die-hard romanticism.

But while mainstream publishers ignore many writers as flaky, obscure or unmarketable, Web-based publishers have recently begun to offer an outlet for writers whose work doesn’t fit conventional constructs. These writers range from eccentric poets to brilliant short-story writers to experts on obscure topics--who all have a shot at finding a paying audience through the Internet. More important, they do so in ways that promote a richer diversity of literary voices in an era of increasing media concentration.

Traditional book publishing could certainly use a prod for creative change. More than 50,000 books are published in this country annually, but the work of many undiscovered talents never sees the light of day.

Self-publishing is, of course, a time-honored practice. “Vanity” presses will gladly publish any opus for a price. That model has recently been updated for Internet time.

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With “print on demand,” authors unable to land a standard publisher can now have their books published one at a time as the orders come in, or distributed in electronic format. IUniverse.com and 1stBooks.com, among others, have begun to vastly broaden the concept of on-demand book publishing.

Such sites offer an inexpensive ($99-$500) setup to authors, then distribute the works electronically or in print (using new technologies that cut costs for low print runs). They enjoy relationships with major booksellers (Barnes & Noble owns 49% of IUniverse), offering at least the hope of meaningful sales, unlike traditional vanity publishing. And because those Web publishers pay unusually high royalty rates (upward of 30%, typically, compared with 5% to 15% from traditional publishers), authors enjoy at the least the hope of making money for their efforts.

Those firms are also rapidly reissuing thousands of out-of-print books that might easily sell a few hundred copies a year--below the profitability threshold for a traditional publishing house to keep in print. But for many authors, it’s a real measure of income and pride; for the right readers, a critical source of intellectual diversity.

Online bookseller FatBrain.com extends the on-demand model to new realms beyond the book with its eMatter project (https://www.fatbrain.com/ematter/home.html).

For a $1-per-month listing fee, eMatter publishes electronic versions of poetry to technical manuals to recipes, a few paragraphs to encyclopedic tomes, few of which would be likely candidates for publishers of print magazines, newspapers or books. Writers and FatBrain.com split revenues equally.

This business model looks like the seed of a new kind of publishing industry, with the potential for extending the Web’s democratizing elements.

Self-publishing has always been a key feature of the Internet, of course. But these new models make it possible for authors whose products don’t appeal to the relatively narrow confines of traditional publishing, or who appeal to a small audience, to actually make money--and ultimately, perhaps, a living--off their writing.

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“The whole concept of digital publishing removes layers that exist in the physical world between authors and readers,” said Dan O’Brien, an analyst with Forrester Research. “If you have something that’s of high value to a small audience, instead of getting a 10% royalty you can get a 50% royalty. It changes the whole publishing business model.”

The service has attracted about 5,000 authors, most obscure, but includes some headliners looking for outlets for their more offbeat prose: Arthur C. Clarke, author of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” contributed a six-page essay, “TV’s Time-Travel Future: Catching the Light of Other Days,” selling for $2. Catherine Lanigan, author of the novel “Romancing the Stone,” offers a 61-page novella for $3.95. The average eMatter price is $8--though some technical reports sell for hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

The diversity of material is part of what makes eMatter unique: Among its recent bestsellers are “21 Ways to Boost Employee Morale,” a 53-page primer; “Air Ferrets Aloft,” a 23-page short story by Richard Bach (of “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” fame); and “Solo Explorations in Male Masturbation,” a book-length guide to, well, you get the idea.

“What we’re really targeting is unique, compelling content that couldn’t be published before,” said Judy Kirkpatrick, FatBrain’s vice president responsible for eMatter. “We are building the first-of-its-kind digital marketplace for authors and readers.”

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Not surprisingly, Web-based publishing is not without its pitfalls for authors. Many e-publishers insist on retaining exclusive rights. Some charge exorbitant fees or offer the low royalties of a traditional publisher. The most comprehensive guide to avoiding those problems is “The Secrets of Our Success"--available online, of course, at https://www.writersweekly.com/secrets. That title was co-written by M.J. Rose, who penned a self-published phone-sex novel that became a favorite on Amazon.com after many readers posted favorable reviews; it was later picked up by a major publisher and book club.

To be sure, these services are still in their infancy--eMatter was launched in August--so it’s far too early to know whether they will achieve the critical mass needed to alter the publishing industry in the way that, say, Web-based news services have influenced the traditional news media.

But if eMatter could exploit a combination of reader reviews, ratings of its material, low barriers to entry for authors and low costs for readers, it could create a kind of network effect.

“I can see them reaching a point where all of a sudden everybody knows someone in their town who has successfully published something, just like everyone knows someone who has sold something on EBay,” Forrester’s O’Brien said.

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Given the proposed America Online-Time Warner merger and others predicted to follow, the Web could use an antidote to mainstream homogenization.

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Times staff writer Charles Piller can be reached at charles.piller@latimes.com.


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