In 2022, if you’re scanning the shelves at Barnes and Noble, browsing the offerings of your local independent bookstore, or scrolling the bestseller lists on Amazon, it’s difficult to tell which titles were traditionally published—meaning they were purchased, designed, and produced by a publishing house, and those which were self-published— meaning the author completed all this work themselves. The fact that the differences between a traditionally published book and a self-published book are virtually indiscernible—and the fact that one is just as likely to wind up on the bestseller lists as the other—shows how far the publishing industry has come and how many unique opportunities are now available for aspiring authors.
This wasn’t always possible. While self-publishing has been around for nearly two centuries—Charles Dickens self-published A Christmas Carol in 1843—these titles have not always gotten the same sway as books put out by HarperCollins or Simon and Schuster. According to a recent article in Publisher’s Weekly on the history of self-publishing, the trade publication typically only covered self-published books if they happened to break through into the mainstream, which typically meant they were subsequently purchased and redistributed by a major publishing house. That began to change in the 1970s when desktop computers made it easier to create and print trade paperbacks, and again in the 1990s, when print-on-demand models were introduced that made the self-publishing process a little easier on the author’s wallet.
And then, in 2007, Amazon released its first Kindle device. It’s impossible to undersell the impact of the Kindle and other e-readers on self-publishing: Bowker reported in 2012 that the number of self-published books in the US had increased by 287% since 2006. The power of e-readers extended to traditional publishers as well. From late 2011 to mid-2014, e-book sales at US publishers surpassed both hardcovers and trade paperbacks as the bestselling book format.
As people have become more technologically savvy and more programs have been released that help authors design books themselves, it’s become easier for self-published authors to present a professional-looking e-book (or paper book, for that matter) to readers. While it is more complicated than merely uploading a word document, as any successful self-published author will surely tell you, anyone with the tools, time, money, dedication, and drive can produce a book whose reading experience rivals that of a traditionally published one. The first pillar of what classified a book as legitimate, the look and feel of the book, had begun to crumble.
Finding readers as a self-published author
In the past, authors would seek out a traditional publisher for two reasons: quality of the hardcopy and promotional support. They wanted to get their book into the hands of readers and they didn’t have the tools or the platform to do so. While the allure of a traditionally published book may be the colorful cover or the heft of the hardback, the bigger sell was the marketing platform and associated opportunities. Traditional publishers had relationships with booksellers that would guarantee your title winds up on their shelves, plus they had publicists and teams of folks working behind the scenes to push your book into the public consciousness, mainly through the use of traditional media. A favorable review in a national newspaper or magazine was the ticket that would take your book to the top.
Indeed, up until the late 1990s when Amazon began selling books online, the only way to sell books was in bookstores and the only way to get them there was through a traditional publisher. Self-published books certainly existed during this time, but if readers couldn’t walk into their local bookstore and find a copy it was unlikely they were going to go to great lengths to seek it out—especially with plenty more beautifully packaged, more legitimate options at their fingertips.
Then, in the early 2000s, the social media boom began. Authors no longer had to rely on middlemen to tout and share their books, as they could communicate with readers directly. Likewise, book reviews are no longer restricted to print or even digital publications, as online book communities like Goodreads, LibraryThing, and Bookstr and review sections on online retailers like Amazon and Bookshop.org give you instant access to other readers’ thoughts and reactions to titles you are interested in (and ones you may not be). These reviews are often more compelling and persuasive for readers than those from the professionals, as they are coming directly from other readers.
At the same time, marketing budgets at traditional publishers have begun to shrink substantially, with most of the resources going to just a few titles at a time. They too are relying on most authors to market their books themselves using their online platforms and pre-existing communities—some even take into account the strength and size of this platform before deciding to sign an author or purchase their book. Thus goes the next pillar of legitimacy, the connections, and marketing capabilities of a traditional publisher, further paving the way for self-published books.
Becoming a “real author”
To get a book traditionally published, there are a lot of people it needs to go through. In most cases, it needs to catch the eye of an agent who wants to represent you and the book. Then an editor needs to fall in love with it, after which there are many people working behind the scenes to bring your book to market in a way that makes your vision (and the vision they believe will sell) come to life. This plethora of professionals working on, and thereby believing in, your book is what contributes to the idea that you are only a “real author” if you are traditionally published. After all, if you are self-publishing your book, you are the only one who needs to like it and believe in it, right?
Not quite. In 2017, there were over one million self-published books. If you are the only one reading your book, it’s unlikely your book is going to stand out from the crowd and find your readers. The explosion of self-published titles has actually forced authors who are intending to self-publish to put more work into their books. They do research to determine where they fit in their genre or category. They build and curate their author platform. They spend time and money on their writing and their craft. They hire developmental editors, copy editors, cover designers, and more. By the time the book hits shelves (physical or digital), it has gone through just as many steps and rounds of development as a traditionally published book and the author has established themselves as a content expert, thought leader or genre and writing master worthy of the time and investment of readers. While seeing a traditional publishing house attached to a title certainly does still do some of this heavy lifting, readers are much slower to discount a book just because of the absence of one.
Case in point: Of the top twenty Amazon bestselling e-books in Business Technology Innovation, numbers six, sixteen, and eighteen were all self-published! The number six book, The Mom Test, is also the #1 Bestseller in Small Business Sales & Selling. The final pillar of legitimacy is that being traditionally published is the only thing that makes you a “real author”: busted.
One of the best parts of self-publishing nowadays is also that you don’t have to undertake it entirely by yourself. You can hire individuals to work with at different steps of the process depending on what type of support you need, or you can work with a team like Raab & Co., who essentially serve as your personal publishing concierge, guiding you through every step of the self-publishing process. Or if you get to a certain point in the process and decide you need support, we can take it from there. Learn more about our method and if it might be right for you.