April 19, 2018

The Next Wave of Tech Change | Self-Publishing & Libraries

James LaRueOver the past 30 years or so , there have been several waves of technological change in the library world. First was the replacement of the card-based catalog and circulation system with the integrated library system (ILS). Second was the replacement of paper journals with electronic databases. Third was the adoption of the PC. Fourth was the rise of the World Wide Web. Fifth was a sort of echo of the first, in which automation reached a little deeper into our processes, replacing manual checkin and checkout with RFID-based self-check and automated materials handling.

The sixth is an expansion of the second: the rise of the ebook and the final culmination of the shift to digital publishing for media of all sorts. The focus of this column will be a consequence of this last wave: the game-changing growth of self-publishing and what that means for libraries.

Self-publishing isn’t new. Many great authors have self-published, among them Benjamin Franklin, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, Ernest Hemingway, and so on. More recent self-published authors include Stephen King, Hugh Howey, and E.L. James.

What is new is that rather suddenly (over the past three or four years) self-publishing has moved from a small staple of the industry to its fastest-growing and perhaps most profitable sector (if James’s “Shades of Grey” books are any indication). Indeed, the number of new self-published titles now rivals, and may exceed, that of the entire mainstream publishing trade.

Why is self-pub taking off?

Traditional publishing has been all about gatekeeping. The aspiring author has to get his or her book picked up by an agent. The agent has to pitch the book to a publisher. The story of even the most successful writers has been persisting through rejection after rejection.

Of course, just because you write, doesn’t mean you write well. On the other hand, getting rejected doesn’t mean the work is bad, either. It is also true that for perhaps most books the editing and review by publishers make the book better.

But self-publishing, whether through print on demand (POD) or as an ebook, bypasses the traditional barriers. The author can move quickly from completed manuscript to immediate availability to readers, skipping over agent and publishing house alike. That speed of publishing also enables authors to capitalize on issues of the day, getting out a book while a topic is hot. Self-publishing offers, potentially, a faster path to success.

It also offers the author greater control. An agent or publisher may want the author to alter the story to reflect more current tastes—tastes that may not be shared by or may compromise the artistic integrity or preferences of an author.

Core shifts

Of great significance is that self-publishing returns a much higher percentage of the sale to the author. Author contracts with publishers vary from eight percent to 15 percent of revenues, generally. But the self-published author makes 70 percent from Amazon, and 85 percent through one of the new breed of digital publishing outfits like Smashwords. That shift in revenue will inevitably push successful writers away from traditional publishing.

And then there is copyright: for quite a while in America authors have had to assign their copyright to their publishers while the book is in print—and digital books and POD have made it easier for publishers to prevent rights from reverting without having to invest much in their backlist titles. Self-publishing lets authors hold onto their rights.

As for ensuring quality, while even the best author still needs editing, one can hire an editor, just as one can hire a book cover designer. Self-publishing shifts some of the marketing burden from the publisher to the author, but the rewards are greater. There are also new tools for the author, such as variable pricing and the ability to track sales more directly.

Who are self-published writers?

At first, many librarians dismissed self-publishing, grouping it with “vanity presses” and the work of amateurs. To be sure, there are a lot of first-time and not very good authors in that mix. But there are also established authors whose works have fallen out of copyright, whose audience is eagerly snapping up their next works, or who seek to experiment with new approaches or edgier topics that traditional publishers tend to avoid. Many of these are best sellers: on some lists, 20 percent of sales are coming from self-published authors. In ebook lists, it’s closer to 50 percent.

I’ll be bold. Self-publishing represents the future of literature. Its willingness to experiment, its greater speed to market, its quicker communication with the audience, its greater rewards and creative control for creators, its increasing popularity all augur for the continued expansion of self-publishing and its place as the likely wellspring for our best new works.

James LaRue writes, speaks, and consults about the future of libraries. He can be reached at jlarue@jlarue.com

This is the first installment of a new monthly column covering the intersection of libraries and self-publishing, including LJ’s new curated self-publishing initiative, SELF-e™, offered in partnership with BiblioBoard.

This article was published in Library Journal's October 1, 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.



  1. One of the major concern with self-publishing is quality. Not everyone should be publishing event though they can!
    The goal at indieBRAG is to find the diamonds in the coal heap of self-publishing and shine a light on them. To date we have considered over 2000 books and finding over 300 that deserve attention. Ours is a reader based program- we have 200 readers reading to find books that they will recommend to other readers . A book adorned with the B.R.A.G.Medallion is a book that is worth your time and money and should be in libraries and book stores along with traditionally published books – which, by the way, can no longer be automatically considered superior-


    • True. I’m pleased to see evidence of new services being developed to track this important new trend. There will be many more!

    • Unfortunately the same holds true for books you find in the bookstore. Part of the explanation for the increasing popularity in self-published books is that as many self-published authors get better at writing, producing, and publishing their books (and they are improving), the quality of traditionally published books has gone down. Too often now I buy something in the bookstore and wonder, “How the hell could this thing get published? Were the editors asleep?” I recently gave a Stephen King novel a two-star review on Amazon (yeah, I’m sure he’s crying over it now :) because it deserved it. It was an older one though…I don’t read his newer ones much anymore because they’re too damn long. (And they worry about self-published novels being too long!)

      Not everyone who has an agent and a publisher these days should have them. ;P

  2. James LaRue said: “To be sure, there are a lot of first-time and not very good authors in that mix. But there are also established authors whose…”

    True enough. But there are also a lot of first-time, very good authors publishing independently.

    • Agreed. I’ve read several books now from first-time, self-published authors that were just quirky enough that no established publisher would pick them up – but were quite fine. That’s one of the reasons I think we’re entering a new Renaissance of writing, an expansion of possibility.

  3. Comparing what traditionally published authors receive from their publisher with what Amazon pays self-published authors mixes apples and oranges. The publisher pays for editing, production, and marketing. But all of those costs have to be paid out of the percentage that Amazon pays a self-published author. The calculation of greater reward is not simple at all. Furthermore, to say “author contracts with publishers vary from eight percent to 15 percent of revenues, generally” is to paint with an opaquely broad brush. Some authors are paid a percentage of net revenues, some are paid a percentage of list price per unit sold. The percentage may rise with the number of copies sold. Revenue from the sale of physical books may be based on a percentage of list price, while revenue from e-books is based on a percentage of net revenue, and while subsidiary rights income (film rights, translations) earns a different percentage of net revenue. Capitalism is not simple. Neither is the future of literature. Or of libraries.

  4. Simple it is not. But I think the broad trends are clear. As I’ve written elsewhere, it is certainly true that some publishing houses add value to the original submission. But TWICE the value? Nine times the value? Self-publishing represents quite a challenge to that proposition, and possibly, it’s overdue.

  5. Back in the 80’s, I was self-publishing non-fiction, and libraries didn’t give a hoot HOW it was published. I was providing information they wanted and their patrons needed and I sold thousands of books all over the world. I had many colleagues who were also self-publishing in small niches.

    What wasn’t done much back then was author-published FICTION. We all knew better. LOL. So I get a bit annoyed when I read that this whole self-publishing thing is new, or that only those who can’t publish otherwise do it. There are many hybrid authors who do both. And many self-published books were once published by the traditional “big” guys, but went out-of-print.

    Self-publishing is definitely easier and less expensive now, but it’s even harder to market the books. Back in 1989, I floated a small publishing company with a few printed press releases, some padded envelopes and precious paperback books. Sometimes I miss those days. :-)

    • I believe you. What’s new is the explosion of titles and authors. But I think libraries are at least now trying to help with the marketing angle. I’ll be talking more about this in future columns.

  6. I spent 10 years working on my first novel and then, when it was done, suffered through another 18 months of agonized indecision before deciding to begin my own publishing business to put it out myself. Instead of an advance, I got a big debt. But I was determined to put out a book that rivaled (or even bettered) traditionally-published books because I agree that the quality from the trade has dropped way down and I wasn’t willing to sell the rights to my book. My historical novel the Clever Mill Horse has been out for several months now and just won the 2014 James River Writers Self-Published Novel Award. (http://www.jamesriverwriters.org)

    I agree with Geri above that we need more independent groups assessing the quality of self-published books (I’ll look into sending mine to IndieBRAG!) but I’d also like to mention the situation with the top five review journals, four of which either (largely) refuse to review self-published books or else make self-pub authors pay a hefty fee for a review. Library Journal (Booklist) is one of the ones that pretty much refuses to review self-pub books but happily does free reviews for trade-published books. I understand this is about lack of resources for managing massive stacks of books, however this isn’t a reason to continue with this inequitable system that favors one set of publishers over another and prevents review of the better self-pubbed books. We need to speak up to the review journals to come up with a better system!

  7. I have written 2 books. Both are free. One is a disturbing autobiography. The other outlines an asymmetric national security disaster (multiple, simultaneous human stampedes).

    sonofsaf: odd oh biography

    Dominipede: Book of Fear