The rise and rise of self-publishing

How digital print has enabled individuality, and what's next

Man typing on computer sat at desk

Self-Publishing – the market at a glance

The stigma of self-publishing is disappearing. It wasn't long ago that this corner of the book industry was viewed as a last resort for writers. But as the Frankfurt Book Fair recently demonstrated, independent publishing is increasingly becoming the first choice for many aspiring authors, who are learning to compete with the larger publishers and, in some cases, even outselling them.

Thanks to companies like Kindle Direct Publishing, digital platforms are now a key channel for self-publishers. Writers are drawn to e-book self-publishing for creative control, faster access to global markets and independent promotion. There’s also an economic incentive – according to Publishers Weekly, writers retain all rights while earning 60% – 80% of the list price of their e-book royalty.

But while digital media allows content to be published and sold directly to the consumer, most self-publishers still prefer to hold tangible, printed copies of their work. Proof is in UKSG’s report on the self-publishing sector: between 2011 and 2016, the number of e-Books grew from 88,238 to 148,311, an increase of 68%. By contrast, printed books grew from 158,972 to 638,624, an increase of 301%.

No one could have predicted this growth. A few years ago, it was highly unlikely that self-published books would be picked up by high profile publishing houses. Today that expectation has been subverted, as publishers use sales data from self-published titles to spot upcoming authors and acquire copyright, while book printers capitalise on the new business opportunities thanks to self-publishers.

Rows of books in library

What self-publishing means for book publishers

Similarly to the film and music business, the publishing industry is still very bestseller-driven. Tom Weldon, chief executive of Penguin Random House UK, acknowledged this in 2016 when he said: “When a publisher has a bestseller, it’s easy to just keep publishing what sold yesterday. But there are amazing writers out there who we aren’t commissioning. The whole industry needs to change.”

Self-publishing has the potential to disrupt the status quo. There are now more independently published than traditionally published books. Most of them are consumed within the authors’ close circles, but the ones that perform well with critics and readers have the potential to be picked up by high-profile publishing houses.

One of the most interesting developments of recent years is that self-publishing has become an effective way to test the market and identify what type of content is popular with readers. For publishing houses, the ability to trial a title with a small initial print run reduces the financial risk in promoting a book that may underperform, and where unsold stock would need to be pulped.

It also allows publishers to understand what authors they should be looking to sign for a publishing contract. Authors such as EL James (Fifty Shades of Grey), Andy Weir (The Martian) and High Howey (Wool) initially published their work independently as Kindle e-books before they were picked up by bigger publishers and became international bestsellers in print.

Two colleagues reviewing work on computer in a print room

The link between digital printing and self-publishing

Book printers have plenty to gain from the rise of self-publishing, especially those that provide short-run digital printing services. Self-publishing goes well with digital-on-demand, which can be a significantly less expensive option compared to the costs associated with high volume offset printing.

Advances in digital print technology have resulted in a number of benefits, such as shorter runs, order flexibility, as well as optimised stock handling and time-to-market. Betting on untested new authors is no longer the gamble it once was. With an on-demand production model that enables cost-effective production of a single title, even the most obscure books can become affordable opportunities.

However, the benefits of digital printing for the publishing supply chain go beyond handling runs that are too short for economical offset production, or minimising the capital tied up in inventory. There is also an opportunity for book printers to extend their value proposition by fulfilling a consultative role with smaller self-publishing companies.

Without the budgets of the higher profile publishing houses, self-publishing companies need to manage their costs and resources more strategically. Book printers with extensive experience dealing with the publishing industry can support these companies by advising them on how to better manage their orders, adjust estimates, streamline their supply chain and improve overall ROI.

Woman taking e-reader off bookshelf

Self-publishing’s debt to digital printing

The time when publishing houses had the final say on which books made it into print and into the book store is behind us. Over the past decade the global book industry has witnessed the democratisation of publishing, as an increasing number of books are independently published year-on-year, and not just in the e-Book format.

While e-Book platforms have helped aspiring authors take control of the process of publishing their book, digital printing technology and print-on-demand have driven a large part of the self-publishing boom, by opening doors for aspiring authors while also helping book printers make small batch production more cost-effective.

The changing economics of publishing, enabled by digital print, create a landscape where creativity and innovation in writing can be nurtured, not quashed by the need to sell millions of copies of every title. Digital makes the long-tail strategy viable for publishers. It removes barriers to entry, paving the way for a publishing future in which alternative, niche content is positively encouraged.

In turn, book producers who are fully capable of handling short runs or even print-on-demand will be best placed to thrive in an industry which will gravitate away from volume and instead rewards unique content.

Written by Tino Wägelein
Business Development Manager, Canon Europe

Related solutions

Explore further

Discover the power of digital print