Writers, Self-Publishing, and eBooks

The Atlantic offers a look at the question of ebook publishing, from the writer’s perspective (“Can E-Books Pay Off for Writers?”). Has it ever been easier for writers to self-publish? Obviously many people are, and some are doing it with great success (example: Wall Street Journal, “Self-Published Writer Sells a Million E-Books on Amazon”).

Granted, all ebooks are not published equally. But in terms of simply getting a book self-published through an Amazon-type of publishing service, it’s remarkably simple:

“The easy part is the process of e-publishing. It is practically free and can be done in a half-hour. Since books can be as long or short as one likes, one has great flexibility … Before you proceed, make sure you own the electronic rights to your book by reading your contract or calling your agent. You will also need to purchase an ISBN number for the title, which costs about $25 from Bowker.com. Finally, you will need a cover image. Now just go to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, register, and, following the very clear steps, publish your book at no charge.”

Pretty simple. Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing has certainly lowered the barrier for entry, making it easier than ever for anyone and everyone to self-publish. SmashWords.com is another good — and free — fairly painless self-publishing option.

One thought that does come to mind is the role of the bookstores (to use the term loosely) in terms of quality control for this new tide of self-published ebook content. If you’ve ever checked out the Kindle Singles section of Amazon, it really is something of a mixed bag. There are “Bestsellers” and “Top Rated” and even “Editor’s Picks”, but I still think navigating and trying to make decisions on the good and the bad is a messy ordeal. It would be interesting to see what Amazon, with its great success with other types of book recommendation, will do with self-published Kindle works. Or, perhaps they won’t … perhaps a free market approach is the idea?

As the Atlantic notes, self-publishing is a venture into the unknown, but certainly a low-cost experiment if there ever was one.

I couldn’t help but think of Stephen King’s great (though ultimately unsuccessful) e-publishing experiment, The Plant, back in 2000. Since it was based on the honor system, and additional installments were dependent upon the readers’ interest and willingness to keep paying, it really was a novel approach. Too bad it didn’t work out.* (Wired, 2000: “Stephen King’s ‘Plant’ Uprooted”)

* Especially too bad for the readers. If you happen to check the Stephen King website for The Plant, it seems that some people are still mad about having paid for an unfinished novel. Most recent comment reads: “wtf!! I have been waiting for years i paid wtf”


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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