The saga of the struggling writer is well-known. As a motivational lecture, it is common to hear of the sometimes dozens of rejections sent to authors such as J.K. Rowling, James Joyce, and Dr. Seuss, who each went on to become incredibly successful. Today, however, those authors may well have decided to circumvent the traditional publishing process altogether.

Self-publishing is a rising industry, and although it has given a voice to thousands of aspiring writers whose work would otherwise remain invisible, it has raised many concerns about the future of both traditional publishing and literature in general. While some fear that the onslaught of new texts will lower the bar on overall book quality, others are concerned that the J.K. Rowlings and James Joyces of the world might get lost in the overgrowth of unregulated prose.

“Until recently, what got through the pipeline was a minuscule amount of what readers wanted to read,” says I.G. Fredrick, a self-published author of erotic fiction who has gone through the traditional publishing route in the past. “Readers have a much wider sphere of what they like, and they couldn't get it.”

Considering that even a popular self-published book may still sell only a few thousand copies, it is not surprising that these books were not considered viable options for traditional publishers. However, Fredrick explains, eliminating the publisher does not mean eliminating the quality. “[Self-Publishing] appeals to the people who have been shut out of traditional publishing not because their writing is bad but because their writing doesn't appeal to a wide enough audience,” she says, adding that “if you look at the crap, it doesn't sell. It just sits there.” 

Moreover, the good stuff doesn’t just sit there, particularly if it’s distributed creatively. Scott Sigler, for example, revolutionised the world of self-publishing when he “published” his first novel as a podcast, later selling it highly successfully as an e-book and paper book. Technology continues to give more options to authors, and the flexibility of self-publishing is already giving it an edge on traditional options.

Self-published success: Humphreys' latest

For decades, in fact, traditional publishing has been more of a barrier for novelty than a gatekeeper for quality; a barrier that takes a huge cut of the profits for each book sold. “Buy Ten Lessons from the Road in a bookshop and you’ll be giving me 50p of the £10 price,” says Alastair Humphreys, one of National Geographic’s Adventurers of the Year for 2012 who is perhaps most well-known for cycling around the world. Although many of Humphreys's books were picked up by traditional publishers after he self-published his first book, he has opted to return to self-publishing for both creative and monetary reasons.                                                                                                                                                

Those profits skimmed by the publishers often go into pushing the “next big thing,” which is often not the best-written or most creative book, but rather the one that publishers think will sell the best. “Bestsellers are a deliberate and concerted effort on the part of a publisher,” explains Fredrick, and those who are not pre-selected for success may find that even the advantages of traditional publishing do not compensate for the severe limitations it imposes.

There are drawbacks and downsides to self-publishing, however. For example, there is the misconception that self-publishing is as easy as uploading a PDF manuscript to a web server, but according to Fredrick, this couldn’t be further from the case.  “One thing about indie publishing is it will hurt people who don't understand the business,” she explains. “You can't just throw up a Word document and be self-published. It requires a higher level of technical skills than just just being able to use a word processor.”

Depending on the exact medium, since self-published texts can be sold both as e-books and as print-on-demand books, authors must contend with all of the tasks that would have been managed by traditional publishers, including editing, typesetting, cover design, printing, distribution, and marketing. Those with low levels of technical know-how may find that successfully self-publishing throws up almost as many barriers as traditional publishing.

That may not be a bad thing, however. The need for competent individuals at the reader-facing end of the self-publishing process is slowly giving rise to a plethora of small business opportunities, inviting those who understand the aesthetic and technical subtleties of producing an exciting and readable book. Fredrick and several other authors, in addition to writing their own books, operate a small consultancy for self-publishing writers that specialises in cover design, book design, managing printing, and web design.

Even with the up-front investment required for self-publishing, with businesses like Fredrick’s charging affordable rates and increasing numbers of support networks for writers, the creative freedom and monetary rewards will continue to decrease the lure of traditional publishing for all but the lucky pre-selected few. The ability to take control of all aspects of the writing process and then retain the rights to the work and lion’s share of the generated profits is increasingly enough to make even traditionally published authors jump ship.


An additional benefit of self-publishing is the opportunity for people who are not exclusively writers to be able to share their work. “Self-publishing gives me total control. I can share the story however I want,” explains Humphreys, adding that “self-publishing gives a voice to people who have an interesting story, though perhaps one that will only appeal to a small niche.”

That small niche may encourage a significant subset of aspiring writers who, for whatever reason, have not or could not be successful through traditional publishing. For example, Jude Mahoney, a writer from the West Midlands who recently self-published his first novel, is not a full-time writer and explains that he does it to relax and unwind. Nonetheless, he says he enjoys being able to share his work with others, emphasising that “the advent of self-publishing enables me to produce work that is ultimately judged by the public alone, effectively bypassing the traditional route entirely.” Mahoney, along with Fredrick and Humphreys, also emphasise the ability to retain rights and keep profits as major incentives to continue self-publishing.

While it is impossible to fully predict the consequences of the self-publishing movement, at the moment, the positives drastically outweigh the negatives. Self-publishing gives an independent voice and medium to those who want to share their work with the world. More writers, and good writers at that, are unsurprisingly opting out of traditional publishing. It is increasingly likely, in fact, that self-publishing is, in some form, the future of publishing itself.

Alastair Humphreys' blogs quoted: