The old publishing success story: Novelist gets hundreds of rejection letters until discovered by a discerning editor. Fame and fortune follow.
The new publishing success story: Novelist self-publishes to widespread acclaim, New York publisher pays millions for the rights. Fame and fortune follow.
The second scenario is about as rare as the first. But in the past decade, the book world, traditionally maintained by agents and publishing houses in Manhattan, has been turned topsy-turvy by self-publishing and e-publishing.
User-friendly platforms and social media have made self-publishing less of a vanity project (imagine your grandfathers mimeographed war stories) and more of a way to make a living (think 50 Shades of Grey).
Bowker, the company in charge of ISBNs, the unique numeric commercial book identifiers, reported last year that 43 percent of all print books in 2011 were self-published. Since 2006, Bowker estimates that self-publishing has increased by 287 percent.
Clearly, self-publishing is a well-known and respected industry with the potential to make careers and influence the broader culture of publishing, said Bob Young, the CEO of Lulu, a publishing company in Raleigh. Since its inception in 2002, Lulu has printed more than 1 million self-published titles, including the titles of more than 36,000 authors in the Southeast.
50 Shades of Grey, the erotic thriller that topped Amazon and New York Times bestseller lists for e-books when it came out in 2012, began as a Lulu project. Author E.L. James self-published through Writers Coffee Shop, an independent publishing house in New South Wales, Australia. Writers Coffee Shop sold the books on Lulu until sales became so out of control Writers Coffee Shop decided to move the books to a larger publisher.
Then theres Amanda Hocking, who grossed about $2 million from her e-books about vampires and zombies and became one of the best-selling authors on Amazon before signing a widely reported multimillion-dollar deal with St. Martins Press.
A less lucrative leap
But for every James and Hocking, there is a Ben Chaney.
Chaney, a graphic designer in Raleigh, doesnt necessarily want to make a million dollars but says it would be nice for his self-published book to reach a wider audience.
Last summer, Chaney quit a lucrative job as an art director at a company that produced games for smartphones.
I had a job other people wanted to have, Chaney said. But what he really wanted to do was write. Long discouraged by the lack of narrative in current video games (which means, he said, all the games now are really simple apps), he decided to live off his savings and write a dystopic science fiction thriller set in 2080.
The book is Blade Runner meets City of God, meets Black Hawk Down, Chaney said. He self-published Son of Sedonia in paperback and as an e-book. But writing the book and self-publishing took a leap of faith that hasnt yet paid off.
Writing is the only thing that excites me, said Chaney, whose book has gotten positive reviews on Amazon.com. And I want to support myself doing it.
Chaney published his book through TIPS Technical Publishing in Carrboro. The company has carved out a niche by editing and designing e-books. Chaney elected to buy additional services to help him get the book format ready, but because of his art background, he made his own cover.
When he published the book last December, Chaney used Facebook and friends to advertise and sold about 200 books. But he saw a big bump, 600 copies, sold when he posted the books cover image on Imgur, an image-sharing site, and Reddit.
The image went viral, which helped, Chaney said.
More options unfolding
Unlike traditional publishers, most companies that help facilitate self-publishing make their money through upfront costs: formatting, editing services and cover art. So instead of getting an advance and those services, self-publishing authors have to shoulder the burden themselves. That can set an author back a few thousand dollars.
Lulu also offers many author services or allows them to completely do it themselves.
There is even the option to turn your book into a screenplay ready for Hollywood, Young said. We want our authors to have options when deciding how to sell their story, and research shows that authors that purchase a service go on to sell more than double the amount of total copies of their book. We see many authors choose to get help with book cover design and a range of marketing and publicity services.
Experts say offering services is one of the most burgeoning platforms for companies facilitating self-publishing.
Author services is one of the most promising growth areas for companies involved in e-books, said Jeremy Greenfield, editorial director of Digital Book World, a website and conference dedicated to covering the business of e-books and digital publishing. Lulu, like many of its competitors, has been very aggressive adding more services for authors.
Not always about money
MaryEllen Williams, a feature filmmaker from Raleigh, used Lulus services when she published a biography of N.C. State University basketball coach Kay Yow titled Triumph. Williams wrote the book to help her advertise and find financing for a film project about Yow.
I wasnt looking to write a best-seller but something that I could show to potential investors, Williams said. I had optioned Coachs story for a film, but I needed to do something first that showed credibility. Williams also said she learned that she loved writing and researching the book, and relied on Lulu to help her organize her work.
I absolutely needed them to help with editing and getting the book together, Williams said. She also used Lulus authors public relations services to help market her book, which led to several national radio interviews.
For Williams, trying to shop her book to an agent and a traditional publishing house was unappealing. I wanted more control, because with this story, timing and location are everything, said Williams.
The lure of writing and publishing a book isnt always about money, said Greenfield, who has written several reports based on extensive surveys of authors. Many authors do it to fulfill a lifelong ambition or to build their careers in other areas and companies like Lulu help them do so when a traditional publisher may not always be an option. And, of course, for some self-published authors theres a lot of money to be made.
But for people like Ben Chaney, the money isnt there yet. Chaney had to take contract work with his former employer to recoup some of the earnings he lost when writing full time. He wants to keep promoting the book but doesnt know where to begin.
Its paralysis by analysis, Chaney said.