The New World of Self-Publishing

There’s a global community in a quiet panic, stiff fingers arched over their keyboards, office chairs submerged in a shallow pool of sweat. A cloud of dread slowly turns above their heads as they look over their work, the next great novel.

How are they going to publish it? Worst case scenarios dance through their imaginations. Publishing giants are notoriously particular, both before and after a book is published. There is the looming threat of cold rejection, the stressful anticipation of imposed rewrites, and the nerve-shredding wait for initial sales figures to arrive—sales figures that could make or break future advertising. Any of those things could turn the tide of a would-be writer’s career.

Or they could just self-publish.

The term “self-publishing” tends to carry a negative connotation. In fact, many reading this will associate the term with vanity publishing. For those unfamiliar, the two are not dissimilar, just different terms applied to an all but identical concept during different time periods.

For the burgeoning novelist, publishing has long been the source of nightmares. For many doe-eyed authors and others like them, the publishing company giants have paved the only route to travel.

And it’s littered with potholes.

But there has been a renaissance of sorts in the publishing industry, one that began during the late 20th century and continues to this day. Advances in technology and distribution have changed the standard publishing process into a modern day art form.

“What changed the whole situation was the web and the fact that publishing software could be completely automated,” says Jana Bradley, a University of Arizona professor and former director of the School of Information Resources and Library Science. Her career in teaching and researching literature has spanned four decades.

Bradley is referring to the two primary barriers self-publishing authors face: production and distribution. Any time before the 1990s, producing a book—whether a novel, a collection of poems, a family memoir, or a cookbook—wasn’t an impossible task, but it was certainly expensive.

And in the days of vanity publishing, those expenses meant corners were invariably cut.

Bradley explains, “Early on, many people who wanted to self-publish did not realize how much work—editorial work and design work—goes into a successful book. So the reputation that early self-published books have as being ugly, all one color, having many typos, grammatical [issues] was really a learning process for many, many people that you alone, as author, probably…almost every author’s book can be improved.”

One area where production for self-published novels improved was in generating copies. With the advent of Johannes Gutenberg’s mechanical moveable-type printing in 1440, mankind could move away from handwritten copies to produce documents more uniform and legible, and do so more quickly. But Gutenberg’s invention wasn’t without its flaws and would see refinements added throughout subseqeunt centuries. But the basis of Gutenberg’s process lasted all the way into the 20th century.

This same process was used in book production until roughly the 1970s, when a new form of printing and copying was introduced.

“The other thing is the move away from lithographic offset printing,” says doctoral candidate and SIRLS digital librarian Bruce Fulton. “To xerographic printing technique.”

A quick lesson in etymology. When broken down, the word “xerography” has Greek roots. The word xeros means “dry”, and graphia means “to write”. It was that jump in production technology brought self-publishing into an affordable realm, essentially moving authors away from the manual typewriter and toward the laserjet printer.

Fulton, along with Bradley, has been doing research in self-publishing for around five years. And both of them make absolutely clear the computer, and all its subsequent wonders, hasn’t paved new roads for authors, but simply removed particular obstacles.

“It’s not so much that the computers enable new things, it’s that they enable cheap things,” says Fulton. So, while self-publishing has become a less expensive venture, there are still barriers keeping the doe-eyed author at bay.

To wit, only the barrier of production has been destroyed thus far. Distribution still looms ominously over the landscape, casting a heavy shadow.

Fortunately, there are 21st century solutions to distrubtion. They are affordable, flexible, and, in the case of Tucson, local.

AlphaGraphics, a commercial printing franchise, has some prestige to its name. The franchise is a Tucson native, founded by Roger Ford in 1970. It also became the first US-based printing franchise to enter the international market, and only 14 years after its founding. Today, the company contains over 270 business centers throughout the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil, China, Hong Kong, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia.

Tucson store manager Kevin Jones believes the success and opportunities offered by AlphaGraphics are, in part, due to the company’s ability to move in tandem with technological progress. But it isn’t just about the xerographic technique. For AlphaGraphics, it goes beyond just the hardware.

“We have to [keep up],” Jones says immediately, as if ever aware of the pace and stakes of the industry. “If we were behind on that, I would have customers bringing me files in CS6, or CS6.5 that I was unable to open because I didn’t have the latest and greatest software. We have a pretty elaborate suite of hardware and software that we keep updated religiously.”

This hearkens back to Bradley’s assertion about the automation of publishing software. As the publishing industry moves deeper into the 21st century, it looks as though the depth and detail of production runs parallel to the scope of opportunities.

But the opportunities are still there.

According to Jones, AlphaGraphics’ operating standards are written to conform to the customer, rather than having the customer conform to their standards, such as with a traditional publishing company. Though not every AlphaGraphics location can produce onsite, both of their Tucson locations—Grant and Swan, and Oracle and Ina—can do so. Furthermore, the franchise offers consulting services a stereotypical vanity publishing venture would never allow.

At AlphaGraphics, they can work with the doe-eyed author on marketing, artwork design, and even webpages designed to redirect for ebook sales. 

“I’d have them identify their audience, if their intention is distribution,” Jones says. “And then I would help them put together marketing lists and marketing pieces that would then go out to these intended components of their audience, and help support them through that measure.”

Amid the recent explosion of e-reader and tablet sales, digital publication would seem to be the one and only avenue to the future of books. It would seem traditional publishing companies should, one by one, be shipping themselves to the Smithsonian. 

“It has made some distribution a little more accessible,” Jones says. “One clear advantage in the world of ebooks versus printed books is cost-wise, it’s a lot more accessible.”

“Even if you had the book, and it was printed and paid for and done,” Fulton says. “You’d sit there with a garage full of books and there was nothing you could do with it.”

But neither Bradley, Fulton, nor Jones could admit to electronic publishing, or even traditional publishing, to being the clear and simple favorite. The publishing industry, it seems, it not a simple as one might assume.

“There’s still a pretty fair mix between the ones that feel they need printing and ebooks, versus the ones who feel ebooks are really more necessary for what they’re doing,” Jones says, referring to the preconceived notion that AlphaGraphic’s business would see business trending more heavily toward digital publishing. In his time with AlphaGraphics, Jones admits he sees many potential customers intent on publishing in only one format, but eventually deciding to dip into both–and all, Jones says, without his need to work a sales pitch.

In fact, many customers take up both publishing methods in order to market their work. Marketing an ebook in the real world, Jones says, is an extremely difficult to do. With physical, bound copies of the book in hand, the audience–however large or limited–has a chance to interact with the product on a level an ebook simply wouldn’t allow.

Jones, however, could not identify that as a trend, nor could he predict whether it would become one in years to come, and both Bradley and Fulton could only speak of the growing complexities within the industry as a whole.

As the publishing world plunges deeper into the 21st century, it wil lcontinue to change, and few, if any, can predict what new advancement may revolutionize the industry or how. However complex the industry is today, there’s no telling how it may evolve over the coming decades. There can be no doubt, however, that the publishing industry is one of the very few that rests on the cutting edge of production and technology.

Comfortable, yet vigilant, it has entered a whole new world.

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