Let's begin with an introduction. I began my working life as a publisher, both full time and freelance, and went on to write books about writing and publishing.
My titles became set texts within universities, and I followed them into academia. I currently lead the Masters Course in Publishing at Kingston University, UK, where we endeavor to develop potential publishers from those who are interested in thinking more about the issues involved -- from effective content progression and management to why reading matters and how to encourage more people to get involved.
The publishing industry I joined after university was firmly against self-publishing. For my own part, I was always fascinated by the motivation of authors; why some kept pursuing a professional publishing deal and what this had to say about the individual's determination to battle on and withstand rejection -- ironically the same skill set that often makes for successful self-publishing.
My research interest in self-publishing was further fueled by the industry's tendency to dismiss it; insisting on the need for validation by a 'proper publisher'. It seemed to me that given the size of the traditional industry, and its rather un-diverse recruiting practices, it was unlikely that a) all work worth reading was being captured and b) those doing the capturing knew precisely what everyone else wanted to read.
If you think of the publishing industry as an entrance exam, the difference between those who make it into the institution, and those who just miss out, will necessarily be marginal. The range of entrants/material available for publication is presumably similarly stretched across competencies and charms, and it's the industry's performance of magic -- basically turning content into a format we recognize as finalized -- that establishes the separateness of published titles from everything else available.
In any case, times have now changed, and with so much greater choice about how to spend their leisure time, the market for reading material became harder to reach -- with publishers increasingly relying on authors to help them make contact. And as mechanisms to enable self-publishing became more widely available, and publishing services companies sprang up to cater for increasing demand, the stage was set for wider involvement.
I have now spent four years researching both the process of self-publishing and those involved. What I found was in direct contrast to previously widely held assumptions: that the motivations of self-publishing authors were often more connected to completion and future discoverability than money; that they enjoyed the process, would do so again and recommend it to others -- and that it had made them happy. Finally achieving a finished state for something they had long planned to formalize felt really good; whether or not they intended to share it more widely. I emerged from the process with many reasons for admiring self-publishers, but I will confine myself here to just five:
1.They finish something
If it's true that a significant proportion of the population feel they have a book in them, or that getting a book published is the second most common New Year's resolution, then it's odd how few people seem to prioritize the writing bit. One of the first disappointments of the newly published is the response to their achievement from those who have not yet completed anything: 'I'm going to do that one day' or 'Lucky you to have the time' being particularly annoying. If you are planning to self-publish it is a prerequisite that you have finished something to make available -- and that's admirable.
2. They take responsibility
My definition of self-publishing is the taking of personal responsibility for the management and production of work. It doesn't have to be for wider circulation, or even to make money, but the taking responsibility is crucial. This is brave. For me the whole process of letting go of even an edited manuscript is difficult; knowing the next time I see it I will only spot mistakes.
It's also personally risky. Work made available is not always received in the same spirit as which it is shared -- you can attract attention from correspondents who, perhaps because they seldom use their real name, feel empowered to destroy your sense of yourself as a writer. This can be hard to recover from.
3. They're resourceful
Research shows that many of those dubbed self-publishers are in fact operating in small teams, buying in services as needed. Support has been variously obtained: from friends and colleagues; paid for support; some via the internet. 59% of my research cohort had used an editor and 21% had taken legal advice.
Being self-published does not absolve you from paying careful attention to the legal issues behind sharing content, and committing libel or infringing copyright may be very real dangers which self-publishers must manage themselves.
4. They identify new markets
It's becoming a relatively common phenomenon these days for work to locate, and reveal, a market through self-publication -- and then once the project looks less risky, for it to find more traditional investors. Self-publishers have drawn attention to previously overlooked demand (memoirs, fantasy and soft porn being particularly good examples). But a new market does not have to be vast, or public, to matter -- many self-publishers have taken care of content they valued, and ensured it will be discoverable by their families and friends in the future, should they want to know. Worth doing, I say.
5. They are mutually supportive
The motivations of self-publishers are various, and range from those who identify instinctively with the freedom (principally the lack of mediation) self-publishing allows, decide to proceed in this way because they feel bruised by continual rejection from the traditional industry -- or have never tried to find an external publisher.
Whatever their starting point, they seem to be a remarkably supportive bunch. The personality of the writer has been investigated, and we are apparently notorious for jealousy; one person's success necessarily being viewed as diminishing the opportunities of others -- or as Gore Vidal so memorably put it: 'Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.' But attend a meeting of self-published authors and you will experience something quite different -- the atmosphere of mutual encouragement is palpable. Self-publishers will share information on the process, freely offer the names of suppliers they trust, and seem genuinely pleased for each others' success.
In conclusion, self-publishers are adding energy to the industry, spreading an understanding of the processes involved -- and hence helping to diversify the workforce, revealing new markets and new ways of reaching them, experimenting with new patterns of writing (the 'hybrid author'; team writing), creating employment opportunities (several of our alumni now run their own editorial services companies) and endorsing the personal fulfillment that comes from writing -- even if the destined audience is entirely personal and unaware of the project in progress.
And to acknowledge this, isn't it time we stopped making a distinction between traditional publishing and self-publishing -- and just called the whole process Publishing?