Two bits of news caught our eyes recently:
Self-Published Ebook Sales Reach 20% of Genre Market In 2010, the US published 328,259 printed books, the UK 149,400. It is hard to find data on book publications in 2011 but, according to Bowker (they're the outfit that assigns the individual identifying number - the ISBN - to each book), since 2006, self-published books have risen 287%. Some 87,000 or so e-books were self-published in 2011 (some items may've been counted twice but many self-published e-books also lack ISBNs, so the number is 'fluid'). This figure is for the US only, but we can assume that the rest of the English-speaking world is holding up their end of the racket.
The Bowker article notes that in 2011, Amazon alone released 58,412 self-published works, "39% of all self-published print books." Further, "Smashwords was the largest ebook producer, accounting for 40,608 titles, or 47 percent of all self-published ebooks." Add those two figures and you get 99,021 self-published books by these two major players alone. Do the math to figure out what part they didn't produce (the 61% that Amazon didn't release equals 91,362, and the 53% that Smashwords did not produce comes to 45,792) and you get 149,774 self-published print books and 86,400 self-published e-books, or, if this math is correct, in 2011 there were 236,174 self-published titles. Give or take.
Then there was this essay by Barry Eisler, also on The Guardian's webiste: The Digital Truths Traditional Publishers Don't Want to Hear where he once again touts the advantages of e-books and self-publishing over what he calls 'legacy' publishing - meaning the system of publishing that gave him his start.
From what we hear, Eisler has done very well since he walked away from a fat contract with a legacy publisher to go on his own and with Amazon. We know of many authors for whom this route has not only become a stream of money but the only way they can continue to publish. They include nationally and internationally known writers, award winners - names you'd know, many local. The traditional NYC publishers have turned away from what is known as the 'mid-list' author (as opposed to the novice novelist or the mega-seller), no longer giving them contracts that allowed them to live on their writing and letting their older books go out of print. These backlist titles, if they have the publishing rights to them, can become a source of steady money as the books are complete and simply need to be converted to digital files. No one begrudges them this. They ought to be able to make money on their work.
We're just crabby that the major publishers are so myopic as to let these writers go so that we can no longer have their books to sell.
But here's the thing about someone like Barry Eisler: he launched himself into this digital world when he was already an established author. He didn't get to where he is by using that system from the start. Yes, he's done well selling his books on-line as digital files. Good for him. But would he be where he is had he not benefitted from the efforts of the 'legacy publishing' system he so easily dismisses?
Go back to the figure of quarter of a million self-published titles in 2011. We have to figure that the number of self-published books continues to grow each year. So maybe there were not as many in 2010, and maybe a lot more in 2012. And we're half-way through 2013, so...
What we would like to see is Barry Eisler conduct what we refer to as a 'science experiment': Publish a new work under a pseudonym and keep it a secret for a year. Tell no one that you've done it, do nothing to draw attention to it as a Barry Eisler novel, in no way promote it as Barry Eisler work, or allow it to be connected to you - hell, even lie and deny it is yours if someone asks...Do everything you can to keep it just another self-published work by an author no one has heard of. In other words, launch this as any other unknown author just starting out would have to do.
At the end of that year tell us, how did it sell?
Will readers find it among the other few hundred thousand other newly-released self-published works? Can he be successful from scratch, without the help of his reputation and name and without the publicity machinery of a 'legacy publisher'?
That would be an interesting experiment.