Is The Self-Publishing Phenomenon Going To Burst?

In this age of unbridled optimism about digital self-publishing, there doesn't seem to be many voices suggesting that this revolution is anything but completely positive. However, some new objectors have begun emerging to relay messages of caution.

Earlier this week in The Guardian author Ewan Morrison had a major warning for self-publishing authors. In the article, Morrison compared the current flourishing climate of self-publishing to economist Hyman Minsky’s seven stages in an economic bubble. And it is hard to deny that Morrison makes a very compelling case.

We are certainly in an e-book flood right now. (According to Publishers Weekly in 2011 print sales declined by 54.3% but e-books climbed by almost 140%.) And just a quick look online shows that self-publishing e-books is an incredibly popular topic of conversation. Even a glance at the rise of e-book and self-publishing coverage here at RT BOOK REVIEWS confirms that digital publishing is something our readers can’t get enough of.

However, Morrison suggests that self-publishers slow down in their quest to attempt to become the next big thing. “This all seems like a repeat of the boom in get-rich-quick manuals and ‘specialists’ that appeared around blogs and etrading.” And the author continues with the more industry-focused point, “Did anyone actually get rich from writing blogs, you may ask? Well, according to Jaron Lanier (author of You are not a Gadget) there are only a handful of people in the world who can prove that they make a living from blogging: it's entirely possible that more money was made by those who wrote and sold the how-to manuals than by the bloggers themselves.”

And we agree, it does seem like there are just as many people who are ready to help an author self-publish, to become a sensation with their blogs and fiction writing, as there are ready to self-publish themselves. Some of these people, do actually self-publish their own works, however, the sheer amount of self-publishing guides, tips and tricks out there makes it seem like this is a climate that is rife with people who have simply jumped on the bandwagon in order to turn a quick profit.

Earlier this week on Tech Crunch author James Altucher posted a very positive piece about the values and ease of self-publishing. The five-book veteran of traditional publishing who has now found self-published success shared a look back over his career and used personal anecdotes to illustrate why self-publishing is just as good a fit for entrepreneurs as it is for authors. For little money, and sometimes even less effort — particularly if you hire a ghost writer — you can use a self-published book as a source of income, another way to extend your personal brand or that of your company, and boost up your resume. The entire TechCrunch article vibrates with a message of “go forth boldly and write so that you can self-publish yourself in order to reap the benefits that are waiting, ripe to be plucked.” It is such an inspiring piece that left us with a real sense of can-do, and we aren’t even interested in self-publishing our own writing!

Morrison notes that this growing excitement is also a part of an economic bubble; it’s stage three. As the media picks up the story and people who would not normally be part of the industry get involved. In the case of self-publishing, this swell of people involved is compounded by the fact that the industry itself invites those who might not normally be published through traditional houses — or even be picked up by literary agents — to try their luck at making lots of money as an author. But says Morrison, what may really seal the deal, and doom self-publishing to being a popped bubble rather than a permanent change, is that the media is reinforcing this idea that self-publishing is the path to riches. “The more traffic there is in self-epublishing the more the hype has 'evidence' to support it.” So the few people who do become major successes, the Colleen Houcks and Amanda Hockings and even the J.A. Konraths of the world, only end up reinforcing the idea that finding success in self-publishing e-books isn’t only possible, it’s plausible.

In an economic bubble, this massive swell of people suddenly taking part in whatever the bubble is, like dotcoms, will cause a rise in less realistic and more “overblown” models. In self-published e-books we can see that people are already trying to figure out how to create a pricing scheme that both gets readers interested and puts money in an author’s pocket. So there’s an upswing in free and cheap e-books, which translates into creating a price that readers are unwilling to pay for an e-book. And whether it will be four dollars, six dollars, twelve or twenty, ultimately it means that the market will change and stop being as lucrative because authors can’t sell their works for the profits that they once saw.

Another the result of so many people taking part in such a packed market? The insiders who began the bubble slowly leave. Morrison points to Amanda Hocking signing a deal with the traditional publisher Macmillan as a sign that this is occurring. At which point, the entire system begins to collapse, and the bubble is under so much pressure it must pop. Where there used to be a sense of optimism, a “can succeed” feeling, is overtaken by a sense of failure and defeat. After the bubble bursts, Morrison predicts that there may be many ex-self-published e-book authors who never saw the returns that they were hoping for, and return to whatever they were doing before. But Morrison suggests that if this comes to pass, it will have left an indelible mark on the publishing industry — and the reading public. These effects include traditional publishing houses suffering huge losses, would be self-publishing successes suffering huge losses and eventually perhaps the government would step in to subsidize the publishing industry.

Morrison points out that, “[S]peculation, as we've learned at our peril, is a very dangerous foundation for any business. And when the epub [sic.] bubble bursts, as all previous bubbles have done, the fall-out for publishing and writing may be even harder to repair than it is proving to be in the fields of mortgages, derivatives and personal debt.” And while there’s no guarantee that this is what will come to pass, it seems like Morrison raises some valid concerns.

So what do you think, is the rise in self-publishing e-books sending the industry on a dangerous path, or are those who are being cautious simply going to miss out on a golden opportunity? Let us know in the comments below and you can learn more about the publishing industry here or keep up with the digital revolution at our Everything E-Books Page!