After 30 years in journalism, I made a serendipitous discovery. It’s the ease with which virtually anyone can now publish his or her life story in book form – a trend that, thanks to the emergence of self-publishing, mirrors the online family genealogy craze.
The beauty of this business model is that people can chronicle their legacy with meaningful details, gripping stories and old photographs that make family tree limbs come to life. In many cases, “legacy” is the operative word, as well as a term to describe self-published memoirs. People want to leave their mark and be remembered. What better way to accomplish that than writing a book about one’s life?
Now virtually anyone can do that at an affordable price through so-called print-on-demand services, including numerous Web sites that allow paid customers to easily point and click their way through a finished manuscript and upload digital photos.
Books are printed based on the orders received, so there’s no inventory, while authors usually handle all the sales, marketing and promotional activities that a traditional publishing house is expected to do. There also are “vanity” self-publishing companies that they do not pay royalties or distribute books beyond an author’s order.
The end product can turn out as good – or bad – as it is allowed to be, depending on whether people who want to do this have the ability, time or desire to carefully organize their thoughts, or have the budget to hire a professional ghostwriter.
On a personal note, I “ghosted” one of these projects for the very first time in 2012. It was both gratifying and great fun not only to immerse myself in someone else’s life, but also provide a valuable service that helped him fulfill a long-time dream. The experience made me wonder how many others are out there just like him wanting to tell their story, but lacking the expertise to do so.
A closer look at the self-publishing industry reveals some fascinating insight, which can help manage the expectations of would-be authors. Here are some of the most interesting research findings I came across from Bowker, a leading provider of bibliographic information and management services for publishers, booksellers and libraries:
- The number of self-published books in the U.S. has nearly tripled since 2006, totaling more than 235,000 between print and electronic titles.
- International Standard Book Number purchases, a key industry metric involving a unique 16-digit code known as the ISBN, soared nearly 60% in 2012 from 2011.
- The self-publishing market is dominated by four players: CreateSpace (a division of Amazon.com that leads in print books), Smashwords (the biggest e-book contender), Author Solutions (part of Penguin Group) and Lulu Enterprises.
- Most titles involve fiction, though nonfiction books lead in sales – with the former’s average price listed at $6.94 and the latter said to be $19.32.
- Although Kindles and Nooks are wildly popular, most people still prefer the traditional route to reading. One telling stat is that while 41% of self-published units are e-books, they constitute just 11% of sales – averaging only $3.18 vs. $12.68 for trade paperbacks and $14.40 for hardcover editions.
- Self-published authors shouldn’t expect to get rich from their writing anytime soon, according to scribes and industry executives. Most self-published books sell a measly 100 to 150 copies. However, there’s always hope for those with big dreams of penning the Great American Novel. Some self-published books do well enough to enjoy newfound success with a major publishing house, though the odds of that happening are slim to none. One such example is the novel “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which is now being made into a movie.