Opinion: How independent book publishing has made the industry more democratic

Three years ago, I was a lawyer and a new mother, teetering on the precipice of a major career change. Like so many budding authors, the dream to write was buried beneath more pressing concerns of practicality, weighed down by the potential risks and pitfalls of starting afresh in a totally new industry – one that was alien to me and changing all the time.

Despite my reservations, I finished the first manuscript of ‘Holy Island’ in the stolen moments when my baby was asleep and sent it out to a small number of agents and publishers accepting direct submissions.

Remarkably, the feedback was positive and I even received an offer but ultimately I decided to take a different route and publish independently through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing Platform. Within four months of the book being published, it had reached number one in the UK Kindle chart and, another four bestselling books later, I haven’t looked back.

When I tell people this story, they are often surprised by the speed at which I’ve been able to release five books in two years, or they are daunted by the prospect of ‘going it alone’ with independent publishing. I can understand that; stepping into the unknown is often a nerve-wracking experience. For me, learning the process of how to produce a quality book for people to read and enjoy was far less challenging than writing my first novel – or having my first baby, for that matter.

I found the technical platform to be user-friendly and, having taken the decision to invest in decent branding, copy and editorial services, I approached it all with an eye for detail. Aside from this, I was under no obligation to wait any longer than necessary to release my first book.

It is sometimes suggested that the increasing market share being captured by independently published authors and ebooks represents the beginning of the end for traditional publishing and physical books. Well, I hope not! I have books in every room of my home and always will. My gut feeling is that there will always be certain categories of books that will be more popular in a physical format; cookery books, children’s books and collector’s editions, to name a few. But even genres such as adult fiction, which have already proven very popular in ebook format, will have readers who prefer the feel of a physical book in their hands.

Similarly, I feel that the predicted demise of traditional publishing has often been overstated. If there is a continuing general trend towards books being purchased online rather than in bricks and mortar stores, the traditional publishing industry will surely have anticipated these changes and must adapt accordingly, just as any modern industry must adapt in the face of technological change.

The recent acquisition of digital publisher Bookouture by Hachette may represent a move in that direction. Whatever changes take place in the publishing industry, there will always be huge demand for the services provided by traditional publishers in their areas of core strength including editing, cover design, printing and distribution.

Nevertheless, independent publishing has made the industry more democratic. This is true for both core consumer groups of the publishing industry; authors and readers. The traditional “gatekeepers” of publishing (in the form of agents, commissioning editors and physical retailers) served an important function by ensuring that limited budgets and shelf space were allocated only to those books which in their judgment had sufficient literary merit or likelihood of commercial success.

Given their constraints, it was likely necessary to turn down countless promising manuscripts over the years. These days, the costs of publishing (especially online) are far lower and online stores effectively have limitless shelf space. This means that authors now have far more options open to them; they can choose to follow the traditional publishing route, the independent publishing route or even a combination of both.

As an independent, they can expect higher royalty rates, earlier release dates and more creative control and flexibility. To ensure that their books meet the same quality standard as those released by traditional publishers, independent authors must be prepared to wear both “writing” and “business” hats but there are now many options available, since everything from cover design to editing services can be readily purchased, with the fee charged usually reflecting the standard of service provided.

As for readers, the world of publishing has never been more open and there has never been greater access to literature than in the world today. Technological advances and the rise of independent publishing have given today’s readers much more choice than ever before in terms of retailers, format and content. Rather than restricting readers to a small pool of material, the publishing world is providing new content all the time and opportunities for readers to discover new voices as well as old, beloved favourites.

All things considered, there has never been a better time to be an author or a reader.

LJ Ross, Author