One of the great joys in life is to celebrate the launch of a new book. Particularly when one knows something of the effort, struggle and personal investment of the author – the story behind the story makes it that much more special.
A few weeks ago, I was delighted to share in the joy of the birth of a new book written by my dear friend, Jo Manning. Jo’s memoir, Etched in Time, covers nine decades of the remarkable life of a highly intelligent and talented woman who, against the odds, became an accomplished artist. Jo’s story is a powerful personal memoir, but it also is a really important look at Canada’s social history, the role of artists and the challenges for women over almost a century.
Many people witnessed the creative process as it was unfolding: Jo’s thought processes, memories and draft stories were shared with friends along the way. Being the professional creator she is, she hired a professional editor to work with her once her first draft was completed. And when the final draft was ready, she self-published her book as print-on-demand and ebook formats.
In so doing, she joins a growing number of independent authors reaching their readers directly through online sales. According to authorearnings.com, indie books now account for more than 42% of all ebook purchases on Amazon. Just a few short months ago, this number was at 33%; the industry is changing that fast. It’s telling that 56 of Amazon’s overall Top 100 Best Selling ebooks were self-published indie titles. And there are indications that indie print sales are gaining ground in the online marketplace as well.
For the independent author, there are real advantages to what is essentially an equal access online storefront model. The February 2016 Author Earnings Report concludes, “With lower prices, greater creative freedoms, the ability to publish to market much faster, and the ability to appeal to a wider variety of readers, indie authors have huge advantages online. As the market moves away from physical bookstores — which must necessarily limit their selection, and so limit the free expression of ideas as a consequence — we expect to see a greater flourishing of independent authors finding their voices and taking home an ever-growing slice of consumer dollars.”
This recent and growing trend has significant implications for libraries. Libraries depend heavily on publishers’ catalogues when making collections purchasing decisions, but there is no dedicated catalogue to promote indie books. Nor do many indie books have ISBNs. There is also a traditionally held belief that quality literature is only available through traditional publishers – that publishers ensure quality and standards. And yet, if indie books represent almost half of all ebook titles and about 20% of available print titles, libraries (and book stores) are potentially missing out on a considerable body of creative works.
And that brings us to the issue of quality. What used to be referred to as “vanity press” books, long considered drastically inferior in quality, deserve a serious reconsideration. It seems to me that if indie authors engage the services of a professional editor, there can be a much better chance of quality. I spoke with Paul Willcocks, Jo Manning’s editor, about this issue. He had this to say: “I agree that professional editing is a big asset. Not so much in the basics of catching typos and such, though that’s important, but working with the author to add detail and raise questions and encourage them to make the book as good as it can be.”
Paul also told me he would consider self-publishing as an author: “the increasingly effective self-publishing options and new sales channels, and the shrinking resources of traditional publishers, make it a reasonable choice for people with stories to tell or something to say. (And James Joyce did self-publish Ulysses.)”. And although he himself is an editor, he would certainly hire an editor. Everyone needs an editor.
However, the problem as Paul sees it, is that libraries and bookstores haven’t fully figured out what to make of self-published books. “There’s a perception that they’re going to be amateurish or strange – though neither of those are necessarily bad things.” And while he acknowledges that it’s hard/impossible to get into bookstores, “it’s hard/impossible to get into bookstores if you have a publisher, given that 1,000 new titles are being published each month in Canada.”
Dave Obee, who has written a couple of library histories, has self-published books on genealogical sources. “By self-publishing, I could ensure the books would be of high quality, a guarantee that I could not get from a publisher,” he told me. “An added benefit is that self-publishing makes financial sense. I made thousands of dollars publishing my book on immigration records. Had I gone through a formal publisher, I would have made hundreds.”
Professional writers and editors obviously have an advantage when working in this space. But more and more, we are seeing resources and services pop up to support indie authors in preparing their work for self-publishing and to help with promotions. As well, workshops such as the recent one at the North Shore Writers Festival, “How to Become A Successful Indie Author”, are available to help would-be authors learn and share information about self-publishing.
Libraries are aware of this growing market, increasingly adding self-published books to their collections. But as Krista Scanlon, Collection Services & Evaluation Librarian at NVDPL, recently explained to me, finding information about these books is difficult – we generally hear about them from word of mouth, or through direct marketing from the creator (both self-producing authors and film-makers).
Publishers Weekly now includes a quarterly review of featured indie books.
Krista notes that tracking down ordering information can be difficult, and frequently there are payment issues with staff having to use PayPal or purchasing cards, and having to create vendor records for one-off transactions. Our systems are set up for traditional invoices and a limited number of vendors. Clearly it’s still early days, and we need to adapt to this change.
So, what could libraries do to incorporate self-published books into their model? Paul has ideas:
- Libraries could make it easier for people or authors to make recommendations
- Libraries could set up volunteer review panels
- Libraries could recognize that there is great value in self-published books
I would add that libraries could engage in collective efforts to vet the best of self-published books – with librarians at multiple libraries sharing the work, and issuing recommendations.
Libraries could also set up a shared digital repository for independently produced ebooks. While the “big publisher” commercial ebook market is fraught for libraries and the user experience is less than satisfying, a collective do-it-yourself library ebook platform for indie titles could ensure consistent and extended public access. But no one library could do this effectively on their own; a shared solution would be strategic.
With this in mind, I connected with Ben Hyman, Executive Director of the BC Libraries Cooperative (BCLC) – the most technologically, economically and socially innovative platform for libraries to work together. Ben sees the value in creating a digital repository as part of a provincial digital library: “We’ve been exploring the opportunity to facilitate a strategic community technology approach – with enough interest, we could make it happen.”A hybrid between a traditional library consortium and a technology start-up, the BCLC is a unique organization in Canada. With provincial investment, the collective will of libraries, and the technical capacity and mission of the Libraries Co-op, all elements could be aligned for library success on the indie publishing front.
I believe libraries do a decent job of ensuring their local authors are represented in their print collections. After all, a library should reflect its community and local authors are something special to celebrate and promote. It would be tragic if there was not a place for local authors in library collections.
But indie books from outside the local community? Indie books that don’t show up in publisher catalogues, may lack an ISBN? There are good conversations underway, and more to be had. Certainly for print copies, local library collection development and evaluation criteria will guide those decisions.
The bigger challenge, and the strategic opportunity, lies with facilitating access to the rapidly growing realm of self-published and indie ebooks. A collective effort for a provincial digital ebook repository for libraries makes sense.
What do you think? I’d welcome your thoughts on how libraries can work with the self-publishing model for ebooks to ensure perpetual access to strong digital collections.