The success of EL James and her Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy did much to overturn the stereotype of a self-published author. Now academic research further challenges the image of eccentric hobbyists scribbling away in their sheds by revealing that it is middle-aged and well-educated women who dominate the growing e-publishing market.
Alison Baverstock, an associate professor in publishing at Kingston University, Surrey, said her research showed a clear gender split, with 65% of self-publishers being women and 35% men. Nearly two-thirds of all self-publishers are aged 41 to 60, with a further 27% aged over 61. Half are in full-time employment, 32% have a degree and 44% a higher degree.
Baverstock said there was a widespread misunderstanding about who decides to self-publish a book, and how the genre was changing the publishing industry.
James has become arguably the richest of self-published authors through her “mummy porn” but, while the prose and storylines have won mass audiences, they have also attracted scorn. There is a belief, according to Baverstock, that self-publishers are doing so as a last resort, as vanity publishers, and may not have much formal education.
However, she said, James was an example of how self-publishers “really know their audiences, she is pretty sophisticated … she had self-belief. The books people really want to share are fiction”.
Presenting her work to the Westminster Media Forum on the prospects for books, publishing and libraries , Baverstock said there were popular subjects that traditional publishers had ignored, including “respectable soft porn” and “gentle memoirs of everyday disasters, such as losing a child”. Most publishers, she said, were being outpaced by a heady mix of democratisation and digital distribution, because they came from a “very limited gene pool … all agree on what they like … they know each other, and are not necessarily in touch with popular taste. Self-publishing is going on in schools, across institutions, spreading knowledge [of how to publish].”
Gordon Wise, senior literary agent at Curtis Brown, lent support to her argument, adding: “Authors may wish to remain self-published; there are many routes to market.”
Baverstock said that rapid change also meant “the position of the [literary] agent could be quite threatened. If all an agent does is take a percentage of what the author receives, that sort of relationship is threatened. Lots of people self- publishing are collaborative, they share information.”
Nicola Solomon, chief executive of the Society of Authors, said that self-publishing had “come of age”, was making decent returns for some and was not just for people who want to be published at any cost.
A quarter of self-publishers already considered themselves to be writers. “Publishers are narrowing around safer options, bigger brand names. Lots of middle list authors, with a steady return, are too small for them to engage with,” Solomon added.
Baverstock said that, far from feeling desperation, there was a consistently very high satisfaction with self-publishing. Nor did it necessarily mean going it alone. In current research she is tracking self-publishers’ rising use of freelance editors and marketing and legal experts after discovering in a 2012 survey that 59% had used an editor – removing one of the last distinctions between published and self-published books.
The rising demand for freelance editors means the quality is rising. She said that self-publishers had to take personal responsibility for the management and production, so opening up an understanding of how publishing worked. “This will hopefully diversify participation, widen involvement. The author with experience of self-publishing is empowered,” she said.
Jeremy Thompson, managing director of Troubadour Publishing, a traditional publisher which has also diversified into Matador, a self-publishing service, said demand had grown so rapidly in the last few years that more commercial publishers were setting up self-publishing arms.
Opportunities to buy and sell are diversifying as digital sites such asSmashwords allow writers to publish their own stories online free of charge. But the Westminster Media Forum heard that people were suspicious of books available for nothing, and there was a sweet spot price point of around £3.99 for an e-book.
Michael Tamblyn, president and chief content officer of Canada’s Kobo e-book platform, said that a further challenge to publishers was that e-books, which record people moving on to the next page, were throwing up “monumental data” about how people read.
“How people engage with books has been an undiscovered country,” he said. “How many are opened, how many are finished. It enables us to find a book that did not sell well, but every person liked it well enough to finish it. Also, where the reader lost the thread. To any author is that helpful? It brings the reader into the picture.”
And some behaviour has not changed. He added: “We are seeing a surprising number of books, award-winning titles purchased with the best of intentions, still sitting on the digital shelf.”
QUEENS OF SELF-PUBLISHINGJamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson in the film of Fifty Shades of Grey. Photograph: CAP/NFS/Image supplied by Capital Pictur
FIFTY SHADES OF GREY
Her trilogy was a breakthrough in “respectable mummy porn” – or erotic romance – featuring billionaire Christian Grey and college graduate Anastasia Steele. The British author originally published her work as an ebook and print on demand in 2011; the trilogy has now sold more than 100m copies worldwide. The film, starring Jamie Dornan, is out on 14 February 2015.Lisa Genova. Photograph: Philip Cheung/Getty Images
The American neuroscientist/writer published Still Alice as a debut novel in 2007. It tells the heartbreaking story of a 50-year-old Harvard professor, Alice Howland, a wife and mother of three, diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. It gained popularity, was acquired by Simon & Schuster, sold in 30 countries and 20 languages, and has been adapted for the stage and film.Barbara Freethy.
KISS ME FOREVER
Freethy started self-publishing her back lists, which were out of print, because she felt there was an audience for romantic fiction and emotionally compelling stories about love. She has sold 4.8m ebooks in three years, including her latest trilogy, Kiss Me Forever, Steal my Heart and All Your Loving, featuring seven friends who start as bridesmaids and end up as brides.