Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


Changing paradigms

July 19, 2012


Digital is the buzzword of the 21st century – be it digital revolution, digital entertainment or digital photography, every sphere of life is transformed by the move towards digitisation. When it comes to the world of books and publishing, the impact of digitisation has been no less subversive. After the rise of e-books and e-readers, the debate over the fate of traditional paper books was rampant. The very idea of self e-publishing seems as revolutionary as the advent of the printing press. Writers no longer need to be dependent on publishers to bring their works to readers – they can “publish’ their works within minutes over the internet.

Amazon, the biggest online retailer of books, has transformed the books industry by utilising easy accessibility and handiness of buying books (both paper and e-books) online. Many bookstores and publishers fear that Amazon is going to push them out of business by offering big discounts and allowing emerging writers to self e-publish their works for minimal charges as Kindle books.

Traditional publishing

The basic role of a publisher is to connect writers’ works with their readers. However, now that writers can reach their readers directly online, the role of the publisher seems nothing more than a never-ending line of middle-men who make money from the books that others write. The whole idea seems very revolutionary, as the power hierarchy shifts to populist e-publishing from elitist traditional publishing.

However, traditional publishers did not only bridge the distance between the writer’s work and readers, they were also relied on to bring to the general readers only the best of the works. On the other hand, in the current scenario there is a marked absence of publishers who can determine which books are worth printing and reading. This results in the digital reading world being swamped with many aspiring writers who have nothing worthwhile to offer to the readers. While the dictum of paper publishing was “select then publish”, the mantra of e-publishing is “publish then select”.

What is self e-publishing?

Self e-publishing is the ‘publishing’ of an e-book directly on the internet without any involvement of traditional publishing houses. In the last few years, the number of self e-published books has rapidly increased. This is because of the liberating nature of the process that allows writers to directly reach out to their readers, instead of leaving it to a publishing house. Moreover, with the increasing popularity of gadgets like Kindle and iPad, the online market for e-books (including the self e-published books) is expanding rapidly.

Professional writers and e-publishing

Now the question that arises is what would be the fate of professional writers and traditional publishers after the rage of self e-publishing? Being a professional writer is not an easy task as it requires the investment of both time and money. The traditional structure of publishing allowed the established writers to receive advances on their upcoming works from their publishers which gave them the liberty to solely focus on their writing.

The majority of self e-published writers, on the other hand, have full-time jobs and write on the side. As companies like Amazon and Lulu offer minimal money for self published books, it is almost impossible for a self-published writer to make his/her living solely by writing.

The Long Tail phenomenon

A simple search on Google will show that online publishing has become big business these days. Many bloggers and writers claim to be experts on self e-publishing and offer aspiring writers with tips and guidelines; and, of course, these so-called experts are making a lot of money out of it. However, the inspiring success stories of self e-published writers like John Locke (not to be confused with the 17th century English philosopher!), a crime fiction writer and the first man to sell over a million self e-published books on Kindle, and E. L. James, the writer of the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey that started off as a fan fiction of the Twilight novels but later developed into an independent trilogy, are exceptional cases.

The overabundance of digital merchandise is not restricted to the field of e-books as it has already pervaded the digital world through and through. The digital entertainment industry has not only accepted the reality of commodification, but exploited it to the very core. The primary change has been brought about in the nature of products that are offered for sale in the digital world. While local businesses offer a handful of selected items to their buyers, digital sellers provide a vast range of obscure and non-standard products and make profit out of it. Chris Anderson, the editor of the magazine Wired, describes the Long Tail phenomenon in his book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More as the death of common culture which means the triumph of an economy of unlimited selection. According to him, the market opportunities are no longer in a handful of best or well-known products but a wide range of various goods – this is the age of eBay, Netflix, Amazon and iTunes.

The future of publishing

Generally, the digital world of books occupies a space outside the boundaries of standardised literature, as a lower form of writing, dismissed by literary giants. Yet the fierce force with which new themes and concerns are highlighted in some of these works is very refreshing. Traditional publishers might serve as the filter that brings out only the “best” books to their loyal readers, yet, ironically enough, their innate objective is to publish those books that will generate money.

However, it is highly unlikely that either of them is going to be detrimental to the other, as their target audiences remain different. For some people, the inexplicable satisfaction of holding a beautiful hard copy of your favourite book is incomparable to the experience of reading it even on the best of the gadgets. On the other hand, J. K. Rowling’s self e-publication of her books on Pottermore proves that self e-publishing offers extra opportunities to already established writers as well. However, it is too soon to predict the fate of traditional publishers and professional writers. Most likely, like cinema and DVDs, these two media will learn to exist side by side.