New trends in self-publishing

Why not go with Borders, the people who sell you the books?

“It’s easy to publish your own book!” the “Borders Personal Publishing” leaflets proclaim. Pay $4.99. Take home a kit. Send in your manuscript and $199. A month or so later, presto. Ten paperback copies of your novel, memoir or cookbook arrive.

Fork over $499, and you can get the upscale “Professional Publication” option. Your book gets an International Standard Book Number, publishing’s equivalent of an ID number and is made available on, and the Philadelphia store makes space on its shelves for five copies.

Borders is the latest traditional bookseller or publisher to branch into self-publishing using print-on-demand or P.O.D. technology. P.O.D., inheritor of the vanity press and survivor of the dot-com implosion, makes it feasible – technologically and economically – to produce one copy of a book.

Unlike e-books, which also appeared in the late 1990’s, P.O.D. self-publishing has developed into a real business, attracting involvement from the likes of Random House, Barnes & Noble and now Borders.

Forty percent of all self-published books are sold to the authors, and most of the other sixty percent are sold on-line. One company, iUniverse, has 17,000 published titles. 84 have sold more than 500 copies, and a half dozen have made it to Barnes and Noble shelves. But then again, traditional vanity presses charge you at least 8 to 10K to publish a book, with no guarantees.

Here is the full story. As Clay Shirky notes, the world is moving from the paradigm of “first filter, than publish” to “first publish, then filter.”

But does self-publishing have a bright future? Yes and no. Soon self-publishing won’t be worse than going with a mediocre press. The value of the very best certifiers will go up (in the academic market this is Harvard, Princeton, Chicago, and MIT presses, for a start), if only because the proliferation of writing makes their sorting function more important. At the same time the relative value of the middling certifiers will fall. It will become apparent they don’t offer a better product than writers operating on their own. At some point you have to ask whether the press is lending reputation to the author, or vice versa.

By the way, here is one self-published memoir which I love, the author Thelma Klein was the mother of well-known economist Daniel Klein. Yes they still have copies if you want to buy one, and they only cost a few dollars.


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