Self-Publishing History: It Didn’t Start With Gutenberg

Unless you’ve been sleeping under a rock (or a clay tablet), you probably know that the publishing industry is in the middle of a revolution right now. You see the evidence everywhere.

Mass publishing has seen greater changes in the past ten years than at any other time in history since the invention of the Gutenberg press.

In 1436, Johannes Gutenberg built a machine to mass produce books, and the first one he printed was the Bible. That one event helped change the world, putting consistent and important information into the hands of the public.

Now producing and distributing information is accessible to the general public. This happened because of sweeping changes in technology, including the Internet, ebooks and smartphones. For better or worse, any Joe can publish a book now, and it doesn’t have to rival Holy Scripture in order to be published.

This means there’s never been an easier time to get your name out there as an author. What used to be nearly impossible in the context of legacy publishing is now commonplace. No longer do you need an agent, publisher or publicist to claim the Holy Grail called “published author”.

But is there a downside to this change? What roles have these publishing professionals traditionally filled to earn their keep? Let’s take a quick look at some history and assess whether self-publishing is really the smart choice.

It Didn’t Start with Gutenberg

Though the Gutenberg press launched the mechanized publishing industry at the dawn of the Renaissance era, the process of distributing information is thousands of years old. The job of scribe – one who copied books for a living – dates back to ancient Egypt. Scribes were commonly authors as well. Knowing how to read and write was not all that typical; and so you could say these authors were really self-published!

With the Printing Revolution of the 1400’s, quality control became a factor. Publishers needed to make sure that the manuscripts they produced were up to grade. Thus, the job of editor was born. There was also a glut of manuscripts on the market, and so publishers became a bit choosier. This spawned the role of book agent.

Up ‘til now, book and magazine publishers spent a lot of their time buying or commissioning content. Typically these seemingly stuffed shirts would only consider manuscripts submitted by an agent. (Imagine!) To get an agent, an author had to write a book synopsis, market analysis and sample chapters of their handiwork. It was a lot of work, though it did focus the project in a way that is now seemingly unheard of.

Once a book was accepted for publication, the negotiation would start, nailing down a number for the purchase price, with haggling back and forth. Intellectual property rights and royalty rates were the chief commodities, but there were also movie rights, tie-ins and merchandising to consider. Think Harry Potter, one of the most successful book series in history.

All of this activity was – and is – predicated on conversion, the act of converting prospective readers into buyers. As with all industries, commerce is key.

Gutenberg Didn’t Have Conversion Problems

The difference between Gutenberg and today’s publishing industry is that Gutenberg published the Bible. He just didn’t have the distribution problems that you and I face today, and converting book browsers into book buyers was no problem. You wanted a copy of the Bible? You’d go see Gutenberg. He was the only game in town.

Now the self-publishing industry has exploded, and it’s easier than it has ever been in history to get your book in print, literally or virtually.

Services like Smashwords, CreateSpace and Pronoun make it possible to make your book available worldwide at the click of a button. Any first-time author who’s repeatedly been rejected by the stuffy agent/publisher model can see why this opportunity is so attractive.

However, there is a downside. Easy self-publishing means there is no mandatory check on an author’s skill or quality of the work. Any person with an Internet connection can publish their work, regardless of its literary merit or readability.

Beyond this obvious point is one that’s even more compelling. Because there’s so much content that’s now being dumped into the marketplace, overcoming obscurity is now the author’s greatest challenge. Competition is at an all-time high!

In fact, it takes a team of about 30 well-qualified people to put a book into play – to take it from the author’s mind to the readers’ heart. It seems those old fuddy-duddies who once provided a filter between the author and the marketplace actually did perform a viable service. Editors, graphic designers, distributors and a salesforce all play a useful role in a successful book launch.

This means that in order to be successful as a self-published author, you need to get really good at wearing about 30 hats. You can either grow a lot of heads, or call in some reinforcements.

Bryan Edired 1Bryan Heathman is the President of Made for Success. He works with bestselling authors and consultants which have included the late Zig Ziglar, Donald Trump and John C. Maxwell in the role of publisher and marketer. Bryan is the author of Conversion Marketing, a marketing book on converting website visitors into paying customers. Bryan’s Fortune 500 experience includes working for Microsoft, Eastman Kodak and Xerox.

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