Why Indies Don’t Have to Compete With Big Publishers

There is a comparison to be made (surprisingly, and even absurdly), between the growth of the publishing industry–aggregate commercial and indie–and the growth of Apple during its famous expansion from IPods to IPhones and IPads. Just like business analysts were surprised that Apple’s (sometimes similar) products didn’t cannibalize each other to a significant degree–and indeed, seemed to accelerate each others growth–the boom in best-selling indie titles has not hurt the mainstream publishing industry, but has potentially helped it.

According to a recent article in Forbes, up to 25% of Amazon’s best sellers last year were self-published (a number that is, relative to general expectations and assumptions about independent publishing, astounding). But revenue amongst major publishers has “held up” and even surpassed expectations. What this means, is that potentially, independent books are the “IPads” to mainstream publishing’s “MacBooks”: the disruptive technology that isn’t (as of yet) a totally destructive technology.

And while it is fair, or more than fair, to say that the jury is still out on the ultimate trajectory and impact of indie/self/on-demand publishing, it is also reasonable to assume that indie publishing has a trajectory and isn’t going to disappear anytime soon.  It means that numbers like this year’s percentage of Amazon best-sellers are going to continue to emerge and surprise business analysts, and that the economic relationships between the smallest publishers and the biggest are worth investigating, insofar as they are going to going to develop in relevance and complexity. That means that is worthwhile to try to understand why more self-published books are likely helping mainstream publishers, and why mainstream publishers are, more and more, considering it worth their while to add self-published authors to their rosters.

One of the axioms of the conventional wisdom surrounding indie publishing, up to this point, has been that the success of independent publishing depends on the failure of mainstream publishing. While perhaps dramatic, it is, as stated above, not supported by the mutual flourishing of both modes of enterprise, but moreover, not supported by general observations about the way internet-based (Internet 2.0) commerce seems to work.

Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, for instance, while seemingly competing platforms, are often, and usually used, simultaneously and harmoniously, just like many households or individuals will own IPads, Macbooks, and IPhones at one time for overlapping, but also diverging purposes.

The trend (or what is potentially a trend: there may be good evidence to the contrary that I’m not aware of) in self-publishing, which is largely an internet-based phenomenon, potentially mirrors that of other economic surprises generated online: activity in one sector does not suppress activity in other sector, but may flow into that sector, and back again. A user might start by buying a self-published book on Amazon, one might surmise, but end up purchasing a second book, perhaps through an Amazon recommendation, from a commercial publisher that has a similar title available. More time online, maybe instigated by an interested in a particular self-published genre-title, yields more browsing in general, which yields more buying in general… hypothetically and potentially.

I want to reiterate that this is all very loosely speculative, but on the other hand, this is the kind of speculation that I think is relevant and useful to anyone thinking about publishing their own books, or anyone working for big publishers: anyone, that is, who has a stake in the way traditional ways of thinking about economic competition are changing.