Features & Columns

The Self Publishing Revolution

Web reach transforms self-publishing from a last resort to a real option for authors
E-WRITER: South Bay author Jonathan R. Miller writes thrillers that explore social issues. After finding traditional publishing unreceptive to his works, he self-published three books through Amazon.

In a rundown, chilly Minnesota town, a Somali-born delivery driver makes his way to drop off packages and letters to reluctant and sometimes violent residents. So hostile are some recipients that he's perpetually prepared to run. Ambo knows that because he's mixed-race, his deliveries almost inevitably draw unwelcome attention. Each knock on a stranger's door could be the bell to a fight.

Jonathan R. Miller's second book, delivery, begins by detailing these typical horrors of Ambo's daily work. But this and his other stories of such outsiders—often sidelined along racial identity issues—brought rejection from traditional publishers.

As the son of an African American nuclear engineer and a white nurse, Miller frequently injects social issues into his stories. "I try to write thrilling stories with an exciting plot, but I also try to tackle some social issues as I'm taking readers through the storyline," he says. "Some of my goal is to have characters that aren't traditionally represented."

But Miller found that publishers weren't interested in this style of writing. "I've definitely had experiences where the push was to edit some of these things out, and it didn't always feel like it was in service of the story," says the 40-year-old San Jose resident. "It felt like it was to avoid controversy or getting pigeon-holed in African American or special interest sections, where, unfortunately, books go to die in the eyes of many publishers."

He experimented with creative writing in high school, but started getting more serious in college, as an English and biology major at Stanford, after reading American Dreams, a collection of poetry by the author Sapphire. Years later, another book inspired him to write a novel.

"I was tremendously struck by it," Miller says. "The next day I started saying, 'How can I try to do this?'"

Miller, whose day job is as a writer for a Bay Area semiconductor company, has released three novels through Amazon. "This way, you have control over everything—control over the price, full control over content, control over the cover, control over the timing of its release," he says. "Having control is pretty powerful."

Miller is among a growing wave of authors turning to self-publishing as a way to put out their work. By 2012, self-published titles had ballooned 422 percent since 2007, according to an analysis of International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs). This number may be even higher, says Andi Sporkin, vice president of communications for the Association of American Publishers, since not all self-published works are registered for an ISBN. "It's kind of a mystery number," she says.

In addition to their swelling numbers, the past seven years have also witnessed the commercial success of many independent authors. Most notable is E.L. James, author of 50 Shades of Grey. Originally self-published, the erotic novel was later acquired by Vintage Books—which gave James a seven-figure advance—and sold more than 100 million copies and movie rights to Universal Pictures.

Although James' fame is an outlier—not only for self-publishers, but for traditional writers as well—independent authors now appear on bestseller lists every week, proving that self-publishing is becoming a viable avenue for commercial success.

At the heart of this self-publishing boom is technology. "People have always published their own books," says Sporkin of a tradition that stretches back to Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine, who published and sold their own pamphlets. Later, self-publishing became derisively known as a "vanity press" because authors paid publishers to print their work. "It used to be more difficult and more time-consuming to actually get them printed and into stores," Sporkin goes on, "but with the advent of digital, it has become an easier process."

This is what Miller discovered in 2010, when he turned to Amazon to publish his first novel, three-cent. "It was extremely straight-forward," he says. Miller used the Amazon program CreateSpace, which offers authors digital tools to transform the text of their books into an electronic or paperback book to be sold on the online retailer's website. Some tools for designing the book's cover and interior are free, while the more sophisticated ones are available for purchase.

"It may not be quite as beautiful as a book you find on a Barnes & Noble shelf," he says, "but if you saw it on a Barnes & Noble shelf, you wouldn't blink."

One of the advantages of this new technology, says Miller, is that it drives down the price of paperbacks, and makes on-demand printing possible. "The other day I ordered one of my books, and it was $4," he says. "Six years ago, to get $4 a copy, you would have had to do a print run of tens of thousands of copies—you'd have a warehouse full of books." Miller understands how "unbelievable" this development is, since he published a local literary magazine in hardback 10 years ago and became familiar with the pricing. "I can't say enough about the ability to print one copy of your book and sell it affordably," he says. "It's unheard of."

While these tools give authors like Miller real advantages in printing on demand, paperbacks alone don't account for the self-publishing boom—it's e-books... continue reading