A Self-Publication Gold Rush?

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

May 06, 2013

En route to a professorship of rhetoric and writing at the University of Texas at Austin, Clay Spinuzzi published scholarly monographs with the MIT Press (2003) and Cambridge University Press (2008). Last January, right on schedule, he brought out a third book, Topsight: A Guide to Studying, Diagnosing, and Fixing Information Flow in Organizations. His publisher this time? Himself.

Using the Amazon CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform and a couple of thousand dollars in freelance graphic design and copy-editing, Spinuzzi will make back his financial investment after 300 copies are sold. That's because he'll earn exceptionally high royalties: Around $7 for every digital copy, a little more for each print-on-demand paperback. If he sells just 1,500 copies, he'll earn $10,000. If he gets to the academic equivalent of best-sellerdom—15,000 copies—he'll easily clear more than $100,000.

Those numbers flow from Amazon's revolutionary royalty structure. For self-published e-books priced under $2.99 or more than $9.99, Amazon pays a 35-percent royalty. But for those priced between those benchmarks, authors can clear 70 percent for themselves. The sweet spot is designed to keep prices within the range that traditional publishers expect for mass-market and many trade paperbacks­­—and to keep Amazon from underpricing its own traditional wares.

The switch to digital consumption has put a gun to the head of U.S. book publishing, which—let's face it—has been begging to be put out of its misery since the 1980s.

The much-discussed crisis in scholarly publishing has run closely parallel to a related crisis in the ability of traditional publishers to distribute literary and even mass-market fiction. By the turn of the 21st century, many midlist writers with decent backlists could no longer get contracts, or were receiving advances too low to continue. It had become nearly impossible for a young writer to imagine making a living writing novels, even genre fiction.

But when digital publication hit its stride about five years ago, it made millionaires of several self-publishing phenoms and rescued a lot of those midlist authors as well, some of whom now make comfortable livings repackaging their backlists. Amazon has several rivals in the self-publishing sector, which has tripled since 2006. There are new direct-to-fan business models; the crowdfunding app Kickstarter had its first million-dollar book deal, when 14,000 fans of Rich Burlew's Order of the Stick Web comic ponied up an average of $75 apiece to finance book republication of the strips.

Notwithstanding the gold rush in these other digital-publication sectors, will the prospect of earning a few thousand dollars in royalty payments, or even a few tens of thousands, push many academic writers to self-publication?

Probably not. After all, most academic books sell a few hundred copies. Most of those sales come from the publisher's relationship with libraries, and depend a great deal on the prestige capital of the press.

The prestige that a press confers on a book is in fact the most valuable payment most authors receive. When a book gets you a job you really want, how do you quantify its value? How much cash would you have to clear to outstrip the prestige of the top press in your field? $150,000? Twice that? More?

Spinuzzi agrees. He positions Topsight as more of a textbook and popularization than scholarship, a book that he could afford to experiment with. He sees digital self-publication as "part of a larger ecosystem" and "a natural outgrowth of other unvetted work" such as scholarly blogging and social media. His fourth book will go to a scholarly press because, he says, "concentrated scholarship needs heavy vetting."

Of course, even in the narrower world of textbooks and other works for lay or crossover readerships, the possibility of a cash payout isn't the only advantage to self-publishing. Spinuzzi cites swift turnaround, freedom to experiment, and greater creative control of layout, images, and content: "I got away with a lot of things that traditional publishers wouldn't allow," he says. "Something as small as referencing Scooby-Doo can really set the tone for a book, making it friendly and accessible, and I didn't want to give that up."

In the end, those advantages may have more and more influence upon young scholars, for whom the digital-humanities movement has begun to at least modestly undermine the centrality of the monograph in scholarly communication.

Today's digital humanists increasingly share not only the apex of our analysis but all the constituent elements of our research—unedited oral history in various languages, for instance; edited, arranged, and translated clips; slides; searchable raw data; sorted data; collected primary texts; annotations of primary texts; and so on. This digital, multimodal, social, dynamic scholarship is truly unsuitable for (merely) print, as Jerome J. McGann and others at the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities proved long ago with projects like the Rossetti Archive and the Sixties Project.

Decentering the book, however, won't reduce the dictum of publish or perish. To the contrary, the burden of scholarly communication grows with each new platform.

But when publishing—sharing—becomes an everyday act, something that happens at every stage of scholarship or teaching, the role of the research monograph or textbook changes from the apex to something more like an edition. It's a version, moment, filter, or beat in relation to a far more complex and dynamic whole. Careers will still be made through publishing—just not necessarily books. Danah Boyd, now a researcher at Microsoft and Harvard and New York Universities, among other academic appointments, was long visible as the most rapidly rising young scholar on social media before she ever published an academic article.

Ultimately the industry descriptor of "self" publishing is hardly the best rubric for the way scholarly communication is democratizing, at least in its peer-reviewed forms. Most young scholars are likely to embrace digital publication in relation to the open-access movement—to maximize sharing—rather than collect a profit. Pretty much anyone who can build a credible network of reviewers and board members can start a scholarly journal or academic press today. But the key term in that statement is "network."

As the model for scholarly publishing moves away from a faceless, universal "public sphere" to more focused sharing with scholars in niche communities of overlapping inquiry, we should really be speaking of freeing collectives, rather than individuals, from scarcity-driven models of academic publishing.

Rather than cash, those liberated collectives will mostly create prestige and career capital for their members, and for new entrants to the profession—not to mention new knowledge and social change. All with a lot less mediation by profit-seeking corporations or revenue-maximizing bureaucracies.

Which I would call more of a revolution than a gold rush.

Marc Bousquet is director of college writing and an associate professor of English at Emory University. He is the author of How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation (New York University Press, 2008).