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Self-publishers will be the publishers of the future

Tim O'Reilly on self-publishing and the cycles of democratization via technology.

Tim O’Reilly opened the TOC conference in New York a couple weeks ago with some words of optimism for the publishing industry, noting that copyright common sense is gaining momentum and that our fears of the future are abating. “The fear that everybody had that the new thing was going to be a bad thing is going away,” he said. (You can watch O’Reilly’s keynote on YouTube.)

I had the opportunity to sit down with O’Reilly to talk about the bright future of publishing — a future in which he said self-publishing is going to play a major role:

“There’s no question in my mind that self-publishing is the wave of the future, with one big caveat: self-publishers will become publishers. You know, everybody sees the beginnings of a new democratization via technology. People take advantage of it, they get good at what they do, then they start to extend their services to others.

“Look at my own history. My company, O’Reilly Media, was the product of the desktop publishing revolution, which democratized the tools of print publishing in a lot of ways. I was a self-published author, I built a company, I started publishing books for other people — you know all of our early books were written by our employees. Only later did we start to bring in outsiders and become a more traditional publisher.

“You figure out things that are hard to do. We figured out how to produce better looking books, we figured out how to get them into the market, and we built distribution — and it was easier for a lot of people who just wanted to write to use us … I watched that happen again when the web came along. In the beginning, ‘Wow, anybody can be a web publisher, anybody can have their own printing press,’ but before long, people were paying to get listings on websites. It happened again with blogging: ‘Wow, everybody can have their own blog,’ and then before long people were writing for The Huffington Post or Tech Crunch or whatever instead of putting up their own blog because there is a natural need to aggregate attention, and some people get better at it.

…I think we’ll literally see people who get really good at writing — some of them will say, ‘Wow, I don’t want to do all that other BS,’ but some of them will say, ‘Wow, I’m good at all that other BS and I can actually extend my efforts by doing all the parts that other people don’t want to do.’ That’s what I do; I don’t write books anymore, but I publish books for other people. It gave me more leverage and greater success, and I think in a similar way, the world goes in cycles. So, yes, self-publishing is probably the most important thing to be paying attention to right now in publishing, but the cycle will repeat.” (At the 0:48 mark.)

O’Reilly also talked about the cross-media star — those who engage audiences through a variety of mediums — becoming the backbone of the industry, and how the book as a user interface has and will continue to change. You can watch O’Reilly’s full interview in the following video:

All keynotes and video interviews from TOC NY 2013 can be found on the TOC 2013 YouTube playlist.

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Comments: 10

  1. This is the journey I have begun. It is encouraging to know others have successfully gone before. Thanks for lighting my pathway.

  2. I, too, am on this path of self-publishing. I already self-published one book. I did it through Amazon but I created my own company to hold the publishing rights and through which all financial transactions take place. I have another book in the works. Although I don’t plan to be a publisher for others, I’m glad I have this first experience under my belt. I can’t say it was perfect or easy, but it was doable with persistence and a lot of help from some tech-savvy people I know.

  3. The genie has been let out of her bottle, and there’s no way she’s going back. The internet, social media, an overwhelming variety of software for writing and graphic design, web hosting, etc.–all these innovations have made it possible for anyone to publish their works. Even this blog is a good example of “self publishing”. No longer will traditional publishers and agents be able to control the printed material available to consumers; they will have to adapt or perish.

  4. It is hard enough to find professional marketing people who understand both B2B and B2C marketing, as well as digital and eCommerce in one person; What makes you think most writers have those skill sets?

    • Your keyword is “MOST.” Most won’t. But some of us do. Some have prior business careers.

    • Most don’t, anymore than most interior designers would have the skills to build the home they’ve designed. You simply partner with people who DO have the skill sets. I’ve watched my customers evolve as self-publishers, and have made sure my company has developed a complementary set of skills, expertise and tools to help my self-publishers enter the marketplace more professionally. While I work locally by choice, many “book shepherds” or other consultants are available through online search tools. They’re out there, and if you evaluate them they way you evaluate any contractor, looking for references, trust, values, skills and timeliness, it’s a reasonable and viable partnership.

  5. Very interesting point of view. Thanks. I already  published 4 ebooks world while. It is amazing what this possibility did to me as a writer.

  6. I wonder what Tim O’Reilly thinks about http://www.7write.com

  7. To me there are two things going on in this space. The first is the self publishing toolset allowing for much more widespread content creation. I see these tools as more tactical than strategic though. We all now have the tools to get the words in our head out on paper and even onto the shelf of a virtual marketplace. But is that enough? I think not.

    Enter the second part – the aggregation of customers. In the new world as in the old, success is still defined as selling your book to LOTS of readers. Selling involves lots of marketing and promotion. If you still buy into the “blockbuster” school, then lots of other people’s money comes into play to purchase the marketing, advertising and promotion to generate the desired sales.

    Yes self publishing may be the publisher of the future but we may all be going back to the smaller simpler model of being the local craftmaker, with the occasional sale here and there. Sadly more in keeping with the long tail model of retail sales than the higher volume of selling required by more commercially successful models.

    Look at O’Reilly – yes he was the product of disruption to the prior model. But in a way O’Reilly is doing exactly the same thing as that prior model. O’Reilly looks at the marketplace, tries to sniff out the next trending high volume sales success and then he points his machine at it. O’Reilly has costs to cover and bills to pay. They can’t fiddle around with loving word crafters (like most of us are). They need to find the one or two or three next big sellers and spend their money supporting those very few they judge to be the next success. O’Reilly is almost forced into being the next gatekeeper. Because the SAME PROBLEM still exists. How does anyone gather enough people together to make a market that is big enough to make enough money?

    Hugh Howey is an admirable recent story that goes against what I just wrote, but given the seething hordes of us wanting to be authors, he is definitely the exception and not the rule. Although, Wool certainly shows how much faster the new model “word of mouth” can work relative to the old model.

    Self publishing needs to be more about the other tool set that is also along for the ride. The marketing, selling and business toolset. And that might be where the old model still has quite the advantage……

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