June 2, 2014

What’s the right analogy for the staggering growth of self-publishing?


The only thing that has grown faster than the number of books self-published from 2007 to 2012 is hyperinflation in Zimbabwe’s economy

The only thing that has grown faster than the number of books self-published from 2007 to 2012 is hyperinflation in Zimbabwe’s economy

In October of last year, Bowker, the official ISBN Agency for the United States, reported that over 391,000 books had been self-published in 2012.  Out of context, it seems like a pretty big number. But context, just like coffee, is everything, and man, is there context. That number amounted to a 59% increase from the previous year, and a mind-numbing, head-spinning, dizzying 422% from 2009. For further context, a recent Journal Sentinel article added that every conventional publisher combined produced only 301,642 books in the same calendar year.

In other words, the growth of the self-publishing marketplace is insane. Consider this: since 1990, everyone and their country’s First Lady (if you’re American, anyway) has said the United States has an obesity problem. Yet the average adult male’s weight has only increased 9% and the average adult female’s weight has only increased 13%. If obesity is an epidemic, self-publishing is the virus from 28 Days Later.

Unfortunately, that analogy is approximate as well as a little violent, and neither do well for my purposes. Ironically, something so large that it can only be accurately depicted in comparative language does not have much to which it can be accurately compared. But fear not, noble citizen. I have foreseen the need for appropriate analogies.

“The number of self-published books from 2007 to 2012 grew like the number of death threats from President George W. Bush to President Barack Obama.”

The rate of death threats on President Obama as compared to President Bush. According to a Telegraph article posted in 2009, the number of death threats on President Obama in his first year increased 400% over the number that President Bush received on average annually, which was around 3000. The reference comes from In the President’s Secret Service, a book written by Ronald Kessler, a former Secret Service agent.

For what it’s worth, the claim has been vehemently disputed. Former Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan claimed that the numbers did not increase to such a staggering degree, nor do they really increase at all from the two Presidencies that preceded it. These numbers are not officially released and therefore completely unverifiable, so feel free to use this if you need to.

The only thing that has grown faster than the number of books self-published from 2007 to 2012 is hyperinflation in Zimbabwe’s economy

OR (for a different perspective)

“At least Self-Publishing is only like Zimbabwe’s hyperinflation around 2003 to 2005 and not 2008 to 2009, am I right, guys?”

In most cases, 400% growth is quite remarkable, but that’s child’s play compared to the work Zimbabwe’s economy was doing. Things got so bad, that towards the end of their hyperinflation in 2009, the government just stopped filing official inflation reports entirely. According to a report written for the Cato Journal, inflation peaked somewhere around 89.7 sextillion percent. Maybe someday, if everyone greatly reduces their standards or just starts publishing ebooks of blank pages, the self-publishing community will get there.

“The number of self-published books took five years to increase more than anti-depressant use by Americans did in 14.”

According to a report by Harvard Health Publications from 2011, anti-depressant usage from 2005-2008 had grown almost 400% from usage between 1988 and 1994.

 “The number of self-published books increased more than The Hunger Games trilogy books sales did after the movie came out.”

According to an article on Publisher’s Weekly, the popular young adult trilogy sold 9.2 million copies in 2011, the year before the movie came out. That number of copies is, y’know, pretty good. In 2012, the trilogy sold 27.7 million copies, which is, if nothing else better. Still, it’s only a 201% increase, so whoever wants to take credit for the self-publishing boom did a better job marketing than Scholastic Press.

Now that I’ve armed you with analogies, maybe someone can figure out what those numbers actually mean for the conventional institutions and the self-published writers themselves. If nothing else, the drastic increase in self-published books proves that at least a subset of writers are taking the age old advice to “put themselves out there” to heart.