When Jennifer Bohrnstedt read the journals of Mary Laurentine Martin, a 15-year-old schoolteacher in 1850s Wisconsin, she knew she had found a treasure. She decided to write a historical book based on Martin’s life and work. But instead of following the usual path of writing a proposal, finding an agent and trying to sell the manuscript, Bohrnstedt, 55, took a different approach—she joined the booming world of self-publishing.
A two-time author of books on the Civil War, Bohrnstedt self-published Views From My Schoolroom Window, a memoir that illuminates the history of women and public education during the 1850s and 1860s in “the wild Northwest.” Bohrnstedt, who gave up a traditional, corporate job at Hewlett-Packard to write and publish her own books, says, “I’ve never felt as focused, as productive or as inspired as I am now.”
Bohrnstedt and tens of thousands like her are behind an earthquake that’s shaking the publishing industry. For the first time ever, digital publishing, fueled mainly by individuals publishing their own books, has eclipsed the output of traditional publishing companies like Random House, Penguin and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. And it’s an older crowd that’s leading the charge.
A market driver
To get a sense of how large the self-publishing market is, look at the number of books published by print-on-demand (POD), a digital technique that’s economical for small press runs. “Self-publishing is the vast majority of the POD market,” says Lorraine Shanley, CEO of Market Partners International, a publishing industry consulting group. For the first time in U.S. publishing history, the number of POD books exceeded the number of traditional books produced in 2008, according to Bowker Inc., the leading provider of global book-related data.
Last year, there were 275,232 new titles and editions by traditional publishers. But the on-demand books totaled 285,394, a 132 percent increase over 2007. It is the second consecutive year of triple-digit growth in this sector, driven by the huge rise in self-publishing, according to Bowker statistics.
Unlike traditional publishing, an author who decides to self-publish hires and pays the publishing company for a range of fee-based services that may include editing, design, marketing, advertising and public relations. The author chooses the services, retaining control of the process. In traditional publishing, a publishing house directs the process, contracting with the author for his work, usually through an agent.
Because POD is much cheaper, it has become the mainstay of people who want to publish their own books. “Self-publishing is the way to go if you’re not a big name or celebrity or have a story that can get you an agent,” says self-published author Reg Green, 80. “It’s simple, it’s much quicker, you have total control and you’re not that dependent on other people.”
The urge to publish
According to a spokesman for Author Solutions Inc., the largest self-publishing operation in the world, the mean age of its authors is 56. Writers over 50 publish books for three reasons, according to Keith Ogorek, the company’s vice president: “Discretionary time, discretionary money, something to say that’s meaningful.”
“Meaning” is what motivated Green. His son Nicholas, 7, was killed during a botched robbery in 1994 while on a family vacation in southern Italy. He and his wife, Maggie, donated Nicholas’ organs to save the lives of seven Italians, all of whom were dying from various organ failures. The organ donations caused a media stir in Italy, where the practice was not an accepted part of the culture. At the time, Italy had the lowest rate of organ donations in Europe.
“There was a tremendous upsurge of emotion when this happened, the whole of Italy seemed to want to put its arms round us,” Green says.
Since then the retired newspaper reporter and self-described “late-life father” who lives with his wife and three children near Pasadena, Calif., has dedicated his life to organ transplant advocacy. The result was a book titled The Gift That Heals.