First Monday

Non-traditional book publishing by Jana Bradley, Bruce Fulton, Marlene Helm, and Katherine A. Pittner

Non–traditional book publishing, prospering on the Internet, now accounts for over eight times the output of traditional publishing. Non–traditional publishing includes books published by their authors and books representing the reuse of content, most of it not covered by copyright. The result is an heterogeneous, hyper–abundant contemporary book environment where the traditional mixes with the non–traditional and finding books that match a reader’s taste is more difficult than previously and may involve new methods of discovery.


Types of non–traditional publishing
Media and industry reaction: Overview
The self–published print book
The self–published electronic book
The book industry supporting non–traditional publishing
Non–traditional practices in mainstream publishing
Enhanced ebooks
New business models
Focus on print
Finding the right book




The Bowker (2011a) annual statistics on book publishing for 2010, compiled from its Books in Print database, revealed startling news. The output of non–traditional titles was eight times as great as the number of mainstream published books. Traditional new titles are projected to number 316,480, a five percent increase over 2009, but nowhere near the 2,776,260 non–traditional titles reported by Bowker. These non–traditional books “are largely on–demand titles produced by reprint houses specializing in public domain works and by presses catering to self–publishers and “micro–niche’ publications” [1].

Bowker’s numbers, as startling as they are, do not cover the whole of the non–traditional book output. For the most part, Bowker counts books with International Standard Book Numbers (ISBN) [2] so non–traditional titles without ISBNs would not be included. Authors who self–publish using their own imprint may not be counted as non–traditional by Bowker. Additionally, the Bowker numbers do not take into account the flood of titles self–published for the Kindle Store through Kindle Direct Publishing (KDL). Non–traditional publishing, therefore, could easily represent a much larger number than the 2,776,260 reported by Bowker.

Non–traditional titles, according to Bowker in this same report, are marketed primarily on the Web. Another report by Bowker (2011b) shows that online retailers together are the single largest book–buying channel, making access to non–traditionally published books possible for a very large buying public. Non–traditional books, then, form a huge segment of books available in today’s book marketplace.

For the past four years, a research team at the University of Arizona headed by Jana Bradley has been studying non–traditional publishing. Underlying the various research projects is a systematic environmental scanning technique for keeping track of changes in the publishing industry as a whole and in non–traditional publishing in particular.

The purpose of this paper is to explore non–traditional publishing as it has emerged through our environmental scan and other research projects. We also take a brief look at non–traditional directions in mainstream publishing. At the end, we discuss challenges ahead in a contemporary book environment consisting of massive numbers of books made available through traditional and non–traditional publishing.




Terms applied to non–traditional publishing are used in various ways by different writers. Before discussing the types of non–traditional publishing, we need a common vocabulary.

In our usage, non–traditional publishing is all publishing that is not traditional, or mainstream, and so we need a definition of traditional publishing. In these turbulent times within the mainstream publishing industry, many traditional publishers are themselves experimenting with innovative methods. The primary characteristic that still unites mainstream publishers is their relationship with the author. Mainstream publishers pay an author for a manuscript through royalties. Once the manuscript is purchased, the mainstream publisher makes the decisions, often in consultation with the author, and pays the bills.

Non–traditional publishers secure material in various ways other than the royalty method; they make the publication decisions, and they pay the bills. Using these criteria, we can define a publisher, across both traditional and non–traditional practices, as the entity or individual who selects the material to be published, makes the decisions, and pays the bills.

Non–traditional publishing is enabled by a combination of technologies and innovative business models. Traditional printing today can be considered digital printing because the digital file goes directly to lithographic press (Greco, et al., 2007). Because most modern print technologies use digital files, we prefer to make distinctions by the actual printing method. In our usage and that of many commercial printers, digital printing refers to the xerographic printing process used by high–speed copying machines and computer–based laser printers. Digital printing makes short print runs, and even printing one copy, cost–effective.

Print on demand (POD) refers to a business and distribution model using digital printing. In this model, a book is produced and distributed in small quantities, or even one at a time, when an order is received. When combined with online retailing over the Internet, POD publishing makes non–traditional publishing viable and affordable. Mainstream and independent publishers, as well as self–publishers, can also take advantage of digital printing and/or print on demand (McLachan, 2008).



Types of non–traditional publishing

Non–traditional publishing separates, conceptually, into two broad categories: authors as publishers of their own work, and publishers of content that does not require royalties to authors. Because these are primarily conceptual categories, there are undoubtedly non–traditional publishers who do both and may even mix some traditional elements as well. But the categories will serve for discussion purposes and for understanding publishers based on the source of the primary content they publish.

Publishers of royalty–free content

Although the phrase is admittedly awkward, it describes publishers who publish the work of others, without entering into traditional royalty contracts with them. In broad terms, such content is not under copyright, or if it is, rights have been granted to the publisher without necessitating royalties. Titles in the public domain are a large source of copyright free content. Open source content is also not under copyright. Other types of content can be used under a number of different arrangements, including payment.

The four companies listed in Bowker (2011a) as publishing the most titles in 2010 are examples of this content type. The three publishers accounting for 87 percent of the 2010 title output are BiblioBazaar, General Books LLC, and Kessinger Publishing. Books LLC comes fourth in the list.

Bowker lists BiblioBazzar as publishing 1,461,918 new titles in 2010. Andrew Albanese (2010), attempting to understand how one company could publish so many titles, quotes Mitchell Davis, president of BiblioLife, parent company of BiblioBazaar: “If by ‘produce’ you mean create a cover file that will print at multiple POD vendors, a book block that will print at multiple POD vendors, and metadata to sell that book in global sales channels, then yes, we did produce that many titles” [3].

BiblioBazaar’s catalog presents the information (metadata) about the historical reprints and foreign language titles they offer, and when a title is ordered, a POD book is produced from the files. In its extreme form, POD can result in what might be called phantom titles, existing only as a set of files (or even search algorithms), until someone places an order.

The reprint publisher second in overall book output was General Books LLC, with 744,376 titles in 2010. General Books LLC, sells through its subscription book club offering free downloads for a monthly fee. The FAQ for the club states that the copies are created using optical character recognition software in conjunction with a robot, and that there could be typos and missing pages (General Books, 2011). Books, LLC, a sister company, offers POD paperbacks from open source material, such as Wikipedia, and public domain materials (Wikipedia, 2011a).

Kessinger Publishing Company offers rare, scientific, and other book titles in the public domain and out of copyright. According to Wikipedia, they use Google digitized books as the source (Wikipedia, 2011b).

Although these four reprint companies account for a huge number of reprints, other companies, for example Better Days Books and IndyPublish, also offer public domain titles. Individuals and organizations issue reprints of public domain titles that interest them, often producing them using fee–based publication services.

A study of 32 reprints of public domain books available in 2008, done by our research group, showed some interesting patterns. In one pattern, the reprint company obtains digitized copy from non–copyrighted sources, applies for an ISBN, dates their edition with a contemporary date, and may copyright their edition. Practices of identifying the work as a reprint vary from no identification to full disclosure of the original date and edition. Identification of the original, however, often comes inside the book and not on the record one sees from the reprinters’ catalog or Amazon.

Many public domain titles are reprinted by numerous companies. As an example, A manual of gardening (second edition) by L.H. Bailey, was available in more than 20 editions, according to a recent Amazon search. Books in the reprint sample were often issued multiple times during their lives in copyright. A major drawback for scholars and collection builders is that few records contain enough information to know which editions and which texts are represented by a particular reprint. In our study, metadata for reprints was so hard to sort out that we call this form of non–traditional printing, the reprint jungle (Bradley, et al., in press).

Authors as publishers

In addition to reprints of public domain and open source material, non–traditional publishing includes a second conceptual category, books whose authors choose to publish their own material. Following our definition of a publisher, we define author publishing (also called self–publishing), as situations where authors elect to publish content they have written or edited; they make the decisions, and they pay the bills.

Bradley and Vokac (2008) review various ways authors can self–publish. Authors can act as their own publisher by subcontracting for publishing activities they do not wish to do themselves. Dan Poynter (2007, 2009), in The self–publishing manual, volumes 1 and 2, explains what is involved if you want to orchestrate everything yourself. Advice on how to self–publish, much of it self–published, abounds. As an example, Aaron Shepard’s Publishing Page gives advice on a range of topics including working with specific vendors like Create Space, Lightning Source and others (Shepard, 2010).

Many sites on the Internet exist for uploading books for availability to the public. Some sites are run by authors primarily to make their own work available but may also be willing to host the work of others. Subject Web sites can host uploading services for books by authors on topics related to the site. Additionally, Web sites exist specifically for hosting creative work from multiple authors.

Most commonly, authors publish their own work through publication vendors or services. These vendors can be copy shops and printing businesses, which are often local walk–in establishments. Or they can be national vendors, such as Lulu, Outskirts Press, Create Space and Kindle Direct Publishing. These Internet–based services sell publications services to authors who act as their own publisher, according to our definition [4].

Estimating with any accuracy the number of books published by their authors each year is impossible because of the wide variety of ways to self–publish. Nevertheless, some numbers can serve to indicate the scope of the author–publishing phenomenon. The Bowker data is a place to start. Bowker (2011a) lists four fee–based publication services among the top ten title producers: CreateSpace, Lulu Enterprises, Inc., Xlibris Corporation and AuthorHouse. Together, these services issued 64,552 titles in 2010.

As another and somewhat overlapping indicator, we totaled the 2010 production, as listed in Amazon, of the top fee–based publications services that in 2008 held 85 percent of the market share (Bradley, et al., in press). Their 2010 title production was 84,458. In the same 2008 market analysis, 84 smaller publication services accounted for 15 percent of the market share. Although we cannot infer that the 2010 market share of smaller publication services would be around 15 percent, the earlier data does indicate the substantial existence of long–tail companies who produce small numbers of titles for authors.

Other segments of author–published titles would not appear in Bowker’s non–traditional statistics. Authors who publish under their own imprints and also arrange for their own ISBNs would not generally fall within Bowker’s non–traditional rubric. We reason that this is also true for authors who pay for companies like Lulu to submit the Bowker ISBN registration form on their behalf, and after they have received the number, use it in Lulu’s forms for the production of their book. If this speculation is true, the approximately 14,000 titles identified by our count and by Bowker’s slightly lower estimate for Lulu represent primarily those authors who obtain a free ISBN from Lulu’s block of purchased numbers. Lulu’s other author publishers with ISBNs would be subsumed, along with other author–publishers who obtained their own ISBNs, in Bowker’s database along with other small publishers [5].



Media and industry reaction: Overview

The increased output of non–traditional publishing and particularly publishing your own book has not gone unnoticed by the media. On any day a Google search of self–publishing will produce a rich mixture of news and opinion, for, against and all shades in between.

To illustrate, here are three articles that are fairly typical of the range of opinion. Tom Barlow’s 2009 article “Six reasons why self–publishing is the scourge of the book world,” exemplifies the opposition to self–publishing. Ben Wakeling (2010) weighs the pros and cons for authors. DiVita (2007) argues that self–publishing is a good choice. Laura Miller (2010) asserts that, while there are undoubtedly some gems among self–published manuscripts, most of them are of the type rejected by mainstream publishers, in other words the slush pile, and they are really bad. Anita Bartholomew (2010) counters Miller’s view of the slush pile, claiming that much, although certainly not all, of it is good, just not good enough, and could be fixed if a good editor wished to take the time.

In 2010, there were signs that industry reaction to self–publishing was shifting somewhat. Mainstream publishers seemed willing to let self–publishing serve as a testing ground for market appeal, and the occasional success story of a self–publisher, such as Amanda Hocking (SPR, 2011a) accepting a mainstream contract seemed to confirm this. Some literary agents began to be open to self–publishing authors (Rinzler, 2010). The news that some mainstream publishers were referring their rejected manuscripts to self–publishing companies elicited comments about the ethical dimensions of such a practice (How Publishing Really Works, 2009). As an example of this practice, Harlequin, a leading publisher of romance fiction, is partnering with Author Solutions, a leader in self–publishing (Montgomery, 2009).

Both 2010 and 2011 have been widely touted as the years of the ebook, when both traditional and self–published ebooks surged into prominence. In 2010, mainstream publishers and Amazon struggled over prices for ebooks, with some publishers securing the ability to set prices (the agency model), amidst consumer hostility (Rich and Stone, 2010). In January, 2011, Amazon announced that ebooks had outsold paperbacks, with 115 ebooks to 100 paperpacks (Pepitone, 2011). Because both the Kindle Store and the Amazon book store sell mainstream and self–published books side–by–side, the relative growth of traditional and self–published ebooks is impossible to determine. However, the developing price differential between self–published ebooks, most under US$4.99 and the increase in some mainstream publishers’ ebook prices as high as US$17.99 raises interesting questions about where the increase in ebook sales is really coming from.

In 2011, much media attention on self–publishing is shifting from print to ebook publishing, although both models are actively available and being used. In an interesting development not well covered in the media, Lulu founder Bob Young has declared his former Lulu model obsolete and is opening his printing platform to anyone, including publishers and developers (Windisman, 2011). A 2009 Lulu blog announcing the presence of 200,000 traditionally published authors on Lulu and positioning this as a move to maximize author success seems to be an earlier statement of this shift (Abbott, 2009).

In 2011, more indications appear that established writers might have something to gain through self–publishing, primarily through ebooks. In a move the reverse of Amanda Hocking’s, mainstream thriller writer Barry Eisler turned down a lucrative mainstream contract offer in order to self–publish (SPR, 2011b). Joe Konrath, thriller writer and blogger well–known for writing about the tipping point (the point where an author can make more money self–publishing than with a mainstream contract), converted to self–publishing and spells out why in dollars and cents (Konrath, 2010). Writers who are not as well known as Hocking, Locke and Konrath can also make a living through self–publishing, according to Sullivan (2011).



The self–published print book

The research group on non–traditional publishing at the University of Arizona conducted a random sample study of self–published books available from fee–based publication services in 2008. This study provides the most comprehensive empirical evidence about self–published books to date and serves as a snapshot of the primarily print self–publishing industry before the influx of ebooks [6]. We chose a randomly selected sample of 348 books from an identified population of 385,173 titles available from 93 publication services in 2008 (Bradley, et al., in press). An overview of the study is available at the research group’s Web site,

Perhaps the most striking conclusion of our study of books published for authors by vendors of publication services was that the books are far more diverse than the “vanity press” or “slush pile” labels would suggest. To be sure, our sample includes books that could be characterized as slush pile books — books that might be rejected by mainstream publishers because of the substandard quality of the writing. But such books are only part of the story. In addition, many books in our sample are about narrow subjects and/or aimed at restricted audiences and therefore are not likely to find a home with national mainstream publishers. We also see many books created by their authors for personal and family audiences and, we infer, never intended for widespread public consumption.

Our sample includes out–of–print books brought back into print by their authors. We see considerable evidence of authors using self–published books for business, professional and entrepreneurial reasons. Consultants write and self–publish books for their clients. Teachers publish explanatory books and workbooks, lecture notes, and other academic aids. Organizations self–publish reports, guidelines and other documents relevant to their work. Entrepreneurial businesses use publication services to create books that they then sell under a business name.

Our sample books were all available online, either through the publication services bookstore or Amazon or other online vendor, at the time of the study. Libraries, on the other hand, held only 27 percent of the sample. Our sample includes both print titles and electronic titles, with many vendors offering authors choices of POD and PDF versions through on–demand ordering. Although paperback titles predominate, some authors offer hardback versions as well. In our study, non–fiction outnumbers fiction by four to one [7]. Predominant among non–fiction are personal stories, stories of others, and how–to and self–help books.

Aggregated price data for print self–published books is hard to find. Titles sold only on the publisher’s Web site are generally cheaper than those sold at retail through an online outlet because of a retail charge of usually 50 percent. Analyzing the prices of 81 self–published books available from Lulu in 2008, we found that the median price for a paperback without an ISBN (n=55) was US$14.74 and the median price for a paperback with an ISBN (n=26) was US$19.95.

Sales data for self–published print books is even more elusive than aggregate price data. By some estimates, 40 percent of self–published books are sold directly to authors, with the remainder sold primarily online (Feldman, 2004). An AuthorSolutions spokesman was quoted in the New York Times as saying that the average number of copies sold of titles published through one of its brands is just 150. Another New York Times article puts AuthorSolutions sales at 2.5 million across approximately 19,000 titles, for an average of 132 sales per title (Rich, 2009a; 2009b).

Averages, however, are deceiving because of the long–tail nature of the business, where a few titles sell reasonably well, with most titles selling very few. Publishers Weekly (2005) reported that in 2004, iUniverse published a total of 18,208 titles. Of these, 14 were sold through Barnes & Noble Bricks and Mortar stores under an experimental strategic alliance, and overall, 83 titles sold at least 500 copies. iUniverse printed 792,814 books in 2004. This averages out to about 45 copies sold per title, but one title alone, Amy Fisher’s If I Knew Then, sold over 32,000 books (fueled in part by appearances on the Oprah Winfrey show), driving the median well below the 45–copy average.

In a 2007 interview, Lulu founder Bob Young stated that, “A publishing house dreams of having 10 authors selling a million books each. Lulu wants a million authors selling 100 books each” (Winters, 2011). He also noted that the average print run is less than two copies (Cook, 2007).

Our research team developed some sales data for part of our 2008 sample. We looked at 158 titles having an ISBN and an Amazon Sales Rank and calculated sales of between 12 and 54 copies per year for 14 books, between three and 10 copies per year for 98 books, and the remaining 46 books at two or fewer sales per year [8].



The self–published electronic book

While many self–publishing POD services offer ebook publishing options (usually in PDF format), Amazon’s move to allow self–publishers to upload their ebooks directly to the Kindle Store via Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) dramatically increased the number of self–published ebooks available in a remarkably short time. Perhaps even more important, it introduced a new financial model into the self–publishing arena.

The median price for self–published print titles on Amazon, as we have seen from our limited data, is, for a POD paperback, somewhere between a mainstream paper and hardback book. Pressure from publishers on Kindle to price ebooks at more than US$9.99 resulted in Kindle’s revised policy letting at least some publishers set their own prices with pricing predicted at between US$12.99 and US$14.99 (Musil, 2010).

With Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), authors choose the price, between US$.99 and US$9.99, and the royalty model depends on the sales price (and other factors), from 35 percent to 70 percent. These very favorable economic terms immediately attracted published authors to the self–publishing ranks. Author Tony Bradley points out that with KDP, he could sell a new hypothetical new book on computer security for US$5, and, receiving 70 percent of the revenue, he would make more money than the computer security book that sold for US$11 on the Kindle (T. Bradley, 2011).

Kindle Direct Publishing is an excellent illustration of basic automated self–publishing. The author uploads a cover, fills out forms with information about the book (metadata) and uploads a file containing the book. The author prepares the files before uploading and makes all the preproduction choices in content and formatting.

In February 2011, media attention focused on two self–published writers who were selling in large numbers on Amazon, Amanda Hocking and John Locke, both who were on Amazon’s list of 100 top Kindle sellers. John Locke then became the first writer without a major publisher to hit Kindle’s million–seller club, with his thriller priced at US$.99 (Kellogg, 2011).

The success of self–publishing KDP authors, and the KDP’s pricing model, will play itself out in the sales numbers over months and years. EBook Friendly’s statistics show the trajectory of Amanda Hocking and John Lock’s sales, starting January before media attention, and now through June, when neither of them were in Kindle’s top 100 sellers (Kowalczyk, 2011), although apparently Locke hit the million–dollar club anyway. Joe Konrath reports on the June slide in self–published ebook sales and considers several candidates for reasons, discounting most and ends on a note that sales always go up and down (Konrath, 2011).

A recent Reuter’s article on Kindle Spam, also called Spamazon, triggered a large number of concerns about content that seemed to be author–published but in fact had different origins (Barr, 2011). Spamazon has characteristics that span our two conceptual categories of non–traditional publishing. Uploaded through Kindle Direct Publishing and selling on the Kindle Store, most titles appear to have an author who, we can assume, will collect KDP royalties. The content, however, comes from reuse of already existing content.

One reuse is simply piracy: republishing another’s work, perhaps with minor modifications, and without permission. A second reuse involves Private Label Rights (PLR) content, content that you can purchase inexpensively and reuse, depending on the license, the way you wish. Laura Miller (2011a) sums up the problem well and cites statistics from other commentations. Reaction to Kindle spam has been varied, from calling it merely a filter problem (techdirt, 2011) to speculating whether it will close down ebook self–publishing (Pilkington, 2011). Numerous voices, like Tony Bradley, suggest that Amazon take a more active role in policing what is published in KDP (T. Bradley, 2011).



The book industry supporting non–traditional publishing

More than a decade ago when mainstream corporate publishing houses, and to a much less extent, independent publishers, dominated publishing, the phrase “book publishing industry” meant all the various companies, professions, and services which worked with or for publishers to produce books and then distribute them to retailers or libraries. Boundaries were very clear between books published on the royalty model and books published on the subsidy model [9]. Almost exclusively, books listed in Bowker, placed with agents, available for distribution to retail outlets and libraries, and reviewed in magazines and other media were published by mainstream–model publishers, both large and small.

With the rise of non–traditional publishing have come myriad products and services, particularly for authors who wish to be their own publishers. Fee–based publication services, mentioned earlier, form the backbone of these services, providing relatively affordable ways to self–publish. Many of them have incorporated, in addition to production, services parallel to those that mainstream publishers provide for their authors, often arrayed in packages of ascending price.

In addition to editing, design and other preproduction services, post–production services such as distribution, obtaining reviews, and marketing are often available. Like Amazon’s KDP, publication services automate much of the production work, providing authors with standard forms and templates. As in the KDP example, the author is responsible for the decisions that finally produce the finished book and its content.

For authors who choose to subcontract for their publishing services separately, there are digital printers, conversion companies for ebooks, pre–production services, distributors and wholesalers available for a complete do–it–yourself publishing venture.

Self–published books have rarely been eligible for review in venues who review mainstream books, and so reviews of self–published books have been scarce. This is changing. Publishers Weekly, a major source of mainstream reviews, has launched PW Select, a reviewing service for self–published books (Slowik, 2010). Kirkus Reviews, under its new management, is continuing Kirkus Discoveries, a fee–based reviewing service for self–published books. Library Journal recently reviewed several books from known self–publication services, provoking a lively response, both pro and con, from librarians (Burdick, 2010).

A variety of other reviewing services have sprung into existence. Approaches vary, from offering a free basic review, to charging for the process from the beginning. Some return the reviews to the author who can then use them or not. Others distribute reviews through newsletters. Some publication services contract with review services and offer reviews as part of their high–end packages. Connecting these reviews with potentially interested readers is still problematic. All these services deny that they are selling positive reviews but paying for reviews is a controversial subject.

In addition to fee–based services to help self–publishers, social networks are thriving.

Without the support that mainstream publishing houses might provide, self–published authors are networking to help each other. Two popular newsletters are Self–Publishing News ( and Publishing Basics (

Popular independent thriller author J.A. Konrath illustrates this community perspective, running a widely followed blog “A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing” ( He regularly interviews other authors who discuss their titles, provide advice to new authors, and examine the future of the publishing industry. Konrath also includes links to services for self–publishing authors.

The social perspective is also reflected in a new software program, Cursor, developed by Richard Nash, to help independent publishers get started with a community model of social publishing (Dilworth, 2011). The proof of concept is his start–up publishing company, Red Lemonade, now in beta but available for reading and commenting on three full works published there (

Collectively these companies, services, products and networks can be thought of as an alternative publishing industry, catering to those outside mainstream publishing. Although many of the services mirror services provided for or by the mainstream book industry, interesting hybrids, such as social media marketing, community author services and audience funding, are gaining strength in the alternative industry and may well cross over to the mainstream industry.



Non–traditional practices in mainstream publishing

So far, we have been discussing non–traditional publishing that deviates from the royalty model in which publishes select the books they want to publish, assume the financial responsibility for publication, and pay the author through royalties. However, any discussion of non–traditional publishing should at least touch on non–traditional practices within mainstream publishing. Undoubtedly, at least some of these innovations are shining a beam of light into the future of mainstream publishing.

Short–form publishing

Short–form publishing — by which we mean short stories, essays, articles, novellas and other pieces of writing shorter than a novel — traditionally has found its home in periodicals and book–length collections and anthologies. Add the decline of magazine venues to technological, social and economic trends, and the short–form ebook seems a natural development. Short–form content comes from traditional and non–traditional publishers. Amazon’s Singles are an example of a venue for self–publishing authors, and again, Amazon undercuts traditional mainstream pricing models (Legrand, 2010).

Indie author (another term for authors who publish without publishing houses) Frank Vilante published Metropolis organism through Payloadz, a file purchasing site. Embedded within his digital book are 11 videos and 200 photographs (

Mainstream publishers experimenting with short–form publishing include Random House and HarperCollins. Random House is expanding its Brain Shot imprint with five 10,000–word reasonably priced ebooks focusing on key contemporary topics and written by well–known journalists (Williams, 2011). HarperCollins acquired History in an Hour publishing enterprise in June 2011, and plans to publish short ebooks that will explore historical topics in depth, for example, The Fourth of July in the American Civil War (

Platform wars

The struggle between dedicated devices, tablet devices, mobile phones, and others plays itself out with each new sales figure, each new device, and to some extent, new exciting titles. Here we call attention to two innovative publishers who are combining short–form content and multimedia approaches on mobile devices. The Atavist publishes original non–fiction, longer than articles but shorter than books, for Kindle, the Nook, iPhone and iPad. Their content on the iPhone and iPad is interactive ( Ether Books is a mobile publisher who aims to publish the best short content, including short stories, essays, and poems, for use on mobile phones. Access is through their own free application from the Apple App Store (



Enhanced ebooks

Commentators have long been predicting that the ebook format will move beyond electronic text to include both multimedia and interaction. A very provocative essay by Craig Mod (2011) refers to the eventual trajectory of books as “post–artifacts.” More and more examples of enhanced books appear daily, but here are two notable examples.

Noisy Crow, start–up publishing venture from veteran of mainstream publishing Kate Wilson, specializes in interactive applications for children. The Three Little Pigs has been called a visual feast (2morrowknight, 2011). Noisy Crow is an example of the growing pattern of alliances between companies, partnering with Candlewick Press.

Evidence that traditional publishers can produce classic material at affordable prices, that will actually sell, comes from Faber with their iPad app for T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Laura Miller calls it “the best example yet of how to make a digital book” [10]. The enhanced book includes audio and video readings, notes, and manuscript scans. It is a partnership between publisher Faber and Touch Press, an application developer.



New business models

New business models and new publishing partnerships are also examples of non–traditional publishing. Print on demand (POD), as a business model, gave life to non–traditional publishing, and mainstream publishing is weighing how it might be useful for them. Small presses can use it for short runs. POD can be used for backlists and could even eliminate out–of–print status. POD, often touted as eliminating inventory, could, for mainstream publishers, at least expand options in relation to inventory and warehousing (McLachen, 2008).

Springer ( is an example of a mainstream company that uses POD. Under their electronic publishing model, 90 percent of their content, 4,500 books, is available by POD. They sell electronic collections of material to academic clients, and any individual user, wanting a copy, can purchase on through the “my copy” program ( Individual copies are also available on Amazon and are supplied through POD.

In a special report of the American Association for Scholarly Presses (AAUP) focusing on new business models, four new approaches are presented offering various combinations of electronic and print access, both open and paid. This report is an excellent resource for descriptions of innovative programs at various universities across the country. Collaborations are central to all new approaches (AAUP, 2011).

A very different funding model underlies start–up publisher Unbound. Using the crowdfunding model made popular by Kickstarter, potential authors propose ideas and customers pledge support. If enough support is garnered (how much is enough is not clear), then the book is published. Money is returned to pledgers if the book isn’t published. Unbound is using agents and established authors now, but has in mind a platform for unpublished authors (



Focus on print

Here are two projects, unusual because they focus on print against a digital backdrop. Publisher James Bridle provides an interesting illustration of electronic content moving back into print. He published a 7,000–page print book of all the commentary on Wikipedia relating to the Iraq War. He explains his purpose: “This is historiography. This is what culture actually looks like: a process of argument, of dissenting and accreting opinion, of gradual and not always correct codification” (Bridle quoted in Kirkpatrick, 2010).

Brewster Kahle, well–known archivist of the Internet, has started a new project which emphasizes the importance of preserving the artifact. The Internet Archive is building a physical repository for physical artifacts, storing one copy of every book, and other media, it can acquire. “The goal is to preserve one copy of every published work.” The rationale is to keep one authentic copy of the book as published, for authentication and reference [11].




For better or worse (and most likely somewhere in between), the emergence of multiple publishing models has created a book environment that is very different from one dominated by mainstream publishers. Below we discuss some of the challenges of this new book world.

Heterogeneous marketplace for books

Today, books in very large numbers are available for consumers to buy through online channels and brick–and–mortar stores. The books for sale in this marketplace come from mainstream publishing and non–traditional publishing. The mainstream model publishers are the large corporate publishers and the smaller independent publishers, including the scholarly presses. Alternative model publishers are authors who function as publishers and publishers who largely work in the area of reuse. Author publishing and some reuse publishing became a major phenomenon through print POD books and then ebooks triggered another phase of explosive growth.


The sheer numbers of texts, representing an amalgam of publishing models, in our contemporary book market is overwhelming. For the consumer who knows an author or title, life is easier, although there is much confusion among authors with the same name and versions of the same title. Trying to locate a good book on a particular subject within the hyper–abundant marketplace is daunting.

Laura Miller (2011a), discussing Private Label Rights (PLR) content, which she calls content–farm content, on Kindle points out that for ordinary searches on topics such as buying used cars or low–carb recipes, a Kindle search will return multiple copies of very similar content. Her point is accurate, and, indeed, in a hyper–abundant market, the difficulty of choosing useful content goes well beyond the PLR problem.

To illustrate the problem for consumers in a hyper–abundant online market, our research group searched buying used cars and low–carb recipes in both the Kindle Store and in Amazon Books. A search on buying used cars returned 130 Kindle titles and 359 titles under Books, which includes the Kindle titles. Low–carb recipes returned 309 Kindle titles and 799 under Amazon Books. The limitations of Amazon searching need to be taken into account, so these numbers are merely illustrative of the problem of heterogeneous hyper–abundance: how to choose effectively from so much?

Blurring boundaries

The confusion of the hyper–abundant marketplace is especially apparent in the offering of online retailers. Brick–and–mortar bookstores are still primarily retailers for mainstream books [12], although some bookstores are experimenting with selling self–published books (Boulder Book Store, 2010). Distributors and wholesalers generally mix POD and mainstream titles from those publishers who affiliate with them, including publications services who offer their customers different distribution packages for varying costs.

Early on in the rise of self–publishing, the majority of titles were published under the imprint of the publication service. Increasingly, authors are choosing to publish under their own imprints, even when they use publications services. Both Lulu and CreateSpace, and probably others, assist authors in applying for ISBNs under their imprint. Self–publishing authors with their own imprints join the burgeoning ranks of small publishers.

The blurring of boundaries is inevitable, simply because it is becoming very difficult to tell whether books are self–published books or mainstream books from the metadata in online vendors’ listings. And it is increasingly difficult to distinguish from the actual books, as the ubiquitous monochrome covers of self–published books give way to author–uploaded, and perhaps professionally designed, covers. Although a few major self–publication services are well known by name, iUniverse and AuthorHouse for example, the myriad of small publications services and authors with their own publication imprint can be indistinguishable from mainstream–model independent publishers.

Information about books

Information about books, now called metadata in the book trades and previously called bibliographic information by libraries, provides an important navigational tool in any book environment and especially one of hyper–abundance. Simple identifiers like author, title, publisher and date are mainstays for identifying titles directly, and the International Standard Book Number (ISBN), assigned in the U.S by Bowker, provides a key that can produce the metadata associated with that number. The ONIX for Books record (, the industry standard for metadata, provides a standard format for communicating rich information about books to distributers, wholesalers, and retailers. Libraries, of course, through their standardized cataloging procedures, provide a gold standard for identifying books, including multiple editions, contributors, and dates.

In the world of self–publishing, metadata starts with the author. Authors are responsible for uploading whatever information they want to be associated with the title. Templates used in many self–publishing services guide authors, but the content rests with them.

In our study of self–published books, we found 41 percent of titles presented problems in distinguishing them from other similar or even identical titles. Our research group has a study underway about the sources of metadata confusion in self–published books, but our evidence clearly shows that inconsistent metadata among records of the book and between records and the book itself, is common. At an individual level, absent, incomplete, misleading, or erroneous metadata makes it hard to tell exactly what a consumer is buying, especially in comparison with similar titles.

On a larger scale, however, the problem becomes one of keeping track of the production of books in society. When that production was primarily through mainstream publishers and usually purchased by some library somewhere, the combination of library cataloging and ISBN numbers made a large percentage of publications identifiable. With hyper–abundance, some of that control will be lost. The question becomes whether society considers it important to keep track of as much of its cultural production in books as possible.

Quality and value

Perhaps the chief complaint against self–publishing is the ostensible lack of quality. Laura Miller (2011b) expresses well what many others genuinely feel — that lack of gatekeeping will so overwhelm readers that they will lose the desire to read. Making a distinction between quality and value can be helpful in thinking through the contribution of books in the hyper–abundant book environment.

By one definition, quality involves standards and norms of people who are knowledgeable about writing, literary merit, professional publishing, and the culture of good writing. People who care about quality in writing recognize it. Although opinions about quality often differ, they also are often shared.

A book has value, we suggest, when it is worthwhile, useful, important, enjoyable, or entertaining to a reader or group of readers. Books can provide value in spite of deficiencies in traditional quality. Value is a personal judgment, based on personality, time, circumstance or any number of other variables. Books may have value based on their strengths, perhaps in spite of their weaknesses. For example, a compelling plot or storyline can push readers through to the end, despite some perceived writing weaknesses.



Finding the right book

In a hyper–abundant book world, how do consumers find what they want to read? It is no longer possible to assume that the author and source that produced the book will provide a book that meets your requirements (if indeed it ever was!). Availability is no longer enough. Consumers need reliable ways to discover what will be right for them. This is particularly true if consumers are using online retailers and want to limit the likelihood of purchasing reused material.

Discovery is the major challenge in a contemporary book environment that blends mainstream published books, independently published books, author published books and books consisting of reused material. While marketing is an activity of mainstream and non–traditional publishers, discovery refers to how readers become aware of titles.

Marketing by mainstream and author publishers is, of course, intended to serve a discovery function. Through marketing initiatives, readers become aware of titles and begin the process of deciding whether or not the title is a fit for their reading interests. Perhaps the most often advice offered to self–publishing authors who wish to be successful is to focus on marketing. In our contemporary book market, this is sound advice for mainstream authors as well.


It is frequently said that the ability of authors to publish their own work democratizes publishing. The emerging blended book environment, both print and electronic, might also democratize reading, if enough pathways are constructed so that people can find what they like. To do this, many people would have to become value sleuths — defining and articulating what has value for them, what they like and don’t like. Quality sleuths are needed too, and perhaps not just individual but institutional, organizational and community processes for identifying quality generally and in particular circumstances.

With the rise of social computing, authors, and especially readers, are already involved in value sleuthing. Reviews and recommendations by readers, enabled by most online retailers, serve this function. Social reviewing and recommending also occurs on Web sites devoted to particular topics. Readers offer critiques of books, often integrating mainstream and self–published books seamlessly.

Two popular social networking sites devoted to books and reading, integrating mainstream and self–published titles, are ( and ( Both sites allow users to create lists of books they own and read and to interact with other readers in groups or conversations. LibraryThing currently claims over a million members who have cataloged over six million unique works. It includes over 1.4 million reviews of over 500,000 unique titles and over 10 million user ratings. Goodreads claims 3.1 million members, who it says have placed more than 82 million books on their virtual bookshelves.




The contemporary publishing environment is changing rapidly. Technologies, evolving social uses of those technologies, and shifting economic patterns are among the drivers of change for both traditional and non–traditional publishing. Digital printing technologies, POD business models, and increasing corporate alliances are shaping a new publishing world almost on a daily basis. Ebooks are coming of age, increasingly moving beyond simply an electronic copy of a print parent to ebooks enhanced with multimedia, interactivity, and social reading components.

Patterns of authoring are changing as well, expanding from primarily an activity of professional writers seeking to earn a living to people who are incorporating authoring of books into their lives. Authors write books in their areas of professional expertise and in their areas of historical, political, spiritual, and religious interests. People not necessarily aspiring to authorship publish books important to their personal lives, such as family histories, photobooks, personal reflections and commemorative keepsakes celebrating milestones.

Increasingly, mainstream authors are experimenting with other options for publishing, either setting up their own imprints, publishing through Kindle Direct Publishing, or using the emerging model of publishing consultancy, when authors pay an entity, for example an agent, a percentage to handle the self–publishing details for them (King, 2011). Enhanced media books, long predicted, are emerging to point the way towards possible future directions for books.

Reuse of materials not under copyright has produced a huge body of previously published material available in the online market, often without full identification of its previous existence. Reuse has made caveat emptor (Let the buyer beware) an important element of the hyper–abundant book market.

With these changes in publishing and authoring, changes in reading and readership are inevitable. In a hyper–abundant book world, where previous patterns of discovery may not work as well as they used to, readers are developing, and increasingly will need to develop, new ways of discovering titles that might interest them. Marketing and discovery are moving to the forefront of book marketplace activity, and social networks are adding new ideas and opportunities to the stable of traditional ways to bring books to the attention of potential readers.

R.S. Ranganathan, a mathematician and librarian from India who is known worldwide for his conceptual thinking in library science, proposed five laws of library science [13], of which Laws 2 and 3 are particularly applicable to the contemporary book environment:

Law number five, in modified form, also becomes relevant: The book environment is a living organism.

Applied to expanded and hyper–abundant book environment of today, these concepts challenge publishers, authors, distributors, retailers, librarians, and readers to discover ways of bringing readers to their books and books to their readers. End of article


About the authors

Jana Bradley, Ph.D., is currently a professor at the University of Arizona, School of Information Resources and Library Science. Her education and career span may interests and activities related to books. She has degrees in English Literature (B.A., Bryn Mawr College; M.A., University of Pennsylvania) and in Library Science (M.L.S., UCLA; Ph.D., University of Illinois). She has been an editor of several magazines and journals. Her research and teaching interests combine in the past, present and future of books. She is the leader of the research team on non–traditional books and self–publishing.

Bruce Fulton, M.A. in Information Resources and Library Science, is currently the Digital Projects Librarian and doctoral student at the University of Arizona, School of Information Resources and Library Science. His career experience includes technology management and entrepreneurship and consulting private and government agencies. His research and teaching interests are the future of the book and social networking. He is a founding member of the research team on non–traditional books and self–publishing.

Marlene Helm, M.L.S., is currently an Associate Librarian at the Arizona State Museum Library at the University of Arizona, specializing in cataloging and bibliographic control. She is an adjunct instructor at School of Information Resources and Library Science. Her research and teaching interests center around cataloging and bibliographic control as the book environment changes. She is a founding member of the research team on non–traditional books and self–publishing.

Katherine A. Pittner, M.A. in History and M.A. in Information Resources and Library Science, is a doctoral student at the University of Arizona, School of Information Resources and Library Science (SIRLS). She holds an M.A. in information resources and library science from SIRLS and an M.A. in history from Central Washington University. She teaches history at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona. She is project manager for several on–going research projects of the research group.



The authors would like to thank the following graduate students at the School of Information Resources and Library Science for their work on the self–publishing research team: Nyssa Densley, Janice Gould, Matthew Helmke, Drew Krewer, Jason Kucsma, Paula Maez, Katherine Pittner, Heather Vokac, and Mimi Wheatwind.

Thanks are also due to Dr. Nicholas Woolf, Woolf Consulting, for help with designing a qualitative database to organize our voluminous data from the environmental scan.



1. Bowker, 2011a, p 1.

2. A study of 348 self–published books showed only one title without an ISBN in Bowker (Bradley, et al., in press).

3. Davis, quoted in Albanese (2010).

4. Some commentators, such as Dan Poynter (2009), consider these services as publishers themselves, and the authors as clients, especially when the author–clients use ISBNs issued by the publication service (which not all do). We prefer, however, to define publishing as making the decisions involved in publishing a book and paying the bills, no matter what combination of services the author chooses to implement the publishing decisions. One advantage of our definition, and one of the main reasons we crafted it, is that it can be applied across countries and historical periods where publishing practices are different, and the word “publisher” may have different meanings or not exist at all.

5. CreateSpace on their Web site ( has a policy similar to Lulu’s, and so our speculation would also apply to CreateSpace.

6. The groundbreaking study in the area of self–published books in libraries by Dilevko and Dali (2006) studied the presence of books by nine major self–publishing services in libraries.

7. This is in interesting contrast to Bowker’s evidence that in 2010, again, fiction “is the backbone of the publishing industry” (Bowker, 2010b, p. 1).

8. Methodology: We looked at 158 of our sample titles with an ISBN and an Amazon Sales Rank. Amazon Sales Rank is a relative measure of sales over time (the lower the number, the better the sales). Values in our sample ranged from a high of 170,503 to a low of 8,773,307. Amazon does not disclose how sales rank relates to absolute sales numbers, but several researchers have made attempts to second–guess it. Based on a log–linear (Pareto) distribution formula by Brynjolfsson, et al. (2003) and reported since as reasonably accurate by author–bloggers tracking their own sales on the Web, we calculate annual sales as reported in the body of the article. These reflect estimated sales on only for those books with a listed sales rank; we have no estimates of sales for books in our sample not listed on Amazon with a Sales Rank, or sales outside of Amazon.

9. The term subsidy publishing is usually associated with publishing done by so–called vanity presses, who charged fees for traditional lithographic publishing and sold books to the authors, who, according to the stigma, were not good enough to be accepted by mainstream publishing. However, the concept behind subsidy publishing, having the author or creator pay the bill, has long been used by organizations, not–for–profits, governments, and businesses to publish items of interest to their own missions and publics. Families also wrote histories, published photograph albums, and wrote memoirs. Most frequently, these “author publishers” used printers or local sources. These publications, paid by their authors, for known and very restricted audiences are the forerunners of much of self–publishing today.

10. Miller, 2011b, p. 1.

11. Kahle, 2011, p. 1.

12. For those who wish to limit their choices primarily to mainstream publishers, brick–and–mortar bookstores and libraries winnow out most, but not all, non–traditional publications.

13. Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science are: 1) books are for use; 2) every reader his or her book; 3) every book its reader; 4) save the time of the reader; and, 5) the library is a growing organism. See



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Editorial history

Received January 4 2011; revised 20 July 2011; accepted 21 July 2011.

Creative Commons License
“Non–traditional book publishing” by Jana Bradley, Bruce Fulton, Marlene Helm, and Katherine A. Pittner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial–NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Non–traditional book publishing
by Jana Bradley, Bruce Fulton, Marlene Helm, and Katherine A. Pittner.
First Monday, Volume 16, Number 8 - 1 August 2011