Beyond The Naked Author: research into self-publishing

Dr Alison Baverstock shares her quantum leap into the research and study of self-publishing

I’ve been analysing and reporting on the publishing industry for a long time now, but the sharp rise in self-publishing – of which I became aware around 2008 – fascinated me. It seemed to herald both a likely whole new significance for the author, and the opening up of an industry that had long been something of a mystery – as I am fond of saying to our students: ‘effective publishing is often most evident when absent’. I blogged about this on The Bookseller website in 2009 and Bloomsbury, long-term publisher of my books on writing, bravely agreed to publish a book on self-publishing. The Naked Author (2011) is based on interviews with 47 self-publishing authors. It turned out to be the happiest book I have ever written, as author after author told me of the personal satisfaction they had achieved in the process, often irrespective of how many were sold.


Since then I have taken my investigations further, embarking on a quantitative survey (with options for additional qualitative comments) of self-publishing authors who were pursuing this seriously, putting together a research cohort from a variety of relevant agencies: the newly formed Alliance of Independent Authors under Orna Ross; South East Authors (a branch of the UK Society of Authors that allows independent as well as traditionally published authors to join) and clients of Silverwood Books (a firm classily offering ‘professional services to self-funding authors’). The results were surprising to all – my survey indicated that self-publishing authors were likely to be educated, professional, predominantly female, employed – and much younger than had previously been assumed. And while one cannot assume one smallish cohort entirely represents the much greater range of individuals involved, and I have not had reason to update this general understanding since.

Others were less interested. The traditional industry was inclined to think self-publishing a passing trend. Within academia, given the immense pressure to publish in peer-reviewed journals, there was not universal agreement that this was a good use of my time.

Nevertheless, I pushed on. In the process it struck me that academics are already skirting much closer to self-publishing than those who benefit from the hand-holding offered to authors by trade publishing houses; say when establishing a new academic journal with a community of like-minded colleagues, or when advised to commission editorial improvements to their papers before submission, to improve the chances of acceptance. And this thinking helped me come up with a definition for self-publishing (‘the taking of personal responsibility for the management and production of content’).

Working with data analyst and economist, Jackie Steinitz, we began to get a series of associated papers published in prestigious, peer-reviewed academic journals. I was asked to speak at a conference on self-publishing at the 2013 Frankfurt Book Fair, and asked back to chair in 2014. Other invitations rolled in. Professor Robert Blackburn of the Small Business Research Centre at Kingston University agreed to a joint exploration of the publishing services market, offering his considerable expertise in data management and analysis. Together we have just completed an international survey of independent editors, which has interesting things to say about both what editors like about their role – and how they see self-publishing authors. Both may surprise the traditional industry.

Frankfurt Oktober-2014 026 Alison at bookfair

Three weeks ago however came the big leap – through an invitation to speak at a Westminster Media Forum on publishing. The organisers, a conference firm who were looking at the industry from the outside, had put self-publishing second on the agenda, even before coffee. I presented my findings and in the audience was The Observer’s Maggie Brown, who used my research as the basis for a double-page spread the following Sunday. An invitation to blog for The Guardian followed and this was widely commented on and retweeted. I have since been contacted by self-publishing authors, and those offering relevant business models, worldwide – and my understanding of what is going on has grown further.

While watching interest in your work going viral is an immense adrenalin rush, there is also a wider significance; particularly for the profession-orientated discipline I teach within Kingston.

  1. Governments of all flavours, and internationally, seem keen on university courses and associated research that have a practical application and can benefit industry. Research into self-publishing is not only promoting a wider understanding of forces that will necessarily impact on current industry stakeholders, but is also identifying new areas in which our students can be professionally active in future. If there are so many people keen to publish effectively, they will need professional advice – and this is a first-rate business opportunity for all those with relevant expertise.
  2. This research arguably demonstrates the value that those with experience of the wider workplace can offer in developing the employability of students. Right now there is much discussion about how to get employers into universities, but the argument often gets stuck on how to import Industry-focussed research of this kind shows that professionals are already active within universities, and the debate about how to develop student employability can benefit from their first-hand observations of how their teaching and research impact on their students’ successes in the job market.
  3. Finally, I hope the sheer fascination of being involved in research reaches our students. Establishing and then testing your hypotheses, growing your understanding, feeling connected to a much wider audience – are engrossing experiences, and ones I hope our students will both observe and seek to be part of. And the opportunity is here, right now. Like many other universities Kingston signed up to an Access Agreement, and we are just embarking on a range of staff-student research projects, in our case to explore the potential for reader development within our student body. Hopefully, and in the process, we can all learn.

Dr Alison Baverstock is Associate Professor of Publishing at Kingston. She co-founded Kingston’s MA Publishing in 2006. The fifth edition of How to market books is published in January 2015 (Routledge).


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