"Barnes & Noble sees an opportunity to grow its traditional customer base with customers who think they have something worth publishing," says Kelly Gallagher, Bowker's vice president of publishing services. "It's one way to stay connected to their customer base."
Barnes & Noble, which expects to launch PubIt this summer, is the latest company to enter into the self-publishing market. Five years ago, its online rival Amazon.com (AMZN) purchased CreateSpace, moving the e-commerce giant beyond books, and with its later release of the Kindle e-reading device, the bookseller completed its expansion into the full life-cycle of e-publishing. It wouldn't be surprising to see Apple (AAPL) or other tablet makers follow suit, given that by adding self-publishing to to their menus, they too could further leverage their portable reading devices, much like Barnes & Noble will be able to do with its Nook and Amazon has with its Kindle. Apple currently is relying on Lulu.com to offer self-publishing services for its iPad.
PubIt's publishing and distribution system will be available to independent publishers and authors of self-published works, offering a royalties-based payment system. Meanwhile, the company is looking to grab a second bite of the apple by steering its Nook customers to its stores, where they can browse the full contents of PubIt book titles.
"Part of the reason for going into niche publishing is to drive sales of the Nook, but that's only part of it," Gallagher says.
An Explosion in Print-on-Demand
Consider this trend that Bowker picked up on two years ago. In 2008, print-on-demand books hit a milestone, surpassing traditional book publishing for the first time. And last year, the top 10 publishers accounted for 74% of the titles produced during the year.
Those numbers are impressive, but it is worth noting that those figures for print-on-demand books include not only those by self-published niche authors like your proverbial Auntie Mae, but also republications of existing out-of-print titles. And as DailyFinance's Sarah Weinman noted last month, the vast majority of nontraditionally published books are public domain works brought back into print.
"I think this industry will continue to grow, but I also see consolidation like we already have with iUniverse and Author Solutions," says Scott Flora, executive director of the Small Publishers Association of North America (SPAN).
Of the 1,000 members in SPAN, Flora estimates that 20% have used online self-publishing services. A number of these self-publishing services allow authors to retain the rights to their content, but if an author does not retain rights to the International Standard Book Number (ISBN), then the specific version of the book, such as its cover and the font style used, would belong to the publishing service, or publisher.
"One thing that is attractive to people is they can get a book in their hands fairly inexpensively. But if they want to make a living as an author or publishing company, this is not the way to go. Each book is more expensive under a print-on-demand format and there is a stigma against authors who use this format by reviewers," Flora notes.
Cost Per Copy Is High, But Overhead Is Low
For newly minted authors like Jeff Commings, inexpensive online self-service publishing is the way to go. In just one week, after he published his own book on Amazon's CreateSpace, he's covered his costs to produce his book, he says.
Commings, author of "Odd Man Out: An Autobiography," said there were two factors that went into his decision to use an online self-publishing service and specifically CreateSpace.
"I get to hold onto my copyright and there were no major up-front fees," Commings says.
Under his CreateSpace arrangement, he paid $10 for a proof of the book, which carries a $20 price tag. The royalty he receives for each book sold through the CreateSpace Web site is $12.51, but if his book is sold through Amazon.com, that drops to $8.51 a book.
For Commings, the cost to print each book is $5.90 per copy -- higher than would be charged by typical traditional book printers, whose per-copy rate would be roughly half that, but for orders that reach into several thousand copies, Flora noted. But Commings signed up for CreateSpace's Pro account that costs $39 a year. With that account, authors and publishers who buy books in bulk can drop their per copy costs down to $3.49 a book, leaving them with a higher profit margin.
"It took me five years to write the book and one week to break even," says Commings. "Once I hit the publish button, I haven't had to think of anything at all and that's been awesome."