The 3 Biggest Trends in Self-Publishing Today
From Emily Dickinson’s hand-folded "fascicles" to the handpress in Virginia Woolf’s living room, self-publishing has a history that’s nothing short of storied. But between indie audiobooks, hybrid publishing houses, and the ever-evolving digital formats that make their way onto our screens, self-publishing practices are also constantly changing. Trying to keep up with the industry’s ever-evolving fashions can be a little dizzying — especially since they don’t always mirror what’s going on in traditional publishing! Of course, the self-publishing landscape is incredibly diverse. But here are three of its biggest current trends.
Genre fiction has traditionally held the lion's share of the self-publishing market. Indie sci-fi, fantasy, and romance aren’t going anywhere, but nonfiction writers are joining them in growing numbers… and one key subgenre that’s emerging is the spiritual memoir. Often flavored with a good dose of humor and very strong voice, these books offer self-reflection on life's big questions, with shades of self-help — think Eat Pray Love, with an emphasis on the pray.
Whether they're mainline Christian mothers or globe-trotting mindfulness junkies, indie spiritual memoirists thrive when they tell stories that are more personal than preachy — appealing to readers outside their own faith community, or stripe of spirituality. Spiritual memoirs books, united by a drive to dig beyond the mundane, are incredibly diverse. They might recount the role of divine love in a woman’s family life, follow a truth-seeker trekking across the Himalayas, or take the reader on a pilgrimage route dating back to the Middle Ages. While they strive to enlighten and entertain, these types of memoir typically offer a good dose of “traditional” education as well, mixing in history with personal anecdotes.
The patron saint of the lower case, e.e. cummings, self-published a poetry collection called No Thanks in 1935. Co-produced by his mother, it was titled after the response the manuscript got from 14 traditional publishers. Today’s indie poets are increasingly following in his footsteps — though presumably without roping in their parents.
In many ways, poetry and self-publishing are a natural pair. Poets, after all, have a long history of producing zine-like chapbooks to show off their craft — like an underground musician dropping an EP before (or instead of) releasing a major studio album. The chapbook has since been woven into the fabric of commercial verse: there are chapbook writing guides, chapbook competitions, even a chapbook fellowship sponsored by the Poetry Society of America — winners net $1000 and a year-long university lectureship.
Self-publishing allows poets to replicate the chapbook's original indie cred. They still get complete autonomy over their work, but with the addition of digital options, their poetry can reach wider audiences than they could swing with an old-school folded pamphlet. It’s certainly an option for a writer who feels more T.S. Eliot than Rupi Kaur, or otherwise doesn't want to go the Instapoetry route.
A couple of trends are also emerging within self-published poetry. We're seeing more indie poets playing fast and loose with genre — mixing their verses with memoir, for example. There's also been a rise in poetry collections with an overt social justice theme — part of self-publishing's general turn towards the explicitly political and socially conscious.
An indie novelist working in a currently unfashionable or highly niche genre might turn off a Big Five exec with an eye to sales potential, even if their manuscript is super solid. Often, when traditional publishers pass on historical fiction manuscripts, the problem isn't quality, but commercial viability. So choosing to self-publish instead can help insulate a writer from the ebb and flow of book industry fads.
It's not that historical fiction is off-trend — it's a very broad genre. Woman-centered stories set in the early 20th century seem to be having a moment, and steamy bodice-rippers still line the shelves in airport bookstores. But not all historical periods are mainstream-popular at all times.
Topics like historical white-collar crime, a Norman Conquest war story, or an early modern Chinese martial arts epic can be self-published with success, when the author is willing to take the marketing into their own hands and start working on building a niche fanbase — maybe even tagging in historical reenactors.
Lucia Tang is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world’s very best editors, designers, and marketers. Reedsy also provides tools to help authors write and format their books, as well as free learning courses and webinars to help them learn more about writing and publishing.