Give Self-Published Books a Chance

In response to:

The New Hillary Library? from the October 27, 2016 issue

To the Editors:

Permit me to add one more item to the impressive open-access agenda that Robert Darnton has outlined for our new librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden [“The New Hillary Library?” NYR, October 27]. Darnton points out that more than half of the books published in this country annually are self-published (400,000!). Because these are not subject to copyright deposit provisions they fall bibliographically into a bleak limbo of closed access. They do not normally include Library of Congress “cataloging in publication” data, a service that the Library of Congress has provided to commercial and university presses since the 1950s, and the books themselves are not routinely cataloged by the Library of Congress. Another reason that self-published books are more difficult to access is that they are seldom reviewed by the main American reviewing journals. Has The New York Review ever reviewed a self-published book? I don’t remember any, but to be fair they are difficult to find given their usual absence from international bibliographical networks.

It is easy enough to dismiss this entire genre as vanity publishing (pay-to-play publishing), and no doubt the quality of this vast body of literature is as uneven as its commercial equivalents. As some recent surveys have shown, however, there are good reasons for authors to choose self-publishing over the commercial or nonprofit publishers, not least the freedom from editorial control and commercial incentives, and the speed with which on-demand books can be published. The service agencies that help authors bring their books to completion have a remarkable array of services (editorial, marketing, indexing, etc.) at relatively modest costs.

What can be done? One small measure would be to encourage the self-publication houses to add to their services submission of their authors’ books for the Library of Congress copyright deposit and for the Library of Congress cataloging. At the least they could offer that service to the author at a reasonable fee. More important would be for the Library of Congress to add a staffing unit for the assiduous pursuit and evaluation of these materials and their cataloging for national and international access.

David H. Stam
University Librarian Emeritus
Syracuse University
Syracuse, New York

Robert Darnton replies:

David Stam makes an important point. Self-publishing has grown to such an extent that the old notion of a “vanity press” no longer is adequate, and we face an important problem: How to find relevant material amid the hundreds of thousands of new titles produced each year? Authors no longer need to register books in order to have them covered by copyright, but the Copyright Office could maintain a voluntary registry, which also would make it easier for the books to be discovered by search engines and even by potential reviewers. Authors who do not aspire to make money from their books might consider taking out one of several types of licenses offered by Creative Commons and depositing copies with the Internet Archive.