You used to be able to spot vanity-published books a mile off: cheap paper, appalling cover art and clumsy text setting (the pages were so jumbled and badly set it was as if the words themselves were embarrassed to be there). Ebooks changed that in a stroke. On black and white epaper the visual differences between professionally published and self-published books vanished. Add to this the freedom to price aggressively, and some writers found a willing audience.
This was because certain readers of romance, crime, sci-fi, fantasy, erotica and other genre fiction are voracious readers and the most gluttonous are willing to take to forums and chatrooms to review new novels. Cheap books appeal to core readers, who can often get through several a week, and this combination created a new publishing economy. While Random House put its erotic imprint Black Lace on hold in 2010, EL James was building a following on FanFiction for the erotic homage to Twilight that eventually became the Fifty Shades series. Here was a case of an audience existing in big publishing's blind spot.
But publishers aren't as backward-looking as they can seem. Once someone dragged their attention to this audience, the industry started to search for and publish books targeted at these readers, be they new commissions, back-list books or self-published works. Fifty Shades was the standard bearer for a slew of erotic books that found a willing readership. When crime writer Kerry Wilkinson wrote the first book in his Jessica Daniels series, he didn't look for a publisher, he uploaded his book to Amazon and let the book find an audience. At the end of 2011 he had self-published three books and sold more than 250,000 copies. In February 2012 Pan Macmillan offered him a six-book deal.
The pull of successful self-published authors is that they have built an audience that can be developed. It's a way of outsourcing discoverability that is becoming increasingly common. Rather than nurturing an author, publishers want authors who already have an identifiable audience in place. They call it a "platform".
In genre fiction this is incredibly hard to get and so signing authors who have already done the ground work in the first place can be a very efficient form of publishing
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