This is as much a thought piece and a kickoff for discussion as a fully fleshed-out article, but it goes like this: Is the end of the golden age of self-publishing already in sight?

Part of the reasoning behind this comes from the dawn of the dot-com era just over a decade ago, when Internet companies were racing to build their public profile prior to going public. I used to do a lot of this stuff in Hong Kong, back in the day when page views rather than “friends” or retweets were the key metric; and with the prospect of high-rolling quick flips on the Hang Seng, serious money was involved. Then too, the received wisdom was that the Internet had leveled the playing field for branding and visibility, and any crazy kid with a dream and a neat Web address could instantly build recognition parallel to Yahoo!, or Pets.com .

As we all know, things didn’t quite work out that way. Once traditional branding and marketing operators had got to grips with the new tool kit, they were able to lever the old-style advantages of man-hours, resources, networks and big promotional budgets to bag the eyeballs in the new media as well as the old. Yes, some big old outfits died in the process, but others grew up in the spaces they vacated to eventually block out the light from the ground cover of little guys.

self-publishingFast-forward fourteen years, and the current equivalents to the then Internet are of course the social media platforms and, for e-books, Amazon’s own virtual book chain. Both have left established marketing and promotional muscle temporarily disadvantaged, but I do not expect that situation to last. As if the Facebook IPO itself wasn’t enough of a signal, the plethora of Twitter academies and corporate branding “Like” campaigns ought to show everyone that the age of innocence in the social media global village is long past, and large tracts of it are being paved over with strip malls and billboards.

Word of mouth and viral marketing may still work well in social media, but buzz of that kind is just what old-style agencies were always looking to build anyway. I see no reason to believe the new media labs will not be just as successful in breeding the perfect social media virus. As elsewhere, the generational development of evolutionary cycles in new media is being compressed, and self-publishing may already be past its first growth and into early maturity.

The real issue for me in that lies exactly in self-publishing’s advantage: the ability to get inside the distribution and exposure system and game it for your own benefit. Beyond marketing, nothing builds presence like a good platform, and Amazon has the best. But its omnipresence means that everyone is studying it, learning it, tweaking their offerings and strategies to take advantage of its quirks. Now what if all the self-publishers apply that same knowledge at the same time?  Online, they can do that. Then Amazon changes its systems, and the self-publishers move on to the next trick, which burns across the Kindle Boards like wildfire, and the same thing happens again. This is apparently what happened when Amazon’s changed its popularity algorithms in March 2012 after the initial launch of KDP Select. The ecosystem reacts on itself so fast that differential advantage is eaten away in no time. And an arms race like that will ultimately be won by the biggest guns.

The problem is oddly typified by the runaway success of David Gaughran’s new book, Let’s Get Visible: How To Get Noticed And Sell More Books, already lauded on Amazon. “Will recommend to every indie author I know,” writes one breathless reviewer. Here, I’m not criticizing that book or its approach: Every self-publisher should buy it, read it, and go out and do exactly what it says. All the same, that book’s popularity practically guarantees that its advice comes date-stamped, and that advice equips self-publishers very well to compete against each other. In the other leading platforms, Barnes & Noble and Kobo especially, this isn’t such an issue because they simply sell the exposure.

The established publishing players have been extraordinarily slow to learn how to avoid becoming extinct, and that may extend self-publishers’ lead for a little while longer. But in this analysis, publishers and agents can breathe a sigh of relief. I don’t necessarily see a problem with that: If you can grow my pie, you’re welcome to your slice. And many writers may simply decide their time is better spent writing than marketing. Now that publishers are no longer compulsory, they might actually start to appear desirable.

For now, the market dynamics still give some advantage to the little guy. So make Hay (-on-Wye?) while the sun shines. Party like it’s 1999. Because if my reasoning is accurate, the big bust might be just around the corner.

Please, any responses or observations you have on this, go ahead and make them.