Self-publishing: 5 issues for authors to consider, from Amazon’s Jon Fine and Prof. Tim Laquintano

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At the Merging Media conference today, we heard from Jon Fine, Amazon’s Director of Author & Publisher Relations. Jon’s talk reminded me of the terrific presentation I heard at AOIR from Tim Laquintano, a writing professor at Lafayette College who spoke about the evolution of self-publishing. Drawing on their talks, as well as on a paper by Tim, I have identified 5 key issues that authors need to consider if they are interested in self-publishing:

  1. Income potential. Tim Laquintano’s history of self-publishing included the remarkable tale of Carlo Flumiani, who ran a robust and highly profitable vanity publishing scam before being convicted of fraud in 1941. Stories like this may contribute to some authors’ hesitation about self-publishing, fearing that it’s a route to embarrassment or financial ruin. As both Laquintano and Fine have made clear, self-publishing today is frequently more profitable for authors than publishing with a traditional house, since they can sell digitally or through print-on-demand, and earn a significantly higher portion of total sales. Fine made a point of noting that many Amazon authors earn six-figure incomes from their self-published titles, and a few have even hit the million-dollar mark.
  2. Discovery. If you’re only selling your book to people who know they are looking for it, you’re missing a lot of your potential market, so it’s important to have a strategy for reaching people who would be interested in your title if they knew it was out there. Jon Fine points out that traditional book discovery has placed a lot of emphasis on “hand selling” (when a bookseller places a recommended title in your hands, based on your expressed interests) and cover appeal. In the world of digital book selling, your book’s cover matters less than the metadata you use to describe your title. Using the right keywords is the online equivalent of the book jacket: it’s what makes your title turn up in searches that are based on topics or areas of interest rather than only for readers looking for your specific book.
  3. Platform. Time was that if you published a book with a traditional publishing house, they did the work of building a platform (i.e. a reputation) for you. These days, traditional publishers are primarily interested in working with authors who have a pre-established platform, and authors who go the indie publishing route will likewise need to build (or build upon) their own platform. Tim Laquintano notes that online communities can provide a great mechanism for writers to generate publicity, provided that authors don’t treat these communities as ad platforms, and instead become meaningful contributors to the community conversation.
  4. Legitimacy. One of the major themes in Laquintano’s talk was the shift from “vanity publishing” (with its connotation of being far less credible than mainstream commercial or academic presses) to “indie publishing”, in which self-published authors have a newfound legitimacy. But where does that legitimacy come from, if the author hasn’t run the gauntlet of agents, editors or peer reviewers who have read the work and found it worthy of publication? Fine emphasized the importance of authors building out and curating their Amazon.com pages (both the pages for their individual titles, and their overall author page) since this will usually be the top Google result for a search on a book title. Filling out your author bio, upcoming appearances and the editorial reviews of your title all help to underscore the legitimacy of your self-published work.
  5. Authorship. Both Laquintano and Fine focused on the benefits of epublishing for authors. The process of exploring epublishing at Emily Carr has led me to think a lot about the other players at the table: not only writers but also designers, developers and media creators. If you want to go beyond print-on-demand books or PDF-like ebooks, and instead create enhanced ebooks that take wider advantage of mobile, social and touchscreen technologies, a traditional writer working alone will not be up to the job.The ebook experiments we are doing at the SIM Centre are aimed in part at evolving a new model of authorship in which writers, designers and developers collaborate on both form and content so that we can create ebooks that realize the potential of tablet-based devices for storytelling and knowledge-sharing. The business models that make indie publishing appealing to writers aren’t as well-suited to these new forms of authorship: the costs of developing enhanced ebooks (which are often highly complex software projects) demand new models of financing and of distributing both the risks and rewards of authorship.

You can read more about Jon’s work in this interview in Publishing Perspectives, and find out more about Tim’s work in his paper on Sustained authorship: Digital Writing, Self-Publishing, and the Ebook.

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