Self-Publishing and the ‘Curatorial Mark’: Jon Fine

This story was originally published on July 1, 2016, at Publishing Perspectives. You can read its full version there. — Porter Anderson

Image — iStockphoto: Mike Sheridan

The high view of self-publishing, in Jon Fine’s words, is peopled with ‘increasingly sophisticated authors’ supported by ‘increasingly sophisticated consultants’ — a movement growing into its own alongside the ‘curatorial mark’ of trade publishing.

‘Seriousness of Purpose’

“For me as a First Amendment attorney, this movement, this empowerment, this enfranchising of storytelling — whether it’s in the States or in India or in Europe — the ability for anybody to tell any story they want is such a remarkable goal, and for most of our lives, really, it’s been only an aspirational goal.”

Jon Fine

Jon Fine, one of the best-known people in many parts of the world associated with the self-publishing movement, sees the future as a bright one. While industry analysts are frustrated that only estimates are available of the numbers of self-published works, and while emotional flare-ups have become common around discussions of the sector, Fine points to the essential fact of independent publishing as a gradually maturing dimension in our capabilities for storytelling.

“The backdrop here,” he says, “is the desire to tell a story. Authors, storytellers, have never really been motivated by economic return. Most smart writers recognize that it’s always been hard to make a living solely as a writer. While the democratization of the means of publication has increased the opportunities for people to find a way to tell their story and find an audience to enjoy that story, the economic returns haven’t increased, necessarily.

“But in terms of being able to reach an audience? — economics aside, I think there’s a continuing desire to increase these opportunities” for authors. “And I don’t see that diminishing.”

Fine notes that the original “strong platforms” — Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, Kobo, Barnes & Noble’s Nook — aren’t the wide-open spaces they once were for entrepreneurial authors, naturally. “Certainly those have become more populated,” he says, “and the opportunities to differentiate yourself have become more challenging. The trailblazers had the benefit of being first. Those who come behind them have to deal with increasing saturation.”

“Some authors are very focused on making money and finding a huge audience. And then there are a lot of other folks in the world of storytelling. They have a story burning in their stomach and they want to get it out.”

Nevertheless, Fine has a singularly clear view of a kind of virtuous partition, if you will, in the independent publishing camp. It will, he says, become more, not less, beneficial.

“Over time,” he says, “those who are more professionally minded will rise to the top.” These are authors who turn to self-publishing in order to cultivate an audience and sell their work. They are commercially oriented.

Another group in the independent camp, Fine says, is not motivated by sales but by storytelling. For that group, the service-providers offer a different capacity, the support needed simply to communicate a story. “Those who are more interested in just getting something on paper,” he says, “in just knowing it’s out there and sharing it with their friends? They’ll be able to do that.

“Some people are writing because they just want to tell a story. I think seriousness of purpose” is a key, he says, that can serve as a meaningful criterion that changes the dialogue about self-publishing from the trade-vs.-indie debate to something more productive.

“Some authors are very focused on making money and finding a huge audience. And then there are a lot of other folks in the world of storytelling. They have a story burning in their stomach and they want to get it out. It’s not that they’re any ‘better’ or ‘worse.’ It’s just that their focus is different.

“The over-arching framework is readers and authors. Everyone else is there to help improve, grow, cement that relationship.”

“I see opportunities for people to tell stories regardless of their goals. This is an increasingly sophisticated author space,” Fine says. “And there’s an increasingly sophisticated consultant space” available to those authors, not least because one element of the disruption of publishing is the outsourcing of editorial and marketing resources that once were held in-house.

These are the support systems and services now coming into play, he says, to help the professionally oriented authors distinguish themselves as they need to from those whose goals are more about the storytelling, itself.

If anything, Fine agrees, that distinction has been one of the biggest challenges for professionally oriented indie authors: they can easily be seen as part of the widest range of self-publishing, which includes many writers whose goals are not commercial. And as the indie movement continues to mature, he says, the rising sophistication of its authors and the legitimacy of author-services being generated to support them will help make these delineations clearer.

The ‘Curatorial Mark’ for Publishers

“For many authors, being able to publish with the resources of a publisher and the curatorial mark that helps distinguish a title in this ‘tsumani of content,’ those are very helpful things. One of most effective aspects of traditional publishing — something they’ve worked hard for and earned — is that curatorial mark.”

For almost a decade with Amazon — more than six years as its Director of Author and Publisher Relations — Fine was the globe-trotting face of the digitally enabled independent publishing phenomenon, something that has changed the industry in many parts of the world.

He traveled from city to city, continent to continent, to speak to writers and publishers in conference sessions. It’s hard to remember a Fine session that wasn’t packed, conferees squeezing into the backs of presentation rooms if necessary to hear his good humored explanations of what they could do to produce their own books without the intervention or support of traditional publishing.

“The good news,” he loved to tell them, “is that today, everybody can publish a book. And the bad news is that today, everybody can publish a book.”

The phrase “tsunami of content” quickly became attached to him as he worked to help authors understand the importance of creating relentlessly professional-grade output in order to compete in the new digital high tide of titles being uploaded to Amazon’s and other platforms.

Now consulting in online and traditional media and e-commerce, both in legal and business affairs, this First Amendment attorney, unbeknownst to a lot of the publishing people who worked with him for years, made the jump to the books world from television: Fine was the Senior Media Counsel to NBC, advising the Saturday Night Live production team and writers, as well as the NBC News management.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the fact that publishers have a leg up on that curatorial battle. And they need to continue to preserve it. Sustain that brand.”

Formerly a financial analyst with Smith Barney, Harris Upham, a litigation associate with Debevoise & Plimpton, and media counsel to King World Productions, he left NBC and went to Random House in 2000 as Vice-President, Associate General Counsel to the Alfred A. Knopf division, advising on legal and policy issues.

Five years later, he began his nearly nine-year Amazon sojourn, leaving the company in January 2015.

Before directing author and publisher relations, he worked with Amazon as an associate general counsel in media and copyright, then as a vice-president in business development.

Here’s a mild irony. Seen by many as a champion of indie publishing, it’s Fine’s background in the trade that gives him a special insight today into what might be a growing pressure point for traditional publishers: If, as some industry observers say is happening, publishers are loosening their grip on the rigors of the editorial and production excellence for which they’ve been known, the rising capabilities of that increasingly sophisticated self-publishing community, Fine says, could mean that the trade’s “curatorial mark” loses some of its luster.

And what the best authors in the professionally oriented ranks may want, in fact, is the perceived value of that curatorial mark:

From left, Jon Fine, Hugh Howey, Kristin Nelson, and Jonny Geller in a town hall session at Frankfurt Book Fair 2013. Image: Frankfurt Book Fair, Bernd Hartung
“For many authors, being able to publish with the resources of a publisher and the curatorial mark that helps distinguish a title in this ‘tsumani of content,’ those are very helpful things. One of most effective aspects of traditional publishing — something they’ve worked hard for and earned — is that curatorial mark. If you talk to many successful authors,” who have been published and have self-published, “they’ll tell you, ‘Yeah, I was able to do very well with my self-published work, but I loved the benefits of being on a traditional roster.
“But not many authors have that opportunity” to be published by a trade house. “So that is a practical institutional advantage. And I think publishers are starting to recognize that as a real differentiator. They’re trying to establish with more successfully published independent authors why coming back to their [traditional] path might be better.
“At the same time, you see authors who prefer the challenge of doing it on their own. They like mucking about with covers, they like digging deep into the deals and how to distribute.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the fact that publishers have a leg up on that curatorial battle. And they need to continue to preserve it. Sustain that brand. I think traditional publishers have a tremendous amount to offer authors and readers.”

In the same way, Fine says, “that those trade brands took a long time to build, it will take some time for legitimate independently published authors to rise above the less-professionally oriented authors who are often grouped with them right now.

“But it will happen. And it happened [in the trade] by investing more in that final package. The book cover, information you make available about the book, the metadata you send out, all of the aspects of publishing — you need to hit all those points if you’re going to rise above the rest.”

‘Harder to Break Out’

Interestingly, two of Fine’s events scheduled for later this year stand in the distinct camps of independent writers he identifies.

First, the professionally oriented impetus: On September 22, Fine will be one of a dozen industry specialists who will respond to writing projects put forward by the authors of theNovelists Inc. (NINC) organization at their annual conference. The authors he’ll advise in these master class sessions are “multi-published,” with an average 24 titles per member on the market, according to new survey data from the group. Seventy-two percent of them are traditionally published, 85 percent of them are self-published. One in five NINC authors publishes books in 10 or more languages.

Fine’s role in that “First Word” appearance for NINC will be as a long-seasoned business advisor, responding to issues encountered by a membership of established, commercially experienced authors.

And then, the storytelling initiative that may not involve the professional drive: On October 8, he headlines an onlineIndie Author Day event, the internationally viewable centerpiece of hundreds of libraries‘ programs to welcome and promote local independent authors in their communities.

Produced by BiblioBoard, which specializes in community engagement tools for libraries, that program’s emphasis rests on a growing role for libraries as centers of their local communities’ cultural lives.

“I was an adviser to Seattle Public Library on its strategic plan a few years back,” Fine says, “and this is about the role libraries play in the community: it’s changing. As much as it’s about finding great books, it’s also about learning skills to make you more employable. It does seem like a natural outgrowth of the increasing importance of libraries and the changing roles of libraries. Here, they’re providing a way for authors to feel empowered.

“It’s also important for authors because, while you can look for audience in ones and twos, you can also try to go where buckets of readers exist. The library’s combination of a built-in base of readers and [an organization that’s] part of the community you live and work in as an author, that’s a very powerful potential connection, in the same way that many independently published authors have turned to their local bookstores and been able to prevail on them to sell their books and have opportunities for events.”

‘A Force for Good’

In the same way “that those trade brands took a long time to build, it will take some time for legitimate independently published authors to rise above the less-professionally oriented authors who are often grouped with them right now.”

On the whole, Fine says he sees the independent movement as having heightened “the fundamental relationship between the reader and the author.”

There’s more to this story: Jon Fine talks about not seeing economic success as the top consideration. It’s at Publishing Perspectives, a daily magazine of the international publishing trade.

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