Power to the People: The Role of Online Communities in Book Publishing

Page 3 of 3


Self-Publishing 2.0: Digital Tools for Authors

Sometimes, however, the traditional publisher is completely eliminated from the equation. Just as some bloggers have earned credibility as journalists and legitimate media sources, self-published books are no longer viewed as just “vanity” publications. “Like other media companies before them, book publishers felt that their ‘long format’ content was protected by the perception of quality and the ability to provide protected distribution channels to their content creators,” says Blossom. “Now, like other media … book publishers are beginning to recognize that people have a broad array of choices competing for the attention that books used to command alone.”

Some of those traditional publishers are finding new ways to stay relevant and keep themselves in the publishing ecosystem, despite the relative ease of self-publishing and social content dissemination. Malcher says that, through the success of books found on the site, Authonomy has already paid for itself, while attracting modest advertising and partnership revenue. “More significantly however, Authonomy allows us to be more dynamic and innovative as a publishing house by opening up new opportunities for HarperCollins to be part of the direct relationship between creators and consumer,” says Malcher. “Clearly there is scope to further empower creators and consumers and make more of the publishing process transparent to them.” Beginning in July, HarperCollins started a series of workshops by editors and authors for Authonomy users. He adds: “In future we can expect to see new publishing models, particularly in the digital publishing area, being introduced through Authonomy, where the direct relationship with the community provides greater market intelligence resulting in the promise of more effective publishing.”

Perhaps quite wisely, HarperCollins has paired up with Amazon’s CreateSpace—an on-demand publishing unit for writers, musicians, and more—offering Authonomy members discounts and special deals
on publishing services. This allows HarperCollins to monetize—in some small way—these self-published books that are a growing part of the competition.

Many in the academic world, for instance, are turning more and more to self-publishing as an alternative to working with traditional houses. Bryce Johnson, director of etextbook solutions for Follett Digital Resources and co-founder of CaféScribe, says self publishing often appeals to professors because they tend to write about niche topics.

Florida State College–Jacksonville (FSC Jacksonville) teamed up with CaféScribe to provide textbooks to its students at a fraction of the price of traditional textbooks through a program called SIRIUS. SIRIUS is an initiative to develop highly affordable, highly interactive courses, including digital textbooks, as well as interactive faculty development programs for FSC Jacksonville and beyond. Students do not have to purchase any additional hardware; instead, they can download the free CaféScribe reader to their computers. Users can also annotate the text, share notes with others, and even join “study groups” where professors and students can interact online around the texts.

Quality concerns, though, are even more important in scholarly works than in the world of commercial publishing. So FSC Jacksonville has produced its own textbooks for core curriculum, such as mathematics or history. These textbooks average about 250 pages and cost about $50. Johnson says the university employed a tight review process and deployed the texts as part of a pilot program, which they are now at the tail end of. In the end, though, he says, “The quality will be fretted out by the marketplace.”

“Nothing can replace the ‘fit and finish’ that a professional publisher can provide,” says Blossom. “But there is such a propagation of talented graphics specialists, on-demand copy editors, and indexers available via online services that there’s an increasingly small gap between what an individual can do with a supportive online community via today’s online book publishing services and what traditional publishers have done.”
Having had the chance to work with both peer reviewers and with a professional editor, Dickinson says, “Obviously a professional edit is much more detailed than the peer-review suggestions I received. But in many ways my experience of peer review on Authonomy stood me in good stead for the editing process. On Authonomy the comments were largely well-considered and very practical, which was invaluable for molding my story into something worth reading. In both cases I had to decide which advice to listen to and which to ignore—and standing up for my work was a crucial part of the journey to achieve a book I was really proud of and felt that I had actually written!”

On the Road to Book Publishing Success

Of course, an additional benefit of leveraging community throughout the publication process is that audience engagement starts early. “The ultimate goal,” according to Blossom, “is to gain an audience’s attention and loyalty over a prolonged period of time. Tools such as search engine optimization, online ratings and reviews management, community building, and other well-established online publishing techniques must become as integral to book publishing as assigning shelving codes and building indexes have been to previous generations of publishers. Unfortunately, most publishers still focus on the thing-ness of books rather than their place in an online world with many types of media vying for their attention.”

As more distribution channels become available, so too do the publication models available to authors. With that, the challenges to traditional publishers grow exponentially. However, by turning to and building online communities, savvy publishers are managing to keep readers—and authors—engaged at every step of the process. The trick, of course, will be keeping their eye on the horizon as the content landscape continues to evolve.


Barnes & Noble
Follett Corp.
Google Wave
HarperCollins Publishers
Lulu Enterprises, Inc.
O’Reilly Media, Inc.
Shore Communications, Inc.

Page 3 of 3

Related Articles

The Digital Reader reported back in September that Amazon was recruiting Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) authors to submit unpublished manuscripts to a crowdsourcing program that will allow readers to decide which books editors should consider for publishing. (You can join the mailing list here.)