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March 24, 2014
By Ryan Joe
I felt really excited about the opportunities we authors now have.

By her own admission, Laura Morelli has, for much of her life, been a professional student, with numerous degrees culminating in a Ph.D. in art history from Yale and an extensive publishing resume for academia and media outlets like National Geographic Traveler and USA Today.

She’s also published three nonfiction books, Made In Italy, Made In France, and Made In the Southwest for Universe, an imprint of Rizzoli Publications.

Despite Morelli’s credentials, she chose to self-publish her first novel, The Gondola Maker, about a young man in 16th-century Venice who exiles himself from his family and his heritage. The book received a starred review from PW Select, with our reviewer saying, "Morelli creates poignantly convincing characters in this handsome coming-of-age novel about adoration, pain, and destiny."

Characteristically, her reason to forego traditional publishing was educational. “I felt really excited about the opportunities we authors now have that we didn’t have just a couple of years ago,” she said. “The landscape of publishing has changed so dramatically I wanted to go on this steep learning curve and figure out the ins and outs of self-publishing. It was an opportunity to learn, more than anything else.”

Where was the learning curve steepest?

Learning the distribution channels. Working with a traditional publisher, that part of the business of bringing a book to market is not within the writer’s purview. Learning how to establish relationships with a wholesaler and the various online channels: that was new and very interesting to learn. What I’ve found is that working with the bookstores and wholesalers and distributors, many have an established process for working with certain publishers. It just takes time and effort to dig through and figure out what their process is and follow it.

"In order to self-publish a book, you have to budget smartly. And I’d budget much more smartly next time."
Many self-published authors stick with e-books. The Gondola Maker also exists as a physical edition, which is more of an investment.

It depends on your audience and what type of book you have. Some genres and books seem really well-suited for e-book distribution primarily. For The Gondola Maker, the vast majority of books I’ve sold are physical paperbacks, and I’m putting together a hardcover right now because there’s some demand for that from the libraries. So far, the physical books outsell the e-books. I don’t know if that’s going to be the case longer term, but I feel the market for this book is older and composed of people who want to hold a physical book in their hands. I don’t know if my results are typical of what many writers might face.

Are bookstores reluctant to stock self-published books?

I wondered if I would encounter any kind of pushback or stigma toward self-publishing. It’s been there in the past. I have to say I haven’t. There are some awards and prizes that are still inaccessible to self-published authors. There are certain conferences in the industry that offer less access to self-published authors. In general I’ve come across no negative feedback.

What were the biggest lessons you learned after your first foray into self-publishing?

In order to self-publish a book, you have to budget smartly. And I’d budget much more smartly next time. I spent in some places I didn’t need to spend, or spent more than I might have, had I been experienced. You’ve got lots of places competing for your dollars, whether it’s cover design, interior page design. Do you hire a publicist? Do you pay for promotions? There are a lot of new businesses out there taking advantage of this new wave of self-publishing, offering new services. With experience comes a better way to sort through those opportunities and decide what’s worth it and what’s not.

What’s worth it?

One of the things you can’t skimp on is the cover design and interior page design. Not that those things have to be very expensive, but they’re really important for a self-published author to compete in the marketplace that’s so crowded.

A book seems -- especially for a novel that’s not illustrated or heavily designed -- like the simplest thing in the world. But there’s so much that goes into it. It’s much more complex to put a book together than most people realize.

Where would you have spent less money?

If I’m spending any money on promotions, I might be more selective in the future. I tried some different things to see what worked. The kinds of promotions that are more effective depends a lot on your market. If I do another work of historical fiction, I’ll know what promotions are more and less effective.

Given your background in traditional publishing, did you always plan on self-publishing The Gondola Maker?

Long ago, when I first conceived the book, self-publishing wasn't where it is now. I started writing in 2007, finished the first draft in '07, and continued to put it away for a while and work on other projects. It took seven years. During that time, the market for self-publishing changed so drastically that I was lured by the opportunity.

Ryan Joe is a writer living in New York.

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