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Opinion: Australia Must Open Up To Indie Authors

Opinion: Australia Must Open Up To Indie Authors

Australian indie author Rebecca Lang, who writes as R R Lang, shares her disappointment at the Sydney Writers’ Festival dismissive attitude towards self-publishing.

Photo of Rebecca Lang

Australian indie author Rebecca Lang

The Sydney Writers’ Festival recently transformed the Australian harbour city into a hive of all things literature and publishing with a week of talks, panels, workshops and book launches.

The annual event attracts writers and publishers from all over the globe, and promotes not only a high calibre of debate and discussion about literature, but politics and society in general as well.

Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh was one of the headline speakers, and gave a tip of the hat to self-publishing during a frank discussion about the likelihood of his hit novel Trainspotting being published today.

Welsh told his audience that risk-averse mainstream publishers probably wouldn’t have touched his edgy slang-ridden short stories about a band of heroin users. And if he were to do it all again, he’d likely self-publish his controversial 1993 book, which has sold more than 1 million copies and been made into a hit movie.

Negative Attitudes to Self-Published Authors

Sydney Writers' Festival bannerWhile Welsh’s words were heartening for the independent publishers in the crowd, and further evidence if any were needed that the publishing industry can be just as trend-driven as the next, several of his contemporaries were critical of self-publishing during their slots elsewhere during the festival.

  • One told students during a workshop he was dubious about the quality of self-published books, and was adamant publishing houses should be the only ones vetting what should be published. He also questioned the dynamic between authors who paid their own editors versus publishing houses who hired editors to edit the work of authors was different, implying indies might be paying for what they wanted to hear.
  • Another told attendees he disapproved of the marketing and pricing tactics used by indies to undercut trade publishers and drive their sales, even though his publisher recently employed a similar strategy to boost his novel’s sales!
  • Interestingly, this year there were no self-published authors listed anywhere in the program.

What A Difference A Year Makes

Only a year earlier at the same festival, independent and hybrid authors were being showcased as spearheading the brave new digital publishing age. A dedicated panel discussed ebooks, going it alone, and innovative marketing campaigns.

Australians Elisabeth Storrs and Dionne Lister were leading the charge, both making names for themselves in the historical and fantasy genres on the global publishing stage thanks to print-on-demand and digital platforms.

What to make of the absence of self-published authors on the bill in 2014?

Perhaps Australian conference organisers feel independent publishing is merely a fad, fleeting and unworthy of further exploration. Maybe at some level independent publishing is viewed as downmarket, cheap and lacking in quality or substance. Or maybe trade publishers are flexing their muscles behind the scenes to exclude self-published writers.

One author did confide to me that he thinks self-publishers are undermining the integrity of publishing altogether. Is this an opinion informed by his publisher? Do people (and publishing companies) genuinely hold such a grim apocalyptic ‘the sky is falling’ view of the world’s publishing mavericks?

The Australian Self-Publisher’s Perspective

Sydney Harbour BridgeFor me, the self-publisher is the epitome of the ‘little Aussie battler’ of the publishing world. Self-publishing is, in part, all about upsetting the status quo of the publishing establishment by achieving more financial and creative control for authors. And let’s face it, Australia loves to support the underdog.

Whatever the reason or motivation, something has to change.

The ranks of independent authors are growing every year, even in Australia, and many established trade-published writers are joining them (some while maintaining traditional publishing deals). Ignoring them will not make them go away.

Nobody knows this better than Australia’s romance community – perhaps not surprising considering it was a fledgling Australian e-publisher, The Writers’ Coffee Shop, which took a punt on the 2011 bestselling erotic trilogy 50 Shades of Grey, which has now sold in excess of 100 million copies.

Self-published romance authors represent a sizeable chunk of the e-publishing market, and hungry readers can’t get enough of their work. It’s a hot genre.

Better Hopes for the Romance Writers of Australia Conference

cover of Army Dreamers by R R Lang

Rebecca writes as R R Lang

In August, the Romance Writers of Australia 2014 conference will feature a self-publishing workshop with hybrid Australian authors Kandy Shepherd and Cathleen Ross, who have both found success as indie authors and with large publishing houses.

The conference will also feature Smashwords marketing director Jim Azevedo giving a presentation entitled ‘Secrets of the Bestselling Self Published Ebook Authors’, and a special ‘Self Publishing 101’ workshop with bestselling American romance writer Marie Force.

Let’s hope this is the beginning of Australian writing and publishing conferences ‘Opening up to Indies’.

Help spread the word about ALLi’s #publishingopenup campaign by tweeting this post:

“Why Australia needs to open up to indie authors by @Rebecca_Lang: https://selfpublishingadvice.org/open-up-australia/ via @IndieAuthorALLi #publishingopenup”

This Post Has 42 Comments
  1. Terrific article and terrific comments–I pretty well agree with everyone and everything.

    As a career editor I have to say that some of the indie books I’ve been asked to review have come with the comment that they’ve been professionally edited. It comes as a great disappointment when reading to realise they’ve obviously not been subjected to thorough beta reading as plot/story/character/dialogue is often weak. Plus they’ve not been subjected to thorough proofreading–at least not by any editor who knows anything about spelling, grammar, tense etc. When getting back to the author they are invariably incredibly dismayed. So in relation to authors contracting editors to look at their work my comment is they need to be much more informed about the editor they choose and be specific about what they want that editor to do.

    And if any indie author reads such a book they should check to see if the editor has been named and then steer clear of that person!

  2. Rebecca, I love the “little Aussie battler” analogy. Self publishing is a way for everyone to “have a go”.

    If you have a book in you, you should write it now. Design it now, and promote it now. With all the online resources out there, it’s not that hard to get started.

    Your first book probably won’t be a smashing success, but use the experience to learn, and make the next one even better.

  3. “One told students during a workshop he was dubious about the quality of self-published books, and was adamant publishing houses should be the only ones vetting what should be published.”

    Oh. My. God.

    Guttenberg must be rolling in his grave.

    … publishing houses should be the only ones vetting what should be published?

    Is this person a totalitarian or what?

    Leaving aside the subject of ‘dubious quality’ – to which I have to say ‘cavaet empor’ baby – the disturbing notion of vetting means that the publishing houses set the agenda on what the public may or may not read.

    What if the subject of a book is unPC? Or goes against the socio-political prejudices of the acquisitions editor? Who appoints publishers as literary guardians of what we may or may not read?

    Most literary festivals (with the very obvious exception of the Romance Writers of Australia) are self-indulgent echo chambers of self-congratulations amongst those of a certain socio-political mind-set. No dissenting voices are heard at these festivals, except for some tokens who are there to serve as a sop to egalitarianism or who are to serve as whipping boys for the hive mind attendees.

    If control and censorship is the best our literari-elite can offer, then I say more power to self-published authors who offer readers a true diversity of voices and stories.

  4. I hate to admit it but Australia is intrinsically conservative with a tendency to resist change almost as a national sport. At the present time we are being told we are “doing it tough”, by our government and much of the media, which results in backward looking and low risk thinking; in other words playing for safe. At the very time when new possibilities should be investigated we put up barricades in order to prevent progress. New ideas, especially in the Arts, are fraught with danger and retreat can easily become a rout. Naturally those who stand to gain the most lead the campaign as they find, real or imaginary, all the pitfalls and possible failure points of the new. Unfortunately although we are a nation of consummate gamblers we are not risk takers but wait until the new is proven before stepping down from the fence. Indie publishing and digital books will become the norm, hard copy a niche market, but we should not expect it to be welcomed with open arms. Has any revolution been without its blood letting?

  5. Oh dear – publishers are becoming very, very scared. They’ve been ruling the roost for a long time and that control is slowly slipping away. I don’t have anything against them, but this behind-the-seences innuendo has their influence written all over it.

    1. D.U. – it’s obvious that a lot of people have been struggling with the impact on established business models. My background is in journalism and I have seen the same thing happen with print journalism – the initial disparaging of new start-ups, rubbishing bloggers etc, and the slow surrendering to change and embrace of new technologies and the re-imagining of advertising and content access.

  6. Sadly, this is not an attitude limited to Australia.

    Last December, I submitted – at their request – three books for review on a large, local (Chicago) website. Emails to confirm receipt were unanswered. They’ve since put up a notice on their website that they will not accept self-published books for review “until further notice” and went on to rant aboutt the unprofessional quality. Mine are professionally edited, designed and formatted, so they couldn’t have meant mine. But their own unprofessionalism speaks for itself.

    I wanted to join a statewide writers organization and attend their conference. Full membership is only available to traditionally published authors. Self-published authors pay a lower rate and have no voting or committee rights. Likewise with their conference – a lower class of authors.

    I’ve declined to enter contests for self-published authors because the grand prize is a traditional publishing contract.

    Yes, we can say ‘it’s their loss’, and it is. But until we either hold our own conferences or demand a valid, professional reason for excluding self-published authors, nothing will change.

    1. Victoria, I’m sorry you’ve had such a bad experience. Personally I find it outrageous that some organisations are treating independent publishers like second-class citizens.

      Let’s face it – if the book is poorly written, edited and produced it will quickly be discounted in a competition. I think the attitude harks back to the old trade publishing monopoly as many of these competitions are sponsored by large publishing houses which, as you point out, often put up the prizes.

      Keep building your platform and winning over new readers – success is its own reward – but I think we should all ‘do our bit’ and try to work with established events and organisations to change attitudes.

  7. As one of the authors I like has previously been published by a publishing house, but has become Indie, I think the comments against show ignorance. An editor is only worth paying if they tell you the truth about your work, and paying the editor that does not correct your work would be counter productive. A better edited book would sell better, and so If the editor does not do their job, they are unlikely to get reemployed. A publishers editor need not be better than an independent editor.
    So, yes there are some junk Indie books around, but there are some terrible mistakes being let through the publishing houses as well! In fact one of the worst sentences seen recently was in a book written by a well known author and published by one of the main publishing houses.

  8. We self-publishers or Independents are in a bit of a bind because so much of what our critics say is – lets face it! – true. And these are the flaws that are cited as typical of indies as a whole – poor proofing, shoddy covers, formatting errors galore etc. Do we need some kind of universal benchmark or seal of approval to safeguard the integrity of our reputation? I’m not talking about literary content, which entirely another matter, and largely concerned with individual taste.

    1. David, the ‘universal benchmark’ debate is an interesting one. But in some ways it sort of flies in the face of the independent spirit, although I get what you’re saying. Some authors are now crediting their editors in the front matter of their books as part of a quality assurance push. I like this idea. I also think there’s scope to do more joint marketing with book partners such as designers and editors, getting them to profile your book on their page with mutual links and so forth. Many people do this already.

  9. This traditional vs self-publishing battle is so old school! In USA self-publishing is not any more a stigma, or at least is fading away. In about 10 up to 15 years, the majority of writers will go either indie or hybrid. I feel the traditional publishers made the event self-publishing unfriendly. Let it go!
    One must not allow such negativity and envy cloud one’s clarity and common sense.
    Rebecca, did you experience any troubles being an indie author or a hostile attitude from the literary world in Australia? By the way, your books on Amazon are available for the whole world, so never mind. Keep up the good writing and everything will be fine.

    1. Hi Antara,
      I did initially experience some snobbery with my first book, but honestly never let it put me off my game. I have a background in journalism and public relations and pulled national print, TV and radio coverage for my first book. It was more than some established traditional authors experience in a whole career!
      Ultimately, however, it is the niche appeal of my subject matter, and word-of-mouth, which drives my book sales.
      I think the Australian publishing is dragging its feet by only focusing on the ‘digital’ in ‘digital revolution’, and not recognising the opportunities that exist for authors to go hybrid or completely independent.
      But as Patty points out above, there are places that are opening their doors to ‘indies’ – just not enough of them IMHO 🙂

    2. I’m from the US, and I feel like the stigma is definitely still there, although it is fading. I do think that author organizations are realizing how many good writers either don’t get published by mainstream publishers or simply want to self-publish to own their own rights, etc.

      Of course, the Big Five acts like anyone they’ve rejected couldn’t possibly be any good, even though some of those people have gone on to be best-sellers.

  10. The problem is quality. We have to be realisitc and admit that there are a lot of poor quality SP books, & those who have been burned by the bad ones tend to tar them all with the same brush. What they need to be aware of is that there are good ones and there are ways to find them. I truly believe that the only way forward on this is to have more sites like the Awesome Indies (or a higher profile for that site) where the good have already been selected by people with qualifications that the mainstream should respect.

    1. It’s worse than being burned: we’re embarrassed to be associated, in people’s minds, with such books (usually ebooks).

      Traditional publishers produce some stinkers (apparently they throw up OCR versions of books as ebooks without bothering to make sure they work on ereaders), but in general there is an expectation that if it is in print, and in a bookstore, it has certain basic qualities.

      I have tons of ebooks I’ve downloaded during a promotion – only to find, for example, that the author doesn’t even realize that using a Courier 12 font is awful. And this from someone whose bio says the author has been a lawyer for 40 years. I could not read it.

      And I also wonder how an author could be so clueless when the first 4 chapters are a recitation of the hero’s life – with no particular conflict – from cradle to the time the story starts. Massive infodump.

      I don’t think some of these would have made it past the gatekeepers.

      It is something to be aware of when I hit publish. The good thing is that it doesn’t have to be that way. There are so many blogs where you can learn those basics, because someone has bothered to write it up after figuring something out.

      Fortunately, readers are quite good at evaluating the offerings – and vocal about their likes and dislikes. The good stuff will float to the top of the lists, and there are enough lists that readers can find exactly what keeps them reading.

      1. Alicia, I do personally feel ‘quality will out’ however discoverability is one of the biggest hurdles in independent publishing. I’m always interested in reading of how authors overcome this through clever marketing and networking.

        And you are quite right re: the resources available when looking at polishing (or even writing) your manuscript – the Internet is an information paradise. 🙂

    2. I agree Tahlia – in the meantime, we can do some savvy networking ourselves by teaming up with other quality authors in our niches/genres and driving that message as a group.

  11. Two steps forward, one step back…

    I think Patty is right: it probably just comes down to the attitudes (and perhaps, the vested interests) of a few people at the top.

  12. Thank you for this great article Rebecca, and for highlighting the ‘Opening Up To Indie Authors’ campaign. Could I ask those who are interested to support that campaign by buying the book, http://www.amazon.com/Opening-Indie-Authors-Self-Publishing-Independent-ebook/dp/B00JT1NW2Y, leaving a review (which helps it to reach those who don’t yet know about the campaign) and signing the petition: http://www.change.org/petitions/open-up-to-indie-authors? As indie authors improve what we do and how we do it, the original relationship between writer and reader will regain its place at the heart of the publishing industry. Thanks to all who help to forward that day.

  13. Hi Patty, that’s heartening to hear. I certainly think some genres are really leading the way – Science Fiction, Fantasy and Romance among them.

    Author Dionne Lister, who first commented on this thread, also had a stall at Supanova, which by all accounts looked like a fantastic event.

    I do believe there is growing interest in the self-publishing platform in Australia, it just hasn’t quite got traction at the bigger conferences yet, something ALLI is hoping to change with its ‘Opening Up To Indies’ campaign.

  14. Whether or not a venue is welcoming to self-published authors depends on the attitude of a few individuals running the show, rather than the attitude of the entire local industry. Unfortunately some pockets of the publishing industry still display this attitude, and it’s a worldwide issue.

    I really don’t think this is an Australian problem only. Speaking from a perspective of a writer of SF/F, I can say that at SFWA self-published authors are merely tolerated, providing they have other qualifications. They still haven’t decided on how to accept solf-published authors.

    There are plenty of places in Australia where self-published authors are welcome. A self-published author won the Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy novel. I’ve spent this past weekend at Supanova Sydney, where many self-published authors had stands and a public of 60,000+ people did not care about who published our books. All Australian SFF events have panels on self-publishing. I was recently invited to speak at a NSW Editors’ Society gathering about self-publishing.

    1. i need to find out about these events in Sydney that are supportive. I live a couple of hours south of Sydney and never fo to anything , but i think I should . My local bookstore was very ‘anti’ when I talked her her, even despite the awards my books have won, ao the predjudice is alive and well.

      1. Hi Tahlia, you might have more luck concentrating on conferences or shops that focus on your genre?

        If your book has been winning awards, make a splash in the local press. All retailers love good publicity, and it might help open some doors.

        Good luck!

    2. Hi Patty. Juliet Marillier may be a self-published author but the book of hers that won the Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel was published by Pan Macmillan. Not one winner in any category was self-published this year. I’m a self-published author too but the two shortlisted novels of mine in the Aurealis Awards for Best Sci-fi Novel were both commercially published. Much better work of mine (IMO) that was self-published, didn’t even make the shortlist. I don’t suppose there’s an actual bias in the Aurealis Awards but it might have something to do with lobbying from the publishers. I suspect the preponderance of commercially-published authors and their publishers at writers festivals is more to do with effective marketing, including sponsorship, by the publishers, than with negative sentiment towards self-publishing by the organisers.

  15. Thanks Alicia, we’re slowly making inroads but I think indies have a much more welcoming platform overseas than they do in Australia right now.

    It’s odd, really, for a nation known for its voracious reading appetite and being very much a country of early adapters, as far as technology is concerned.

    In some ways Australia is primed to embrace and develop the independent publishing platform. In other ways we’re terribly old-fashioned and cling to tradition.

    Let’s hope more conferences Down Under start to welcome indie authors, and engage in the debate and discussion inevitably provoked by independent publishing.

    🙂

  16. It’s a shame to hear about a conference that takes a step backward. So if self-pubbers don’t feel welcome there, I hope they find more progressive venues.

    Some people can’t be saved from themselves; they resist change with everything they have.

    They will be left behind in times of disruption – sitting on their porches when the hurricanes come. I understand them a bit, but I don’t condone their behavior.

    At least authors won’t have to put their own lives at risk to go pick up the people who stay behind.

  17. Hi Dionne, thank you!

    I should add that I LOVE the SWF, and block out a week every year just so I can attend all of the talks and workshops. However, I feel that self-publishing – or professional independent publishing, which is a much better label – has been flourishing in the Festival’s blind spot.

    As we both know, there are many successful writers carving out a credible niche for themselves, including yourself, historical romance writer Elisabeth Storrs, Bali memoir writer Odyle Knight, and action-adventure writer Luke Romyn to name only a few.

    Trade published authors should take a good look at the independent publishing scene and realise the opportunities that are available to them, and the new voices that deserve to be heard (and read!). Yes, there are some independently published authors who don’t present their best work, but equally I have seen trade publishers shamelessly print shallow ghostwritten celebrity memoirs riddled with half-truths, pulp trees to celebrate short-lived fads, and push out poorly edited books.

    But trade publishers aren’t stupid – many are now adopting ‘indie’ marketing strategies, and some are signing up the more successful independent authors. That speaks volumes to me.

    One day soon it will be all about the stories again, and not the way they come to market.

    🙂

  18. Hi Rebecca,

    What a great article. I didn’t realise they didn’t have anything on self publishing this year at the festival. What a shame. I’m a little insulted that one author thinks indies pay their editors to ‘hear what they want to hear’. I’m a freelance editor too, and I take my work seriously. My clients love that I tear their manuscript apart because they want to put out a good product. No one wants to see 50 one star reviews that say the book has typos and bad grammar, lack of plot etc. It’s easy to be superior when you have a publishing deal.

    I actually think the self-published authors who are doing it properly-professionally-are to be more respected than those who have a publisher take care of everything. We have learnt ten times as much about publishing, and we’ve had to rely on our own intelligence, experience, mistakes, finances and self-confidence to get there. How dare they imply that we’re not worthy.

    It’s worth noting that not all traditionally published authors feel that way, and that not all self-published authors do a good job. Anyway, I’m not about to give up because someone doesn’t respect what I do. I don’t need their approval, and maybe that’s what worries them. 🙂

    Keep up the great articles!

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Rebecca Lang

Rebecca Lang lives and works in Sydney, Australia. She is a former journalist and newspaper editor, an incurable life-long storyteller and a Fortean. She is the author of the eerie short story "Army Dreamers" and co-author of "Australian Big Cats: An Unnatural History of Panthers". Her website is www.rebeccalangauthor.com.

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