Last week, I was invited on behalf of ALLi to present a fifteen-minute speech on the state of publishing for the independent author at The Bookseller’s Author Day. As I was writing the speech, that sentence kept rising: Every author should self-publish at least once. Having experienced the conference and its follow-up, I now believe this more than ever. Ideas and discussion are of course important to seed learning and change, but it is in doing that we really learn. In the interests of encouraging more writers to publish their own work, we’re reproducing the speech here in my usual “First Monday” opinion slot.
“Before I begin, I would like to say that I support every word that Nicola (from the Society of Authors) said and that at ALLi, we don’t work from the divide which Author Day is exploring either. It is a debate, certainly, but in our experience, the most successful writers increasingly choose to move between self-publishing and assisted publishing (whether through a paid service or a trade publisher), and will consider whichever pathways are open to them for a particular project.
Indeed, any indie authors successfully selling online will sooner or later find themselves engaging with trade publishing, if only around subsidiary rights.
But back to today and “the state of independent publishing” for authors. The alternative title which kept rising for me while preparing this talk was: Why Every Author Should Self-Publish (At Least Once). There are so many myths and misconceptions that are swept away by the act of doing it, and seeing how it feels.
I know this because I first self-published very much as an experiment. I had worked for twenty years in writing and media and publishing. I didn’t expect it to be what it was.
What I’d like to do today, in the spirit of exploration that is the intention behind Author Day, is outline my view of the author experience in 2015, drawing on my observations as Director of ALLi, and my previous jobs as Director of a writing school and literary agency and, equally relevant, my own experience of having trade-published fiction and non-fiction, with a corporate publisher and an indie press, as well as self-publishing a number of books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry since 2011.
For me, that move to self-publishing was the best move of my writing life but my central premise is this: It is no secret that the wind of change is blowing through the publishing industry. Opinion about this change — what it means for publishing, or literature, or readers — is a poor guide to what is best for us, as authors. There are so many myths and misconceptions swirling around this topic, and each self-publishing experience is so unique, that the only way to know what self-publishing means for you is to try it and see.
Three Kinds of Self-Publishing
Self-publishing and “independent publishing”, the term used by the organizers of Author Day, are not synonymous as we define them at all. As we see it, “self-publishing” is an umbrella term and the self-publishing community has three kinds of writer, all of whom have different aspirations, needs and outcomes. At ALLi, we give them different names, so we know who we are talking about, and how to best serve them.
1) The Self-Expressing Writers
This group is primarily interested in writing, and though they may enjoy the tasks associated with publishing, they have relatively little interest in the business side of things. They publish their work in the sense of making it public — on blogs, and social reading sites like Wattpad. Or they are publishing a book for family, friends or their own community.
(This sector is also where you’ll find most vanity-publishers fishing for business, convincing writers that they have “published” a book, when all they have done is printed and catalogued it.)
For these writers, publication is primarily an expression of self. They may, or may not, produce well-crafted writing and may, or may not, produce well-crafted books — but they are less interested in reaching readers than in expressing something, and putting it out there.
Just because it is not always perfectly executed does not mean that the effort itself is not valid, in some cases noble. The snobbery that has traditionally met these writers’ efforts is ill-judged. (Snobbery always is). We all know that writing is magic, a powerful agent of healing and transformation. What is not so often acknowledged is that so too is the act of publication.
2) The Author-Publishers
These are the writers who want to reach readers on an ongoing basis and hope to make a living from their work. If they come to the self-publishing because they see it as a second-best to trade-publishing, they can go through a tough time at first, and may fall away, defeated by the work needed if they are to bridge the gap between what they want and making it happen.
Not just the day-to-day labour of editorial and design and social media but the personal growth and change of mindset necessary if they are to succeed. (more on this below).
Those who stay the course begin to engage with, not resist, the work of publishing well: working with good beta readers and editors, understanding where their books fit in the wider publishing ecosystem, learning what genres and format and categories fit their projects, finding a voice, discovering what they have to say.
This stage is also about finding the tools and techniques and platforms that allow them to publish their book(s) well, and reach readers. It takes the writer on the creative ride of their life and most of need a good deal of help and support from each other, which is where ALLi comes in.
3) The Indie Authors
At ALLi, we spot when an author-publisher goes indie; it is the moment when success begins to kick in. The authors are now meeting their own creative intentions: finishing the books, reaching the readers, learning from the mistakes, taking the lessons into the next book.
Indie authors are the core of ALLi’s membership and I count myself among that tribe. We are “indie”, not just because it allows us to borrow some secondhand cool from the worlds of film and music (though, yes, we book nerds need all the cool we can muster!) but because the indie attitude of mind is core to what we do: our most defining feature, and our most essential tool.
Independence in our community comes in varying shades. Some of our members are fiercely autonomous, as DIY as it’s possible to be, actively advocating the self-publishing route for all, and predicting the imminent end of trade-publishing as we know it. While these tend to be most vocal, far more members are very happy to collaborate with a publishing service where that seems advantageous, some working with paid services, others with trade publishers.
It’s only a few authors who are so politically motivated by their indie status that they will turn down an offer that makes sense and does good things for their book(s).
At ALLi, being an indie author doesn’t mean that you are wedded to self-publishing in every situation. Some people use the term “hybrid author” to describe a writer who publishes books both through trade and self-publishing platforms. We believe the term “indie author” adequately — and best — describes such a writer.
‘I am a hybrid’? Um… no. (Sounds rather weird)
‘I am an indie?’ Hell, yes. (Sounds rather wonderful)
So what is the Indie Mindset?
We Value Publication Over Validation
An indie author recognizes that publication is not somebody in a publishing house deciding that your book is “good enough”. Publication is seven processes that we need to get right, if we are to publish successfully: editorial, design, production, distribution, marketing, accounting and rights licensing. Thanks to technology, there more ways than ever to approach those publishing tasks.
We Choose Digital Over Brick
The business model of print books selling in bookstores is not commercially viable for most indie authors. Economies of scale means we currently can’t compete with trade publishing in print. But digital — e-books and POD (print on demand) — delivers a global audience, relatively inexpensive production costs, a point-of purchase at the moment of discovery, the end to “out-of-print”, and a level playing field.
Selling well written and published digital products in online bookstores, we can compete on price and the reader won’t know, and doesn’t care, who published the book.
We Don’t do “Frontlist” or “Backlist”.
We know a book is new to a reader the day he or she first discovers it. If the content isn’t time-sensitive, then we can promote it whenever we want.
We Think Global Not Territorial
Titles that might have struggle to sell enough numbers at territory level become viable with a global readership. The big self-publishing platforms like Createspace, iBooks, KDP, Kobo, Ingram Spark and Nook are all global platforms, and are all investing in expanding their global presence — as are distributors like Smashwords, Draft2Digital and PublishDrive. All great news for indies.
We Collaborate Rather Than Compete
The indie author community is distinguished by its outstanding sense of collaboration and co-operation. Writers are banding together and supporting each other, as we catch this new wave of empowerment. We are showing each other how to do the tasks we need to do, with minimum outlay of time and money and sharing the techniques and tools, the news and views, that empower each of us write and publish well. We are telling each other about good services (that help us sell good books) and how they differ from vanity outfits (that sell shoddy author services).
Indie authors are sometimes criticized for being too supportive and not critical enough. It’s not that we don’t see each other’s mistakes. We know that nitpicking over errors is not half as useful as finding and offering the advice and motivation and support that’s needed to create a good book, finish it off, and publish it well.
Actually we love the mistakes. We know that mistakes are how we learn. We’re in a creative environment, learning by doing. So we try, we fail, we try again and, as Beckett said, next time we fail better.
We Work With Partners To License Our Publishing Rights Overseas and in Subsidiary Formats
Collaboration and partnership extends to publishing services, both paid and trade. The indie author knows that to take advantage of our publishing rights requires partnership and cooperation with author-services, publishers, online licensing platform and literary agents. We enter into agreements with such partners in a spirit of negotiation and collaboration for mutual benefit.
We Value Non-Exclusivity
We know the more retailers, and regions, and formats a publisher uses, for author-publishers and trade-publishers alike, the stronger the foundation for consistent, long-term income.
We Welcome Abundance Over Scarcity
Abundance is how nature, the fundamental model for all creativity, operates. An oak tree throws a lot of acorns to get one baby oak. What’s important in an abundance model is not how many bad books are enabled. They don’t, as some commentators suggest, “clog up the system”. They quickly fall into the invisible nether regions of the online retailers.
What matters is how many good books are enabled.
As every author knows, you turn out a lot of words to get a book that’s good enough to put out there. Yes, there are exceptions, those few books that arrive and write themselves, but generally speaking, the more pages that have hit the trash can in the making, the better the book. And it’s the same with publishing (with everything, actually). The more, the merrier.
And the author who publishes a “bad” book today may well be on the way to writing a better one next time. Writing and publishing are both creative skills, learned by doing. Practice can and does make… if not perfect, then certainly better and better.
We Are Proud Of Our Indie Status
We recognize are central to a revolutionary shift in publishing, which needs to move from seeing the author purely as a resource (in the new parlance “content provider”) to respecting the author as a creative director with much to offer in each step of the publishing process.
We are proud of our indie status and carry that self-respect into all our ventures, negotiations and collaborations for our own benefit and that of other writers.
Indie Authors & Trade Publishing
Professional, motivated, resilient, determined and hardworking, indies are the kind of authors that trade publishing most wants to work with. The irony is that these are the kinds of writers who find trade publishing systems most frustrating — particularly the inequality of the working relationship that gives them poor terms and conditions, and refuses them creative input into key decisions around cover design, branding and marketing.
Restrictions around format and pricing and overly long publication lead times are also off-putting when compared to the far more favorable terms and conditions offered by the Big Five self-publishing services: Amazon, Apple iBooks, Kobo, Ingram Spark and Nook and distributors like Draft2Digital, Smashwords and PublishDrive.
For an indie author, trade publishing is an author service, not the other way around and when that sector wants to attract indies, it needs to offer terms that are far better than the typical publishing contract, which fails to acknowledge their platform and readership and the need to split print, e-book and audio rights. (See Indie Author Feedback on this here)
Challenges For Indies
But it’s not all day-long laughter in indie-author land. There are challenges. With all our newfound freedoms come more responsibilities.
- Writing A Good Book
A huge challenge in itself that often gets forgotten in publishing conversations
- Publishing It Well
Education is needed to convince authors of the absolute need to invest in good, qualified editors, in particular, and the other publishing processes. Reaching readers is a tough challenge for all, especially those in over-supplied and under-read genres like poetry, literary fiction, memoir and narrative nonfiction. And good author-publishers also understand publishing rights and how to sell them.
- Encouraging Critique
When we hire our own editors, design and production people, we may not be challenged enough by those around us. Motivation and encouragement are primary during the first four stages of the writing process but there comes a point when critique becomes essential. We need to ensure we set ourselves up to receive it from the right people, at the right time.
- Finding Acceptance
The wider publishing world has yet to open up to indie authors and that can be hard. We would like to be part of the wider publishing ecosystem. We would like to be in bookstores, at literary festivals, (as authors, not as self-publishing authors) and we would like the assumption that we self-publish because we can’t get a “proper” publisher dissolved. This may be true of some authors but it is certainly not true of all.
A Power Shift
But despite the undoubted challenges, I come back round to saying it again: every author should self-publish at least once, to taste the creative freedom and sense of possibility it brings. With that in place, the offer of a trade publishing deal or an assisted publishing deal, becomes a different prospect. Our attitude changes from “Please, please, publish me, please” to “What are you, the publishing service, bringing to the table? What do I have to give up? What do I gain?”
So to answer the question inherent in the invitation to speak here today: the state of the independent author in publishing is happier than it has ever been. Power has shifted in our industry towards authors, and if we want to claim that power we have to claim the responsibilities as well as the freedoms. We have to step up and do the work.
There are challenges, as we have seen, but we have come so far, so fast. And we’re only just beginning.
The wind of change is blowing. It is a fair wind.
And it is behind us.”