Ten years on from the widespread adoption of digital self-publishing in the author community, there is still a dearth of information about self-publishing in university creative writing courses and other disciplines. In this first post about opening up academia to indie authors, the Alliance of Independent Authors hears about one professor's struggle to see self-publishing respected.
ALLi Campaigns Manager, Melissa Addey, Writes: One of ALLi's important campaigns is Open Up to Indie Authors, which seeks to encourage and aid literary events, festivals, prizes, reviewers, booksellers, government bodies, and other interested parties to find ways to include self-publishing authors in their programs, events, listings and reviews. A recent success story, for example, was the Jessie Kesson Fellowship (run by Moniach Mhor) opening up, thanks to three of our Ambassadors who raised the eligibility criteria with the organisers. It's a lovely residency and ALLi is delighted self-published authors are now eligible to apply.
While we spend time opening up awards, events, festivals, residencies and more, we have noticed a real problem among educators: teachers and third-level researchers and lecturers.
One might think, reasonably, that the topic was already covered, but no. From speaking to multiple MA students over the years, I know only too well that the self-publishing route is hardly ever covered and certainly not in any depth. One of ALLi's Ambassadors tried the same reaching out to a further three universities and again, was refused.
ALLi's publishing intern, Shanaya Wagh, is just completing a creative writing MA where agents and third-party publishers have been presented as the only routes to publishing.
My course didn’t mention self-publishing at all and instead encourages most students to seek out traditional magazines/publishers as a way to become a ‘published author’. We hadtrade-published authors as guest speakers who shared the common mindset of the publisher being the be all end all of their writing career. That was it.
Recently, I approached every university in London that offers Creative Writing at MA level and asked if they would like a one-off guest workshop on self-publishing. All refused.
How can Creative Writing students at Masters level not be at least informed that there is another route to publication? It is empowering and important to know all your options, whatever choice you eventually make. Being told that there is only one route to publication and that it will never make you money is not only depressing, it is also simply untrue: self-publishing is growing faster than ever and ALLi's independent research proved that self-published authors earn more.
We begin this series with a post drawing on the personal experiences of Professor Alison Baverstock from Kingston University's Publishing courses, who has spent a large portion of her professional academic life researching self-publishing, and who was actively warned against doing so.
She persisted and created a body of work on this topic, and has gone on to encourage and supervise new researchers to explore self-publishing, but she remains one of few academics to have conducted research and written on the topic.
Professor Baverstock's experiences are a credit to her own persistence, and her influential role within academia now means she is in a position to actively encourage new research into self-publishing, with her PhD student Holly Greenland currently producing fascinating data into the personalities of indie authors (apparently they are not agreeable… which is a good thing, make sure to read the research here!),
Certainly it seems as though academia still has a long way to go in recognising what is arguably the most interesting area of publishing. We strongly recommend that all MA students studying creative writing should be fully, rather than partially, educated about their publishing options. We also encourage more research and teaching about this burgeoning sector.
We'd like to help educators solve this imbalance. If you, or people you know, are interested in researching aspects of self-publishing, ALLi is open to sharing relevant contacts, facts and figures, perhaps sending important surveys (such as PhD students gathering raw data) to our subscribers and we are always keen to see new research as it emerges and share it with a wider audience.
Contact me Melissa Addey, ALLi's Campaigns Manager, at [email protected] with any questions or details relating to research in this field.
Alison Baverstock, Professor of Publishing with an Interest in Self-Publishing
My interest in self-publishing began when, as a young publisher, I was sent to the US on a business trip by my then employer, Macmillan. I was instructed to explore what the UK could learn from US direct marketing. I came back convinced of two things. Firstly, that the flow of expertise was not purely one-way; that there was lots of good publishing practice going on in the UK that could be usefully observed by any enterprising individual or organisation. Secondly, that there were more ways of publishing material than those that existed just through standard publishing houses. My copy of Dan Poynter’s seminal ‘The Self-publishing Manual’ dates from 1986, and I read it both as a perceptive analysis of the role of the author, and an inspiration to me as a future publisher.
On the Shifting Role of Author
A few years later I had side-stepped publishing and started researching and writing about the publishing industry as whole, thereby becoming author of set-books within the nascent field of Publishing Studies. I wrote books about how marketing works in publishing (e.g. Baverstock, 1990) and how authors can help market their own books (e.g. Baverstock, 2000). It was through the associated research that I became increasingly interested in the changing role of the author, from the traditional model of writer, ideologically and practically isolated from the dissemination of their work, to a person who was fully involved and increasingly relied upon by their publisher.
I observed how the information acquired through authors being involved in marketing generally inclined towards a reduced level of gratitude towards their publisher – and increased levels of self-empowerment, and speculated over how this might in the long run be harnessed into wanting to become their own publisher. I later reflected on these changes in my PhD by Publication (2010-11).
Academic Research on Empowering Authors
Back to the late-2000s. It seemed to me that the process of author empowerment was really taking off. In the US, Mark Coker had established Smashwords in 2008 and was offering a quick and guided way of sharing content through e-books. Amazon Publishing launched their platform the following year and I began to explore and reflect on how this worked in practice. Having jointly set up the Master’s in Publishing at Kingston University in 2006, I was well placed to experiment with the academic testing of my ideas, and offered a seminar within two faculty research series in which I proposed that self-publishing was of interest.
The Past View of Self-Publishing
I gave two seminars on my proposed area of research, one to the Business School, one within the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Neither were particularly well attended, but I conveyed my interest in this being an area worth further study. I was quickly disabused.
‘I’m going to give you a piece of advice. Stop talking about self-publishing. You are damaging your reputation. My wife has read ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and it’s rubbish.’
For me this conversation's a flashbulb memory. I can still remember where it was delivered, and by whom, and my thudding heart as I made my way back to my office. The context had been a wider discussion about the role of research within profession-orientated fields such as my own – Publishing Studies – and my recent work. I argued back, about self-publishing being the fastest growing trend within the industry then, and this alone meaning it was worth studying. But minds were made up. The very idea of self-publishing, as opposed to through scholarly peer-review, and an associated lengthy publication process, was anathema. It followed that any association with, or interest in, self-publishing was reputationally damaging for the institution as a whole, not just me.
The situation remained difficult. The very discipline of Publishing was not seen as a good fit within our faculty. Despite healthy recruitment and a rising reputation within the international publishing industry for our course, a very senior colleague’s predecessor had commented that ‘He did not know what we were doing there’. We were not considered a good fit within an academic faculty mainly focussed on the highly academic study of literature. I made repeated applications for promotion, justified by an increasingly long trajectory of research and associated peer-reviewed publications. I was repeatedly turned down.
The Path of Grit and Persistence
Dear Reader, I did not give up.
I had a commission from Bloomsbury, who had published my other books on publishing and writing, to write a book on self-publishing and I began to publish my findings in a series of academic papers.
‘The Naked Author: A guide to self-publishing’ (Bloomsbury, 2011) came out with a foreword by Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords. It was launched at the very same London Book Fair at which the foundation of the Alliance of Independent Authors was announced to the world. My book was based on research in 2010-11 through one-to-one qualitative interviews with self-publishing authors and other stakeholders
Shortly after that London Book Fair, I hosted a conference at Kingston University to establish the level of local interest in the subject (it was very well attended) and offered the subject for presentations at a series of literary festivals. Edinburgh responded positively, and I hosted the fastest-selling event I have ever been involved with (a day long course on how to preserve content that really matters to you, which sold out in 2012 within days of announcement). Cheltenham asked me to give a talk on the subject and Professor Lord Peter Hennessy, whom I had met in our shared hotel, came along to listen, inviting me to tea in the House of Lords in order to discuss some more. Hay, on the other hand, sent me my fastest ever rejection in response to a pitch for a similar idea.
My Head of School, Dr David Rogers, agreed for me to offer a related paper within an international conference on Journalism and Mass Communications. My paper on quality control within self-publishing was accepted for the associated publication (Baverstock, 2012) and serendipity again intervened. Another speaker at the same conference (Dr Mandy Oakham from RMIT in Melbourne) gave me a significant boost of encouragement; she thought what I was talking about was really interesting and made the obvious point that having presented a paper which was included in the conference proceedings, it was now published – so in the academic domain.
Serendipity intervened further in an alliance with Jackie Steinitz, a local friend with whom I had founded a book club. An economist and data analyst, she too was interested in the questionnaire I had established and sent to a wider body of those who had self-published. The sample consisted of three specific groups, customers of the bespoke self-publishing company Silverwood Books, members of South-East Authors (an offshoot of The Society of Authors) and members of the newly launched Alliance of Independent Authors. It included non-fiction and fiction authors and we thought the findings relevant to any audience interested in the impact of self-publishing on the stakeholders in the publishing pipeline. Together we worked through responses to a series of questionnaires asking those involved in the process of self-publishing about their experiences and ambitions. We wrote up our findings.
In the first paper (Baverstock and Steinitz, 2013a), Jackie and I also came up with a definition for self-publishing, which although rather buried in the text, now seems to me very significant: ‘Self-publishing implies the taking of personal responsibility for the management and production of your content…’ (very end of page 221). This is important. Self-publishers do not, as is widely assumed, have to manage the marketing and sale of their work. Whereas this is often assumed as the only reason for self-publishing; rather they are taking responsibility for ensuring that material of personal significance exists in future.
The Guardian was interested, and I was invited to write blogs for them as well as to offer a Guardian Masterclass, and my work began to be built upon by others. Invitations to talk at meetings also started to arrive. I made a few observations. Firstly, the common assumption that self-publishing is only undertaken by the desperate, dim or declining proved absolutely not to be the case; demographic analysis of our research populations consistently showed those involved to be busy, well educated, professionally involved and generally mid-life. They also seemed happier than those traditionally published. They had the benefit of being part of a committed community – attend a meeting of the self-published and you will find them generous towards each other and willing to help find services and advice to meet needs. It reminded me of my involvement in the Romantic Novelists Association (Baverstock, 2004), which because the very name tends to (entirely undeservedly in my opinion) raise a snigger, binds members closer together and encourages them to be delighted in each- others’ success. Happiness economists have long established that taking pleasure in the success of others is a route to contentment (e.g. Barker and Martin, 2011). Those self-publishing were also determining their own future; not stymied by waiting for editorial/institutional opinion to come back to them. Rather, they were able to get on with their writing ambitions, and creating content that mattered to them. This tended to be viewed as liberating.
The other discovery was that far from operating on their own, they were routinely buying in services that would make their publishing journey easier. And because they were willing to pay for a service they valued, rather than negotiate rates down to a point that the providers of services felt under-appreciated, it seemed to me this could have long-term consequences for the traditional publishing industry. I began to wonder whether freelance editors might find it more congenial to work for independent authors rather than their traditional masters, who due to Amazon were finding themselves economically pressurised and hence needing to trim costs at every point, including editorial services. If editors were finding themselves personally marginalised and financially unremunerated, what would be the consequences for the traditional industry? I could also see the impact of this trend from my temporary vantage point on the Board of Management of the Society of Authors (2012-15) where inadequate editing of books was one of the most common complaints from authors about the standard of servicing received from professional publishers.
I approached the Society for Editors and Proof-readers and asked if I could questionnaire their members. Again, a previously untapped seam of research appeared, with members of the society not only completing the questionnaire in great detail, but also sending emails to thank me for concentrating on them.
This time I had academic support from within my own institution – Professor Robert Blackburn who set up The Small Business Centre within the Kingston Business School was interested in what I was doing and offered to work together on both drafting the questionnaire and helping analyse the response. Two papers resulted (Baverstock, Blackburn and Iskandarova, 2015a and 2015b). I spoke at conferences organised by publishers eager to capitalise on interest in the subject, if not the practice itself, and was fascinated by the optimism and generosity of those who came along to listen.
Since then, interest has grown significantly. I have examined PhDs on the process of self- publishing and attracted students of my own who have built on my work. My current PhD student, Holly Greenland, is building on my work on personality of self-publishing authors and taking it in complex and new directions, including looking at the influence of personality, demographics and wider factors on author success. I am very proud of her.
Reflecting on the Journey
Looking back now, how do I reflect on all this?
The crucial importance of collaborators. The encouragement of David and Mandy, having Jackie and Robert to collaborate with, all fuelled my sense that this was work worth doing, and I am deeply appreciative. Jackie and I went on to form a very productive research partnership, working together on the factors that likely influence the development of those who later write, as well as the processes and impact of shared-reading.
Let time do its work. Reading back through our papers to prepare this article, I feel affirmed that what was so interesting to me as a young publisher has proven an area of significance for the industry and for academic research. The new and exciting developments now taking place in this space are no longer met with the derision I faced at the outset.
Things have moved a very long way. No longer the kiss of death for a writing career, now having had the gumption to self-publish marks authors with a badge of proactivity, which is immensely valuable in getting work noticed in this ever-busier world. I feel proud that we did keep going. Rather than resulting in organizational infamy, my work now stands for the ongoing value of curiosity. Which is surely what research should be?
Now, with the launch of the Big Indie Author Data Drop, commissioned and collated research from the Alliance of Independent Authors, it’s so exciting to see all this information coming together! The more we know about how indie publishing works, the more authors become empowered – and the choice of relevant reading material available to the public enlarged. Literacy and love of reading are powerful forces. More quality content, in more hands, being read more widely, are great goals for authors. I hope all this research gets the attention it deserves.
Rev’d Alison Baverstock is the Professor of Publishing at Kingston University, interim Director of Research, Business and Innovation (CCI) and Director of the Kingston University Big Read. Find out more about her on her Twitter and university profile or contact her here.
Her full range of publications relating to self-publishing may be found here: Professor Alison Baverstock – Academic profiles – Kingston University London
(1) Now the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading www.ciep.uk