I’m grateful to ALLi for the opportunity to publish the full text of my Author Day speech about author unity here. When you release your words into the world unexpected things happen, and I know there have been some misquotes and misconceptions of what I mean by author unity. I believe we’re more than a revolution now—we’re a thriving sector of the publishing industry, and may one day be in the majority. I’d love to get some dialogue going about how we can reach out to traditionally published authors to build a publishing industry that gives us options and opportunities for partnerships *if we want them* and cements the creative freedom we’re enjoying right now.
I’m a self-published author of historical fiction. I didn’t go into self-publishing as a fallback position after trying to break into traditional publishing. I don’t have any stories to tell about bad agents or bad publishers or how my marketing wasn’t handled right. I happen to like agents and publishers. But I also didn’t go into self-publishing hoping it would be a stepping stone to a traditional publishing deal. I chose this career path because it was the business model that suited my personality best. I’m a self-starter, I have a strong vision for my writing, and I wanted not to have to worry about sales figures in the first few years. I’m still in the process of building my assets before I plunge into full-on marketing. It’s working great for me.
You might be forgiven for thinking I don’t have much in common with traditionally published authors. After all, I have all this independence, right? I’m not dependent for my living on a huge corporation, am I?
They Need Us, We Need Them More
Yes, of course I am. Ninety-nine percent of authors are. It doesn’t matter if we’re self-published or published by Penguin Random House. We’re one-person creative entities who depend on much larger entities to connect our books with readers. Those larger entities obey business imperatives that have nothing to do with our creativity, no matter how they package it. There are a lot of them, and some of them compete with each other. Just when we think we’ve got it sorted, one of them moves the goalposts. They respond to each other more than they respond to us. They need us, but we need them more, because however unique we think we are, from their standpoint we’re a never-ending, self-renewing supply.
And all authors have to deal with this entertainment-focused culture we live in. Reading isn’t the only choice. It’s a world of on-demand options in a growing number of formats on a changing set of platforms. We need to figure out how we can fit into that world. We all have the same issues with regard to readers: how to find them, how to connect with them, how to deal with negativity. We’re all interested in the craft of writing, or at least we should be. We’re all readers ourselves—or at least we should be.
There are a ton of issues that stem from what we have in common. I’m going to get to my own short list of what I think is most important in a moment. I was asked to speak about author unity, and the point I’m trying to make is that right now, despite all the factors that should unite us, we’re a divided profession. Almost a decade after self-publishing really took off, most of us sit in one of two camps, each with their own myths and prejudices about the other side. I’m going to give you two quick examples from my own experience of entrenched positions I find to be pretty illogical.
From a librarian: You’d be a great fit for one of our author panels, but one of our regular authors says she refuses to be on any panel that has a self-publisher on it.
From a writer: The Goldfinch is 300,000 words and took ten years to write. That’s 30,000 words a year. That’s a stunning 82 words a day. I feel less and less sympathy for “writers” like that.
More Divided Online?
We’re probably even more divided online than in real life, and the majority of us spend a lot of time online. Authors get very defensive about their choice of one side or the other. I’ve been watching it for years, and I think you have too. The same arguments come round in cycles. They’re fueled by provocative articles and blog posts and a constant influx of new authors with no historical perspective. They’re picked up by influencers who need content for their blogs or podcasts. Or their Twitter feeds—I’ve been guilty of spreading them around too. I think we pretty much all do it at one time or the other. The trouble is, some pretty high-profile experts—people many authors listen to—have been rehashing these arguments for years.
So when I say I’m calling for author unity, I’m not asking us to all join hands and pledge to live in eternal harmony. What I’m asking is for us to end this eternal debate about which side is best, and which side will win, and which side will still be around in ten years’ time. Personally I hope that both traditional and self-publishing will be thriving in ten years’ time, and I’m excited about all the smaller publishers and innovative startups that are made possible by digital publishing. Authors are diverse, and need diverse solutions. The prospect of a world dominated by one type of publishing doesn’t seem to me to be helpful to authors or readers.
So what should we be talking about? I think I’m going to hear about more issues than I can possibly think of today that affect authors. But here’s my wishlist of the issues that I believe authors should be discussing:
- How to stand up against unethical behavior, which includes pay-to-play arrangements of all kinds, predatory author service companies, and the gaming of platforms and review systems.
- Making sure all content creators are properly acknowledged.
- Ensuring authors and other content creators are fairly and promptly paid whenever someone else derives financial benefit from their content.
- Bringing copyright laws into the twenty-first century.
- Diversity and gender bias issues.
- More transparency, simplicity, consistency, and accessibility in reporting earnings to authors.
- Asserting the centrality of content creators to the publishing business.
- Finding ways to make it easier to track our assets.
- Providing better and more impartial ways to educate new authors about their career path options.
- Finding better ways to manage our legal and financial relationships with those large corporations I was talking about. This can include fairer terms in contracts, or pushing back against unfair clauses in terms of service agreements.
We can all help to refocus the debate toward issues that are truly useful to authors. I’m calling particularly on those of you who have some influence over what goes into the trade journals or how conferences are programmed.
I’m calling on influential authors and speakers, those with podcasts and widely-read blogs, whether you’re here or you’re out there on Twitter. Resist the temptation to make whatever comes out of AuthorDay about traditional publishing versus self-publishing. Figure out how you can be more impartial when you’re talking to new authors. Examine your own prejudices. Be *for* something rather than *against* something.
It’s always been tough to be an author, and it’s getting tougher. We need to be proactive about shaping the world we depend on, and we need to start now.