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Authors Are Authors: Let’s Close The Divides

Photo of Jane Steen at her computer

Historical novelist and indie author campaigner Jane Steen

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.

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27 Responses to Authors Are Authors: Let’s Close The Divides

  1. Kate Pearce December 18, 2015 at 9:30 am #

    I publish with NY, small press, digital first press and I self publish, which, I guess, makes me a hybrid author. I make a decision as to which ‘publication vehicle’ can do the best for each project, depending on the size of the readership and the potential income.
    I like having advances up front, copy editing etc etc paid for by a publisher and I also like self-publishing the things like science fiction romance that are hard to find as a reader and having that control
    In this new publishing world all a writer can do is attempt to remain savvy about the ever changing market and make choices that suit their career and their income needs. I’ve never seen a reason to pick a side as both have their good points and their bad points and everyone’s publishing journey is going to be unique to them.
    As it stands I still make two thirds of my income from traditional publishing and a third from self-publishing, but I prefer not to have all my eggs in one basket. 🙂

  2. Vicky Dreiling December 16, 2015 at 5:04 pm #

    The bottom line is this is a business, and each individual author must determine her own path. Over the course of a career, an author may change how she publishes, but…How an author publishes is not as important as the *product.* A great book is a great book, regardless of how it is published. These days many authors are publishing via trad and indie. If you are satisfied with your publishing choice, why would you care what someone else thinks? Repeat after me: This is a business – period.

    Vicky Dreiling who spent many years in corporate marketing.

  3. K. D. McAdams December 9, 2015 at 3:19 pm #

    Jane, thanks for sharing your speech I really enjoyed it. Like you and others, I chose the indie approach consciously as a business decision. For the last few years I’ve watched a lot of the online hyperbole with amusement, I don’t feel the need to support or defend my choice.

    After reading your excellent piece I do agree that having a healthy and educated author community is important for all of us, regardless of the business decisions we’ve made. Like our writing, each of our journey’s has been unique and sharing our experiences without judgement helps to educate others and give them data points on which to base their decisions.

  4. Raymond Cook December 8, 2015 at 12:15 am #

    Hello Jane:

    Thank you for the insightful article.

    As an indie author for 5 years with 22 eBooks written and hopefully 6 more to pen, I am faced with a issue I cannot at this point resolve.

    It is not within my financial ability being disabled to afford to have my books professionally edited for grammar. I am pretty okay typo wise. At the minimum I was quoted, at $11,500 for the 22 books, I will never see that amount of money to hand to someone else.

    This basically means my book manuscripts will never sit on a publisher/agents desk.

    Stephen King was rejected 75 times before his first book was accepted. I am sure those rejection letters ranged from 1 page generic form to a scalding 4 page letter. Bottom line, had I sent my first book manuscript to 75 publisher/agents and read those letters, I would have sat my pen down and not written again.

    Does it mean that I don’t want to make my books more readable, professional and enjoyable? Of course not.

    But I can only do my best with what I have between my two ears which is complicated by 2 traumatic brain injuries.

    So I give it 100% and try to learn from other authors styles of similar books, from organizations like this and from books on writing.

    Your discussion topics Jane are right on.

    Mainstream publishing I feel sees the Indie author as second best because they bypass the publisher gauntlet.

    At least from my viewpoint, why would an author want to offer me a nice contract and royalty, knowing I am unpublished? Unpublished authors are a huge financial investment risk.

    Sure one must start at the bottom of a ladder to reach the top.

    Bottom line being December, I wish all of you a wonderful writing journey and a nice Christmas too.

    Raymond

    • Jonathan Brazee December 8, 2015 at 2:56 am #

      Raymond,

      $11,500 is a pretty big chunk of change to come with with at one time to have your books edited. However, that is pretty steep. I personally have had some great editing jobs for $200-350 for books in the 75k range. Writer’s groups can do it for free (other than your time to read other writers’ works) and can have varying degrees of success.

      You should also think of it as an investment. A well-edited book has far more potential to make money than one that is not well edited. As a reader, I do read reviews, and a comment about poor editing will likely make me give the book a pass. And more than a few times, I have read comments to reviews thanking the reviewer for pointing out poor editing, writing that that made them decide not to purchase the book.

      I have a series of eight books (the eighth coming out right after Christmas). The books have sold well, but I have had reviewers and other writers tell me my covers are pretty poor. (I loved them, which goes to show that while I may be able to write something moderately interesting, I have no taste in covers). Come February or so, after the sales of Book 8 start to slide back down, I will have all new covers made. That will cost me around $4,800. While not $11,500, that is still a pretty nice chunk of change. The reason I will spend that is because after reading my reviews that mention the covers and after talking with other writers and publishing companies, I am fairly confident that they will pay for themselves by increased sales.

      • Raymond Cook December 8, 2015 at 4:28 am #

        Hi Johnathon:

        The high end editing manuscript service for all 22 of my eBooks was $33,000. Maybe that is the going rate or perhaps they thought I was desperate and naïve.

        Either way I passed up I think 4 manuscript service editing fee offers.

        I totally agree it is an INVESTMENT in what I write and want to reflect to the readers market.

        But the truth is even if I barely had those funds, I seriously doubt I could ever recoup the fees through sales.

        It is a tough situation for a writer to be in.

        Speaking of book covers, I go to Flickr.com where there are a million photographs to browse through.

        Many photographers gave their permission for me to use a photo as a book cover with a cover photo credit page in the eBook which I was happy to give.

        Others ask a fee as that is a way for them to make money just as my books are to me.

        Because I build my entire story around the cover, once I see a photo I know the story too. Then all that’s left is to get permission if I can.

        This way I hope to have the perfect story and a perfect book cover.

        So far it has served me well.

        I offer all my eBooks on Amazon and after some bad reviews for grammar re-edited them all and had a few others edited too.

        I am eons away from most authors here in ALLi and I understand that I have a long ways to go to be the best writer I can be.

        I will ever strive to improve within my ability as a writer.

        Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.

        Raymond

        • Jonathan Brazee December 8, 2015 at 5:07 am #

          The fact that you are striving is all I need to hear. We all so the best we can within our capabilities to put out a good product.

          Most of my covers reflect a specific scene in that book. I’ve always disliked generic covers. If it is scifi, there is a space ship or a good-looking protagonist holding an energy weapon. For a romance, it might be a ripped male torso. For a paranormal, a set of disembodied eyes. I know these covers can work, but I want something that reflects my storyline. Evidently, though, I chose the wrong artist and wrong style. As I wrote earlier, I love her work. But no one else does.

          I plan on giving all eight covers to some artists who are well-regarded for the genre and asking them what they can do. At $4-5,000, it might be an expensive experiment, but I have to try.

          • Raymond Cook December 9, 2015 at 2:19 am #

            There will always be regrets, if we had the chance to try and didn’t.

  5. Dan Holloway December 7, 2015 at 3:34 pm #

    Love every bit of this 🙂

    • Jane Steen December 8, 2015 at 9:59 pm #

      Thanks Dan! It’s nice to know I’ve struck a chord with some people. I hope there’s an Author Day next year, and that you’ll be there.

  6. Catriona Troth December 6, 2015 at 8:56 pm #

    Hi Jane. Great post. I’d like to put forward the recent book launch by four of my Triskele colleagues as an example of authors bridging the ‘divide’. The room was full of published writers, some of whom we knew long before Triskele was a twinkle in the founders’ eyes, and some we have come to know only in the last few years. Some were indie authors and ALLi members. Others were trade published, with big publishers and small. No one was making any distinction, and all were warmly supportive of one another. Prost!

    • Jane Steen December 7, 2015 at 9:16 am #

      Most authors are supportive of other authors in person, especially when you have relationships that go back a long way. Trouble is, you go online and complete strangers feel it’s OK to antagonize each other, often on the basis of misreading what they’ve actually said. Why is that?

  7. David Penny December 6, 2015 at 7:36 pm #

    Well said, Jane. When I was 24 I had an agent, a publisher, and… um, no money. 35 years later when I returned to writing I knew that wasn’t the model I wanted to take part in again, so I made a decision to go Indie. And I don’t regret it.

    Keep on saying what you do.

    • Jane Steen December 7, 2015 at 9:14 am #

      I truly believe that indie is the best model for a writer who values creative freedom and the ability to set their own financial and productivity goals. But I defend the right of people who choose trad to do so, and I’d like them to be able to earn more money. Indie doesn’t work for everyone. I applaud new publishers who are offering a 50/50 income split and fairer contract terms within the framework of a trad deal.

  8. Valerie Douglas December 6, 2015 at 4:11 pm #

    Jane, this post is great, and something all authors need to consider. Authors shouldn’t be in competition with each other we should support each other. I run a 8,000 member group on Facebook – the Indie Author Group – and I’ve said many of the same things you have. It’s wonderful to have someone else say them, too!
    I’ll be sharing this in that group.

    • Jane Steen December 7, 2015 at 8:57 am #

      Glad to hear there are other people calling for an end to the trad/indie divide. It doesn’t help anyone at all, does it? It’s important for authors to respect other authors, including showing respect for the business choices they make. ALLi has members ranging from the very commercial author to those who publish for love not money, and I hope self-publishing stays that way.

  9. Grace December 6, 2015 at 2:18 pm #

    Jane, I so appreciate your explanation of why you chose to self-publish: “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.” This sums my indie-publishing desires so well. Thanks for sharing the text of your speech, and for providing a bit of fuel to my fire this morning.

    • Jane Steen December 7, 2015 at 8:53 am #

      Thank you, and best of luck with your publishing!

  10. Jonathan Brazee December 6, 2015 at 1:07 pm #

    “Author unity” is a nice catch-phrase, but frankly, it doesn’t mean much to me. As a reader, I don’t care if a book is self-published or traditionally published, and a writer, I don’t care how others publish, either. I have friends who are self-published and others who are trad published, and I don’t differentiate between them on that basis.

    The comment on unethical behavior, well, I can get behind that. And I do think there is a need for professional organization that can protect an writer from unfair corporate policies. The SFWA provides this service, for example, and it has helped many writers.

    However, most of the rest are not issues with me. Acknowledgment? Timely pay? Tracking? I’ve got no problems with the way things are done now. Gender bias? I may be blind, but I don’t see it. The majority of the higher earners among my friends are women, for example.

    I am willing to help any writer, be they indie, trad published, short or long format, fiction or non-fiction, or whatever. I focus on the person him or herself and the work. Nothing more.

    • Grace December 6, 2015 at 2:14 pm #

      Her comments are aimed at the industry in general, and while you may personally not have these issues/experiences, they do exist and can be detrimental to those of us trying to enter the industry. Romance is one category where women outearn/number men in publishing, but when it comes to literary fiction the gender bias is enormous. A scroll through the comment section of a few sci-fi or thriller threads will provide some insight into additional biases in those genres. As for the diversity issue, there’s not enough space here to adequately talk about that.

      You’re right, though, as far as I can tell, traditionally many readers haven’t cared about who published the book they’re reading. Until the glut of poorly edited and formatted books had readers checking info and realizing that some of the books with the most egregious errors were self-published. Now there’s an uphill battle some of us have to fight with readers. That said, organizations such as ALLi are helping to educate new writers, and I think we’ll see a change in the landscape.

      • Jane Steen December 7, 2015 at 9:11 am #

        Grace, I appreciate your support. I’ve seen many authors write about gender or race bias that affects them personally–in all directions! Ignoring them is unhealthy, and going on an outrage rampage that lasts two hours on Facebook is equally unhealthy. We need to learn how to talk about these issues online and how to examine the biased scripts that play in our own heads due to our cultural and family background. And we definitely need to make the book world a space where we can learn through our imaginations what other lives are like.

      • Jonathan Brazee December 7, 2015 at 1:47 pm #

        Historically, there have been issues with gender inequality and diversity. I write scifi, and this was especially true in this genre. Even recently, there was a huge brouhaha with the voting for the Hugos which blew up in the, shall we say, more bigoted camp’s faces?

        But in the indie field, is there really a bias? People write and they publish. That’s about it. I know men who write as women, women who write as men, and one of my internet colleagues is transgendered and how writes books about young people coming to that realization about themselves. Where is the bias?

        Readers either like the books or not. There are no gatekeepers blocking anyone based on gender, race, nationality, religion, sexual persuasion, whatever.

        This is one of the great things about being an indie. There are no gatekeepers. You live or die by your work, not on whether some agent or publisher fishes you out of the slush pile.

        • Raymond Cook December 8, 2015 at 12:19 am #

          “Readers either like the books or not. There are no gatekeepers blocking anyone based on gender, race, nationality, religion, sexual persuasion, whatever. ”

          Well said.

    • Jane Steen December 7, 2015 at 8:51 am #

      The biggest hurdle I anticipated when writing that speech was indie author complacency, so I’m glad you raised it! Our individualistic approach to business makes it hard for us to imagine having to group together as indies, let alone reach out to trad authors.

      Trouble is that it was complacency that landed trad authors in the mess they’re in now. As Kamila Shamsie said in her Author Day speech (and I wish the other three keynotes could be posted as they were all awesome), back in the 1990s things were still looking great for trad authors. They were happy to give away rights for the nurturing the big publishers gave them, including advances they could live on. Now advances are tiny and a large chunk of the books written in the 90s are trapped in a backlist somewhere, never to be seen again.

      So I’m looking 10-20 years ahead to the time when (and I don’t say if) the same thing starts happening to indies. Actually, it’s already happening (audiobook pricing on ACX, arbitration clauses in vendor TOS agreements are two examples). I even wonder if the 60-day delay in payments is truly justifiable. If authors got together and decided what they want the gold standard to be and then began holding publishers, vendors, startups, suppliers and every other sort of corporation that depends on their content to that standard, we’ll be able to keep our independence and thrive financially. If we don’t, we’re likely to be constantly trapped into arrangements that aren’t in our long-term interest.

      As for diversity and gender bias issues, “I don’t see it” unfortunately proves the point of the panelists I listened to at Author Day. I personally don’t see many of the issues too, but I believe a healthy book industry should reflect society at large, so I’m willing to take a closer look at them.

      • Raymond Cook December 8, 2015 at 12:20 am #

        “If authors got together and decided what they want the gold standard to be and then began holding publishers, vendors, startups, suppliers and every other sort of corporation that depends on their content to that standard, we’ll be able to keep our independence and thrive financially. If we don’t, we’re likely to be constantly trapped into arrangements that aren’t in our long-term interest.”

        Well said.

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