Self-published thriller writer Tim (TJ) Cooke reports on the Crimefest 2014, offering top tips on reaching and engaging readers from leading indie crime writers and encouraging observations on how a leading festival is embracing the indie author movement.
This year's Crimefest, held in Bristol, England, saw the first ever Indie panel, under the auspices of moderator Joanna Penn. The panel title was Emerging Indie Authors and it was generally agreed that these days becoming accepted as a new or emerging author doesn’t necessarily mean that you have journeyed along the traditional route.
Given that this was a new venture for Crimefest, I’m not sure any of us knew what to expect, but it was a hugely enjoyable and worthwhile experience. Any doubts about the number of folks who might attend, particularly as we were listed as the first panel on the Sunday morning, were soon dispersed. By the time we kicked off, The Marriot’s Lancaster room was well stocked with writers (self-published, contracted and hybrid) and readers of the genre, .
The Indie Author Panel
The authors on the panel were Mel Sherratt, Eva Hudson, Carol Westron and me.
In her opening, Joanna mentioned how indie writers, rather like our colleagues in the music, film and tv world, were now starting to gain recognition.
Discussion then followed about how the music business has embraced indie bands, and how, in similar terms, indie filmmakers are often praised for their artistic expression. I also mentioned the world of television, where from time to time I ply my writing trade, and where indie production companies are often seen to have a distinctly creative edge.
Mention was made that it’s only really in the last few years that self-published writers have had the opportunity to display their wares directly to the public, via the likes of Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing for ebooks and Create Space for paperbacks. There was a sense that self–publishing was no longer a dirty word, as it had largely lost the old vanity press connotations of the past and, fortunately, some of the scammers who hung around it.
The Self-Publishing Revolution
So what was this mini revolution all about? How had writers like Mel Sherratt achieved so many sales? How had books like Defending Elton garnered such positive reviews? Why was Eva Hudson receiving fan-mail asking for the return of one of her protagonists? And how had Carol Westron amassed such generous feedback from the indie community?
The answers to all these questions essentially boiled down to one thing – the writers had gone out of their way to ensure that their books mirrored the quality of traditionally published ones.
All the panellists agreed the following three steps were essential:
- Firstly, make sure that the draft you publish is as good as it can possibly be, by editing, re-editing and receiving third party input
- Secondly, seek out experienced professional line and copy editors and cover designers
- Thirdly, engage with the reading community and fellow writers, doing what you can to promote your book
The panelists then moved on to questions about their own work, and their influences. These included:
- “How did you come up with your main characters, and how much of you and your background is bound up in them?”
- “What are your own obsessions and how do they emerge in your books?”
- “How does your book fit into the crime market and what are the tangents/ lines it crosses?”
- “Does being an indie author give you independence over style, title, book cover etc?”
Some fascinating facts emerged:
- Mel Sherratt introduced the term Grit-Lit in explaining how her time as a housing officer in Stoke-on-Trent had shaped her characters and writing.
- Eva Hudson talked about the influences for her female protagonists, and why she chose them to drive her stories forward.
- Carol Westron reassured us all that no animals were harmed in the making of her book cover, and then hushed the room by revealing the fact that she had a ‘lost twin’!
- I mentioned my own past, about how my adoption as a child, or at least the unfortunate way in which it was handled, had influenced the ‘search for truth’ theme in my books. I didn’t have a neat label like Mel’s ready-made, but for some reason Crime Friction sprang to mind during the discussion.
Introducing Crime Friction
Such friction often arises when dark deeds are about to be uncovered. In Defending Elton, the frightening malleability of our criminal justice system is exposed via a rigged murder trial. In Kiss and Tell, the murder of a police officer points to a hidden agenda behind the reluctance of some to amend current drug legislation. Just who is profiting from our current drug laws is one of those grey and hitherto unexposed areas I like to prod and explore.
The indie panelists covered a wide range of crime fiction, but until as a group we are more widely accepted, the old chestnut question will inevitably be aired. Rather than wait for someone to raise it, Joanna posed it herself and tackled it head on:
“Doesn’t the fact that anyone can now publish mean there’s a lot of dross out there?”
The answer is of course “yes”, but Joanna pointed out that readers soon suss that out for themselves. With sample chapters largely available, and a network of respected and experienced crime fiction bloggers, it doesn’t take long to spot the real nuggets from the fool’s gold.
The Alliance of Independent Authors was mentioned more than once during the discussions, notably when it was agreed that a thriving indie community exists online, with many individuals and organisations keen to both help emerging Indie authors and promote quality indie fiction.
This year’s Crimefest gave Indie authors a voice at a major crime fiction convention, and judging by the reaction, I’d like to think that we didn’t let them down. When hardened festival devotees and traditionally-published authors tweet such things as “my highlight of Crimefest was the Indie panel” and “excellent panel, so much fun”, then you get a sense that all went well.
Indie authors who’d like to appear in festival line-ups, and see their work in bookstores and libraries, should check out the new ALLi book, Opening up to Indie Authors, which has great tips on how to present both your book and your writer portfolio in the most professional light.
Many traditionally published and indie writers happily exist side by side, and some even have a foot in both camps. Similarly millions of readers swop effortlessly from one to the other, and back again. It’s only really the industry that is a little slow to adapt to change. Perhaps it’s time for the literary Berlin wall to be properly demolished – with just a level playing field left. One thing’s for sure; Crimefest has now removed a massive stone, and ought to be applauded for it.
Let’s hope other conventions follow suit, and let’s also hope that the barriers which are still in place regarding membership of various literary organisations, acceptance of literary reviews and so on will soon disappear.
“The Rise of The Indies” isn’t a Terminator sub-plot. They don’t want to take over your world, just be part of it.
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