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. The title of my speech was: Why Every author Should Self-publish Once. Having experienced the conference and its follow-up, I now believe this more than ever. This is the speech (which was not recorded).
As we will hear from the other speakers today, winds of change are blowing through the publishing community and today I'd like to speak personally first, about where they are taking me as an author and poet and also draw on my experience and observations as Director of the Alliance of Independent Authors–ALLi, “ally” with an i.
I first self-published very much as an experiment. I was wary for all sorts of reasons. I had worked as a journalist and author for many years, as a literary agent (briefly) and ran a writing school. I had trade-published non-fiction with an indie press (Attic, a Dublin feminist press, now defunct) and fiction with a corporate publisher (Penguin). The former was a positive experience, the latter less so, and idea of creative control appealed.
But I am not drawn to technology, and not particularly entrepreneurial. As a former creative writing instructor and literary agent, I was hyper-aware of the quality issues around self-publishing.So I approached cautiously, in a spirit of exploration and experiment, with a handful of poems I would turn into a small chapbook.
What I found changed everything. I was soon asking my publisher for a reversion of rights and that move from Penguin to self-publishing was the best move of my writing life, giving me creative freedom and empowerment beyond my imaginings.
I saw how most of my concerns about self-publishing had been born of ignorance and unconscious bias. These were dissolved by the experience of doing the actual work. And years later, I am still awed by the opportunities digital publishing delivers to authors.
That's why I think every author should self-publish once, at least. 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.
Every Author Should Self-Publish Once: Three Kinds of Self-Publishing Author
The terms around contemporary authorship can be confusing. At ALLi, 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-Publishers
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 Indie Authors
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.
It's 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 here).
Those who stay the course begin to engage with, not resist, the work inherent in good publishing: working with suitable beta readers and editors, understanding where their books fit in the wider publishing ecosystem, learning what genres and format and categories fit their projects, discovering what they have to say, finding their voice.
This stage is also about finding the tools and techniques and platforms that allow them to publish their book(s) well, which means reaching readers and making sales. It takes the writer on the creative ride of their life and most need a good deal of help and support at this point.
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).
3. The Authorpreneurs
Authorpreneur is a mast-up word (author + entrepreneur). A new word for a new kind of job. Some think it faddy or forced but it is gaining traction in our community because it describes a different kind of author, one we barely knew existed before they emerged, in droves, with the onset of digital technology.
Authropreneurs apply entrepreneurial skills and mindset, and those digital tools, to making a sustainable and ongoing living as an author.
They know how to promote, market, sell and profit from their writing, not as a once-off, but through the dedicated application of one of ten possible business models.
Key to success as an authorpreneur is being able to adopt an independent, creative growth mindset.
The Indie Mindset
A creative mindset is the belief that with sincere creative intention, and enough creative attention, we can develop the abilities, skills, and resources we need to attain our goals.
As psychologist Carol S Dweck has described so well in her book Mindset, a fixed mindset makes you concerned with how you’ll be judged by others. A growth mindset sees you concerned with improving yourself.
That's another reason why every author should self-publish, at least once. It helps develop the mindset you need for success.
I'd like to take a moment to outline how it operates in practice. This is no optional extra, it is the one thing that all successful independent authors share.
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 mean we currently can't compete with trade publishing in print. But digital books— ebooks, audiobooks and POD (print on demand) books — reach a global audience, have relatively inexpensive production costs, and a point-of-purchase at the moment of discovery. This makes them ideal for selling directly from our own author websites, as well as through the large number of digital online stores available worldwide.
Selling well-written and well-published digital products in online bookstores, we can compete. The reader doesn't know, and doesn't care, who published the book. It's the author, or the subject-matter, that they care about.
Digital delivers a level playing field and where the field is level, indie authors are succeeding in great number, reaching the top of every sales chart.
We Don’t do “Frontlist” or “Backlist”.
Digital also does away with the notion of “out of print”. 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 a book whenever we want.
We Think Global Not Territorial
Titles that might have struggled to sell enough numbers at territory level become viable with a global readership. The big self-publishing platforms like Amazon KDP, Apple Books, Google Play, Kobo, Ingram Spark and Nook are all global platforms, and are all investing in expanding their global presence — as are distributors like Smashwords, Draft2Digital, PublishDrive and StreetLib. 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 a minimum outlay of time and money.
- We are 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 sharing 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.Writing and publishing are both creative skills, learned 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 trashcan in the making, the better the book.
And it’s the same with publishing (with everything, actually). The more we do it, the better we get. With the right mindset, the author who publishes a “bad” book today is on the way to a better one next time.
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 Six self-publishing services: Amazon, Apple iBooks, Kobo, Ingram Spark and Nook and aggregators.
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 their need to split print, e-book and audio rights. (See Indie Author Feedback on this here)
Challenges For Author-Publishers
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 Manuscript
A huge challenge in itself that often gets forgotten in publishing conversations
- Publishing A Good Book
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 in the publishing process where robust critique is essential. We need to ensure we set ourselves up to receive it from the right people, at the right point in the process.
- 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, recognized in prizes. 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 they are the least influential authors in our sector.
Every Author Should Self-Publish Once: Experience The Power Shift
Despite its undoubted challenges, I come back round to saying it again: every author should self-publish at least once.
Even if self-publishing is not for you, having experienced the seven stages of publishing for yourself, and tasted the creative freedom it brings, the prospect of a trade publishing deal, or an assisted self-publishing package, 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.