My ALLi author guest this episode is Orna Ross, director of the Alliance of Independent Authors. I'm having her on as a special guest to celebrate ALLi's tenth birthday. It was at the London Book Fair in 2012 that Orna announced the formation of a group to help, and advocate for, the growing number of indie authors who were demanding to be heard. And in the last decade, ALLi has grown far bigger than even she had imagined.
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About the Host
Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 35 years, and now amplifies the voices of independent author-publishers and works with authors as a developmental editor. Howard is also a freelance writer specializing in Jewish issues whose work appears regularly in Publishers Weekly, the Jewish Daily Forward, and Longreads. Find Howard at howardlovy.com, LinkedIn and Twitter.
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Read the Transcript: Inspirational Indie Author Interview. Orna Ross
Howard Lovy: I'm Howard Lovy, and you're listening to Inspirational Indie Authors. Every episode, I feature a member of the Alliance of independent Authors to find out what inspires them, and how they are an inspiration to other authors. My guest this episode is Orna Ross, director of the Alliance of Independent Authors.
I'm having her on as a special guest to celebrate ALLi's 10th birthday. It was at the London Book Fair in 2012, that Orna announced the formation of a group to help and advocate for the growing number of indie authors who were demanding to be heard. And in the last decade, ALLi has grown far bigger than even she had imagined, but I'll let Orna tell the story.
Orna Ross: Hi. Yes, I am Orna Ross. I'm a novelist and a poet, and I'm co-founder and co-director of ALLi, the Alliance of Independent Authors. It is our 10th birthday this year, so we're having a celebratory podcast here.
Howard Lovy: I asked Orna to take us back to the beginning, way back to 2012, and the beginning of indie publishing's modern era.
Orna Ross: Yeah. So, it was 2012 and the Kindle had launched a few years prior to that, but I think it was 2010/2011 when authors really began talking about it. And I had been working in publishing and writing for many years, and my friends who were still in the traditional side of publishing were finding that things were getting harder and harder.
And on the other side were all these friends who were super excited about new ways of doing things and new ways of reaching their readers, and so on. So, at first, I didn't think self-publishing would be right for me because I'm not very techie, not very, not at all techy, but I did very quickly kind of feel, look, if I want to know what all of this is about, I mean, when you see people excited and delighted about something, you want to know more about it, right?
So, I kind of dived in there and made a little poetry chapbook, and put it up on Amazon and Apple, as it was then, I think they were the only two. Oh, and Kobo Writing Life, which had just launched around the same time. And yeah, I put it up on those three places and I was really amazed when somebody actually bought it.
I had done poetry because I expected no one to buy it, and then they did. Not loads of people, but people who didn't know me already had actually gone and spent good money, and I thought, Ooh, this is interesting.
So, then I did a non-fiction book, a meditation and creativity kind of book. That one also sold, and in more numbers. And then I just realized, oh my goodness, this is big, this is bigger than I thought it was. So, I got my rights back from my publisher and I decided I wanted to be an indie author myself. So, I got stuck into that and loved it then, once I kind of got over the tech stuff, I really, really loved it.
And I looked around for an organization to join, and there wasn't one. And then all sorts of things were being said about self-publishing, particularly out in the media and publishing worlds, which I completely disagreed with. And yeah, between one thing and another I thought, oh gosh, we really do need to have an organization.
So, I started to talk to people like Joanna Penn, Jane Friedman, David Gaughran. These people were already working in the indie author space. Mark Coker, Mark Leslie, lots of people like that who were doing things and making things happen, and asked them, would they, if we did start such an organization, would they be willing to join us as advisors. Pretty much everybody was keen and supportive. If they weren't able to actually directly join, then they were giving advice to us in the background.
And so, we decided to go for it, and Phillip and I, my husband, he brought all the business and finance expertise, of which I have absolutely none, and he kind of said, I don't want to be out there in any way. I want to say in the background, kind of working on the base of it, and you go out there and kind of talk about it. So, that's how we managed it, and yeah, here we are 10 years later.
Howard Lovy: The one thing that really bothered Orna was a perception in mainstream publishing that to be self-published meant you produced a work of lower quality. Orna set out to change that old way of thinking.
Orna Ross: It was a very famous saying at that time by one publishing exec, who shall remain nameless, who said, we're all going to drown in a tsunami of crap. I thought that was completely seeing things from the wrong way round, it was very much looking at things through the conventional gatekeeper mentality. And I could see that publishing had broken those boundaries. When you look at things from a creative perspective, abundance is a good thing. An Oak tree throws out a lot of acorns in order to grow another Oak tree, and that's how it is with books, and any creative projects as well.
Us, as individual writers, we'll write a lot more bad stuff to get at the good stuff, and it's the same, I think, in the community. And if you look back at any period in history, in publishing history, and in art history, and in the history of the creative fields of any kind, when you get new technology and lots more people doing the thing, you get a lot more excellence. So, it was like that in the Italian Renaissance, and it is like that right now in the literary arts.
Howard Lovy: And that newfound freedom to produce more work, to experiment, to put her work out there was too good to pass up.
Orna Ross: For me, as an individual author, the opportunity to have the creative freedom to write and publish more was a big part of why I was interested in self-publishing. And then as director of ALLi, the ability of other authors to not waste time sending off pitches and proposals and getting refusals. So many authors were finding it so difficult.
I was rejected myself, 54 times on my first novel, and if I wasn't just such a stubborn person, that first novel would not have been published back in the day. Authors were turning themselves inside out sending off proposals, getting rejections, being knocked off. Then those authors who were published very often found themselves in creative differences with their publishers about how the books were being positioned in the marketplace, and so on. All of this seemed to be like a terrible waste of creative energy that could just be applied to writing and publishing the books, and putting them out there, building a readership, and growing an author business, which seemed to me to be a much more creative opportunity. So, it has proved, I think, for many, many authors.
I'm not saying it's right for every author. I'm not saying it's without its challenges, but I couldn't but see it as a wonderful thing back in 2012, and 10 years later in 2022, I consider it even more wonderful if that's possible.
Howard Lovy: From the beginning, Orna envisioned a worldwide network of indie authors. Although she never expected ALLi to grow as much as it did over the course of a decade.
Orna Ross: From the beginning I saw it as global. I knew it was going to be a global thing, it wasn't just going to be us here in the UK. And from the beginning we had more American members than any other country, which is natural because as well a big population, but also that's where self-publishing has been and continues to be most popular.
So, we always had more US members than European, and then the Australians came, the Canadians came, everybody kind of came, and that was wonderful to me that it was global, and I knew it would be. I did not expect it to be so big. I didn't realize that it would grow, and I mean big both in terms of the numbers of people that ALLi touches, you know, whether they are members, or followers, or blog subscribers. I also didn't fully appreciate all the different services that were necessary for an indie author to do their jobs. So, indie authors are writers and publishers, and they are two very different sets of skills, and we made a decision early in the day that we would focus on the publishing end, and by publishing I don't just mean book production.
Publishing is a seven-stage process, it includes editorial, and design, and production, and then distribution, and marketing, and promotion, and rights licensing. And a good indie author, a good author-publisher understands all of these, and knows how to manage all of these.
So, it's quite a complex endeavour. So, there was a lot to do in terms of, both at the educational level and just helping our members to get to grips with producing a book, then also about marketing and promoting it. And then all the other things, like our Watchdog Desk, which keeps an eye out on rogue services and services that are incompetent in whatever way.
There's what's going on in the industry, you and Dan do a fantastic job of keeping our members appraised with what's going on out there, what the latest trends are, what good companies are doing, and what's likely to affect us next, keeping an eye on big tech and what it's up to. And now we have this flowering creative economy, which authors are part of. There's a lot of direct selling going on between authors and readers, readers are getting used to buying books on author's own websites or through their social media, and the growth of AI and NFTs, and other tech, which again is exploding a whole new level of opportunities.
So, it's a very fast changing industry, and there is a lot to keep an eye on.
Howard Lovy: And as ALLi grows, it will continue to keep an eye on it all. And that not only means keeping members apprised of the latest developments in indie publishing, but to also have an influence on the developments themselves, to make sure that indie publishers are a part of the conversation.
Orna Ross: One of our big roles is education, and that encompasses our publications, our podcast, our blog, all of the ways in which we share the information with our authors about, here's how you do this thing, and here's some best practices. And there is no black and white way to do this, it's a personal journey, but there are certain tried and tested things that we've seen work for thousands of our members and so we want to share those with you. So, we think of that as the education desk, and it incorporates our books.
We run campaigns, various campaign. So, we're an advocacy organization for self-publishers within the media and publishing sector. So, we always have things going on at a campaign level. So, for example, just this week, our AI advisor, AI and enterprise advisor, Joanna Penn, we produced a reply to a consultation document here about AI in the UK with the government before.
But it might be talking to other author organizations about incorporating self-publishers into their programs, it might be dealing with prize giving committees, or all the different ways in which we believe a book should be judged as a book, and who published it is actually the least interesting thing about the book.
And so, until all books are treated in that way, by all literary organizations, we're going to be campaigning about it. And it is one of the things that I'm most disappointed about 10 years on, how many literary organizations, festivals, are not finding room for self-publishing authors in their programs. And we recognize it's challenging, but we also really believe that it has to happen, and every year that it doesn't happen it actually gets more and more disgraceful, because there are just amazing books being produced by indie authors, and they're not getting that general sort of recognition. Sometimes it seems as if publishing, you know, big publishing just goes on as if self-publishing doesn't exist.
And also, with self-publishing services too, if there's an unfairness or there's something that's not working very well, if a particular member has had a problem with a service and they can't get a good outcome, then we negotiate on their behalf with that service. Or we might put pressure on the actual service to improve what they're doing. So, we had that with Audible at the moment and last year, where we're trying to get a better outcome from the self-publishing services as well for indie authors.
Howard Lovy: Orna says ALLi does more than just report on technological changes that impact self-publishers, but are in touch with developers to make sure indie authors needs are part of the equation in the first place.
So, then who exactly is an indie author? In this podcast, I interview authors of all different ages and from all kinds of backgrounds.
Orna says that in general, they could be categorized as one-book authors. Then there are those who want to make a business out of being an author, they want to make a living from their work. Then there are the authorpreneurs, they are commercially driven and have sold at least 50,000 books in the last two years. But within those categories, there really is no single type of indie author.
Orna Ross: Within each of those categories then, every single author, I mean, I used to teach creative writing, and if you threw out a subject to a room of 25 kids, you would get 25 completely different stories. Well, it's the same in indie author land, people might be writing about the same topic, or they might be similar in that they're all one-book authors or they all want to make a living from writing, or whatever, but there the resemblance ends, and each story is completely individual.
And each author is doing it in their own way, and that to me is what being indie is all about, that you find there are so many ways to succeed now, and sometimes there is an assumption that to be a self-publishing author means being a bestseller on Amazon, for example, but that's just one way. We see authors succeeding in all sorts of unusual ways.
That was really brought home to us when the pandemic hit, and we realized how many indie authors were making a living from physical sales, because we had assumed, I think like many others, that the most successful authors were by definition working with eBook and digital audiobook. But actually, there were a sizable group, a minority, absolutely, but a sizeable group of people who had to completely change their business model when the pandemic hit, because the physical book sales just weren't possible anymore. So yeah, there's no one way to do this and that's the joy of it, and also what makes it so challenging in terms of, as an association.
Howard Lovy: As for Orna herself, she is happy to begin her day as a writer, but then transition to her day job as director of ALLi.
Orna Ross: Yeah. If people ask me, I always say, I'm a novelist, poet, and co-director of ALLi. That's kind of how I think about it and so, each day I write first, before I go to the day job. I think of ALLi as my day job, and I write around that like many of our members have day jobs.
I did, many moons ago, before ALLi came along, I actually had given myself a hiatus and I was going to write full time, and I've told this story before, but I never wrote less in my life than when I had all day to write. It just didn't happen for me. I need a day job to keep the writing in the right place and to keep it happening.
I work in 90-minute bursts, and when I know I only have 90 minutes to do it, and if I don't get it done it won't be done, then that gives me what I need to make it happen. So, I'm not unique in this. Mark Leslie, who many of our listeners will know, who works with Draft2Digital, was talking with me recently and he's exactly the same. He too thought he would, he was working at Kobo, and he left Kobo, and he thought he would more or less full-time write, and he very quickly jumped into his job at Draft2Digital because he needs that kind of structure.
And it helps you to keep writing in the right place, I think, which is that it's your precious thing. It's the thing you love to do, and it keeps the passion alive for me at some level. But when it became my work, something went out the door.
Howard Lovy: As for the next 10 years, Orna sees more opportunities for, not only indie authors, but for businesses that serve them. And she wants to ensure that ALLi will live on.
Orna Ross: So, I think the next 10 years for ALLi is very much about getting it up on its own feet, so that it doesn't need me and Phillip, in a way, that it becomes an organization that will go on after us. I wouldn't like to feel that it would be gone when we're gone. We're both in our early sixties now, so it's time to be thinking about it in those terms.
So, that's what the next 10 years will be about, I think. Just making sure, continuing to grow the organization, and always having an adaptable structure, which can keep changing as this field continues to change.
I think we will see, in the next 10 years for indie authors, generally, I think there'll be much more awareness of the licensing end of things, authors getting literary agents who'll help them in a very different way to the way they did before, and will become more like managing the author within the creative economy and all the different opportunities that there are for them, rather than the old way of a literary agent being somebody who just sold your book to a publisher.
I think there's going to be author careers, author businesses are going to be much more varied than that, and all the services around the author are going to be more diverse as a result.
And I think it's going to be a wonderful decade for authors, and poets, and anybody who can communicate. I think real, from the heart, truthful communication is valued more and more. The more words that are kind of slushing around that are meaningless and shallow and superficial and commercial, the more we need real authors and poets to put out words that are more meaningful, and I think we're going to see more and more of that in the next 10 years.
I think readers are looking for that sort of connection with the people that they like to read. So, I see all of that growing. I think it's going to be a good decade.