Last week at an event in London, leading indie author Joanna Penn was asked to stand up in a room full of publishing professionals and address the question of whether her chosen vocation is an act of vanity. Would this happen in any profession except publishing? asks Director of the Alliance of Independent Authors, Orna Ross.
Before turning to this topic (which I'd thought I’d never write about again) I must explain the background.
I wrote about vanity and self-publishing, back in the early days of ALLi. So many years on, I thought this question had been answered, not by argument but by the obvious achievements of those in the self-publishing sector.
This post, therefore, was not planned. It was prompted by afterthoughts to an event here in London last week at which (personal interest alert!) my colleague and friend, Joanna Penn, spoke on the topic: The Author As Publisher: Opportunity or Vanity?
The event was organized by the networking forum for the publishing industry in London, Byte the Book, brainchild of the popular, gregarious publishing consultant, Justine Solomons. For the record, I like Justine and Byte the Book very much, am a happy member, and have spoken there a number of times.
And it was hosted and planned by Jon Watt, the equally likeable and well-regarded UK Country Manager of Type & Tell, a self-publishing platform, supported by Swedish publishing house, Bonnier, and a current ALLi Partner Member.
These people are supportive of self-publishing, and they work on behalf of indie authors, as well as with trade publishers and agents. Yet, they set up this topic in this way. And I, and a bunch of other indie authors, went along to the event at the Groucho without thinking too much about it. As self-publishers, we are used to having to explain ourselves.
What we do is new, and often readers and others outside the industry don't understand. Inside the industry, though? That's different, I believe. Or ought to be.
A belief that was strongly confirmed by this gathering of publishing people.
Self-publishing and Vanity Publishing
Byte the Book events are normally set up as a multi-viewpoint exploration, with three or more panelists discussing the given topic of the evening. This one was unusual: set up as a head-to-head. On one side, there was Joanna, representing the author as publisher, and so, presumably, opportunity and/or vanity?
On the other, a representative of trade publishing: another respected and popular publishing person, the literary agent Euan Thorneycroft, representing… well, it's hard to know what, exactly. Non-opportunity and modesty?
Euan is an agent at AM Heath, a literary agency that ALLi worked with, for a time, to help our professional members sell foreign rights. The arrangement didn’t work out, but again, his agency is not the sort that despises self-publishing.
So here we had three self-publishing-friendly folks asking an indie author to explain to a room full of people that her chosen field of work is not mere vanity.
Joanna Penn, Self-publishing Trailblazer
I get it, a little. Byte the Book billed it as a “controversial” event, knowing controversial events make for a better turnout. Jon too said, as he introduced his panel of two that he had deliberately aimed to be provocative.
The questions is: why?
Joanna Penn is, for the few who may not know, a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author (as JF Penn), well known to almost everybody in publishing and self-publishing. Since 2011, when she left her job to become a full-time (and shortly afterwards award-winning) author-entrepreneur, she has blazed trails and shattered glass ceilings of all hues and heights for authors.
Nobody has blogged and podcasted and lectured more widely and consistently about the opportunities that self-publishing presents to authors but she doesn’t just talk about it. She does it. Brilliantly.
By dint of talent and hard work, she has sold more than half-a-million books in 83 countries; her Creative Penn website gets hundreds of thousands of hits a day. On many writing and publishing topics; she’s the first person Mr Google will introduce you to, should you need advice.
And she is widely recognized in her genre. For example, she is currently a Finalist in the International Thriller Awards 2017, alongside such writers as Megan Abbott, Nick Petri, Robert Dugani and Joyce Carol Oates.
She is so respected, and in some corners revered, because she has been generous enough to share every step of her publishing journey, without holding back the sorts of creative experimentation and commercial information most people keep tucked away.
This, then, is the woman who was being asked to stand up in a room full of publishing professionals and address the question of whether, actually, all that's just vanity, if she doesn't have a trade-publisher behind her.
All Kinds of Author Publishers
Joanna agreed to do the Byte the Book talk, I know, because she wanted to see off this vanity idea, and she addressed the question in detail.
Explaining that authors worldwide are reaching readers directly, and making more money than ever before, in ever more creative ways, inventing new genres, craft approaches and artforms — and changing the entire nature of the books and publishing industries and ecosystem.
Explaining how if another kind of writer is self-publishing for creative reasons, not caring about chart position or sales, that’s not vanity, that’s a hobby.
Explaining that this is a completely separate market from authors who want to be successful indies, or trade-published.
When she said, “If authors can reach readers and put their books in the world themselves, as well as earn better money, doesn’t that make trade publishing more about status and kudos and validation? Isn't wanting a trade deal the vanity/status option?”, Byte the Book’s organizer, Justine, vehemently agreed.
Afterwards, a comment from an author during the Q&A spoke for many when she said: “I came here tonight looking to meet an agent or publisher, thinking I would never self-publish. This talk has completely changed my mind.”
For authors, seeing what a dedicated self-publisher can do is an inspiring experience.
So What's With the “Vanity” Thing?
Yes, I am a friend of Joanna's, and I like both John and Justine, and so I hesitated to write this post. But this “debate” made me increasingly uncomfortable, the more I thought about it, not because of any personal relationship but because of the mindset that underlies it.
Just imagine, for one moment, an award-winning, popular and prolific musician being asked whether his or her work is just vanity? A prize-winning actor or producer or director who puts as many bums on seats as Joanna has sold books? An entrepreneur in any other field?
And being asked this question, in this way, by their colleagues.
You can't. In any other creative industry, in any other field of work, it's unimaginable. But not in publishing. Not even among the most supportive and well-meaning.
What’s going on here?
And what effect is this having on authors — and the industry as a whole?
OVER TO YOU Please join the conversation via the comment box – we'd love to hear your take.Why was @thecreativepenn asked if her work was vanity #publishing? asks @OrnaRoss Click To Tweet