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Ain’t I An Author? Why Self-publishing Changes Everything For Everyone In Publishing

Ain’t I an Author? Why Self-publishing Changes Everything for Everyone in Publishing

Self-publishing is much more than an alternative route to market for authors, says Orna Ross, director of the Alliance of Independent Authors in her opinion post this month.  Drawing on two new reports about conditions for authors she explores myths and misunderstandings about authorship that are relics from an age that’s now over. And explains how self-publishing changes everything for everyone in publishing. 

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Orna Ross, novelist, poet and Director of ALLi

“Ain’t I a Woman?” a speech delivered by well-known freed slave and anti-slavery campaigner Sojourner Truth at a women’s convention in 1851, has had iconic status for almost two centuries for its recognition of how African-American women were politically overlooked in 19th-century civil rights movements.

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?

I felt a bit like that on reading a recent report by the USA’s Authors Guild (USAG) which opens with the Guild’s president Douglas Preston, saying.“In former days, a writer of talent, energy and ideas was fairly sure of making at least a small living; today those writers can’t make a living at all.” Sitting here, surrounded as we are in ALLi with so many writers who are making a living, and some who are making a killing, the self-publishing author reading this report could so easily say:

That report over there says that authors need to be helped with public funding, and investment from foundations and philanthropists, to ensure important works continue to be produced. Nobody ever helps me with public funding or private investment, or thinks my work is important! And ain’t I an author?”

The report, “The Profession of Author in the 21st Century,” commissioned from the University of Colorado’s Christine Larson and issued on 19th Feb 2020, draws from the largest survey to date of USA authors, supplemented by data from other countries and sources, including interviews with authors, publishers and industry experts. It comes to some stark conclusions: bookstores are closing, grants for “real” books are declining, the gap between rich and poor authors is increasing, and the need to market books means there’s no time left for authors to write and nobody’s reading anyway.

Many of the interviewees share similar stories of shrinking advances and disappearing royalties and loyalty from their publishers. The report cites evidence that writing incomes have dropped by 24% for the interviewed authors since 2013.

Half of these full-time authors earn less from their writings than the US federal poverty level of $12,488. Literary authors are the hardest hit, experiencing a 46-percent drop in their book-related income in just five years. And 80 percent of all authors earn less than what most people would consider a living wage.

The Guild’s report and conclusions were made even more interesting for being released almost at the same time as a study of publishing contracts from the archive of the Australian Society of Authors called Are Contracts Enough? This report by Rebecca Giblin identified serious deficiencies in publishing agreements and contracts, concluding that they tend to be “inconsistent or otherwise poorly drafted, [with] key terms … commonly missing altogether” and demonstrated that “critical terms evolved very slowly in response to changed industry realities”.

It’s that question of changed economic realities in how books are bought and sold, written and read, that I’d like to explore here. “I feel I’m at the end of a tradition, the last of my kind,” one of the interviewed writers in the USAG report says.

And indeed she is.

But we must be careful, here, of generalizing from the particular.

How Self-publishing has Changed Everything: Definitions of Authorship

As writers, we are part of a long, documented tradition that allows us to look back and see previous revolutions in what it means to be an author. When we do, se that each was driven by new economic realities birthing new concepts.

For millennia, so far as we know–from the wandering bards to the dawn of the Romantic era–we primarily thought of the author as a maker. Today, we call Shakespeare a genius but in his own time, he was a craftsman. An artisan, not an artist. In the Elizabethan world, wheelwrights made wheels, shipwrights made ships, and playwrights made plays. And poets made poems. (the word comes from the Greek poētēs, variant of poiētēs meaning “maker”).

Authors served apprenticeships, just like other craftsmen, and Shakespeare, like other masters, would have been respected but not revered as a “man of genius”. All that came later. Neither did he depend for his income on the market, the theatre-going, poem purchasing public. Writers back then were funded by wealthy patrons, whom they had to flatter with dedications and accolades.

The Romantic movement, born of an increase in literacy, cheaper books and new publishing forms and formats including the novel, brought an understanding of the author as artist. The cult of the bohemian artist grew through the 18th and 19th centuries and lasted into the 20th century, reaching its high point with Hemingway, Joyce, et al in 1920s Paris, surviving on debts, loans and the goodwill of publishers and patrons.

The 20th century again saw a change in economic realities, driven by the same conditions of cheaper publications and new literary forms (enter the short story and the paperback and the author as professional. Aspiring writers no longer went go to Paris to starve in a garret and drink cheap wine while cranking out Ulysses. They went to university, took English literature, and hoped to write full-time or, if they had to, teach.

This is the era those responding to the Authors Guild survey grew up in (the average age of respondents was 57). It’s there in the title of the report: The Profession of Author and it’s there in every line of its expectations. This was an era in which writing and teaching skills were largely hired by media and publishing companies and educational institutions. Writer were paid for through royalty income and work-for-hire. It was also the era that introduced the idea of secure pensionable employment and health and retirement rights for all. Some writers, like some other workers, benefitted from those hard-won benefits.

Progress for the professional-author, as for other professionals, was through the CV: accumulating credentials that included publishing books, yes, but also grants and fellowships at the beginning, and prizes, honors and titles as your career progressed

And now? Now, as the Guild’s report demonstrates but fails to analyse–indeed, barely acknowledges–we’ve moved into the age of the author as entrepreneur.

How Self-publishing has Changed Everything: From Profession to Business

All of the previous conceptions of the author are still with us today but how authors earn is once again changing, once again driven by the economic realities of cheaper books, a rise in literacy (including computer literacy), new publishing forms and formats.

The USAG report laments that there are “fewer ways for writers to earn money to complement their book income… [so that] reliable income and time—the metaphorical room for writing—are increasingly out of reach for many authors”. Today’s entrepreneurial authors take a very different approach. Their virtual room of their own is not metaphorical but digital.

Indie authors are not professionals, writing and publishing for another business, supplementing their low pay with freelance writing or “non-writing” activities. They are shaping their words, and their economic activity around their words, into creative assets that generate income and foster independence.

Blending direct book sales to readers with selective rights licensing, speaking, affiliate income, teaching and other options into one of ten possible business models, they create assets that build over a lifetime’s work. Assets which they direct and own.

Valuing publication over validation, thinking globally and not territorially, collaborating rather than competing, and proudly carrying self-respect into all our ventures, negotiations and collaborations, indie authors create assets. 

The USAG report understandably distinguishes between what it calls “book-related income”—book advances, royalties, subsidiary rights, etc.—and income which is “writing-related” or “author-related” (they use these terms interchangeably) but this misses out on one of the key developments of the digital era.

In the old model, the highest achievement is when an author earns full-time income from royalties alone. In the new model, the authorpreneur puts out content in a variety of forms (audio and video as well as text) and formats (social media and blog posts, chapbooks and other micro-publications, training, speaking and teaching and all kinds of other products and projects, as well ebook and audiobook and print).  All align with the passion and sense of mission that made them write their book in the first place, and all are part of their continuous growth.

Why Self-publishing has Changed Everything: How Books Are Marketed and Sold

More than 90% of authors reported spending time marketing their books—whether they were traditionally or self-published. On average, authors spent 25% of their working time on marketing, or an average of 7.5 hours—one full workday—per week promoting their books. That was up nearly an hour from 6.6 hours in 2013. Perhaps not surprisingly, self-published authors spent nearly twice as much time promoting their books as did traditionally published authors.

The Guild report assumes this to be a bad thing but the entrepreneurial author doesn’t think about their marketing and their writing as oppositional. They know social media marketing, content marketing, digital advertising, promotional drives are all forms of writing. They respect and welcome these conversations with their readers.

They know it calls on them to get very clear on what their books are about, and how lucky they are to be able to direct and position their books just as they want. They are proud to be the face of their own creations, and know digital affords them a multitude of ways of doing this. Yes, it takes time to become a good publisher of your own books but they are determined and hardworking. They experiment and explore until they find their own unique way.

How Self-publishing has Changed Everything: How Books Are Found and Sold

Selling well-written and well-published digital products in online bookstores, the self-publishing author can compete. Book bloggers point up great books in every niche. Few of them, and few readers, distinguish between self-published and trade-published books. For them, the author as writer, or the subject-matter, is what they care about. They don’t know, or care, who published it, so long as their idea of a good book.

Indeed, few outside of the industry think about the means of publication much, and many read self-published books all the time without knowing that’s what they are.

In addition to bloggers, online search algorithms are very effective, and getting better. The reader has a book description, other reader reviews, and a sample to read. And book searches through categories and keywords are probably more effective discovery tools than (though admittedly less pleasant) the old method of bookstore browsing.

How do we know all this to be true? Because so many indie authors are succeeding so well, reaching the top of sales charts, and satisfying their own creative ambitions and visions.

Between 2011 and 2013, the non-traditional share of the US book market expanded rapidly from near 0% to almost 30% of the book units sold, even as the overall size of the e-book market itself was growing rapidly. In 2016, almost 300 million self-published units generated 1.25 billion in sales, in the US alone.

In the words of veteran publishing commentator Mike Shatzkin

real consumers spend real money to buy and read untold pages of books written and uploaded into the cultural bloodstream with no judgement, mediation, review, or pitching by the traditional keepers of the gate.

The fact that over half of all trade e-books sales units could now be published by indie authors within five years of their first appearing in sales tracking, and that 22% of all trade units in the same timeframe were sold by self-publishers, is “staggering”, Shatzkin says.

It belies the doomsayers.

Why Self-publishing has Changed Everything: Author Confidence

Many of us are still embedded in one or more previous attitudes to authorship without realizing it, attitudes that leave little room for the authorpreneur, which is now becoming the prevailing model.

Of course, it’s fine for authors to self-define any way we want, but these attitudes can be held unconsciously. The danger for authors–and author associations–is that we are self-sabotaging, diluting our own empowerment.

By any objective measure, this era of the author as entrepreneur isn’t about all authors losing out, any more than any previous era. On the contrary, it is more empowering for far more authors–if we embrace our own empowerment

Behind the USAG report lies the specter of Amazon which, according to Codex Group, in the US now accounts for over 35% of all unit sales of books, some 77% of online sales of new print or e-books, and 80% of e-books overall.

Amazon publishes its own books that compete with products it retails for other publishers; Amazon controls what may be the most effective publicity platforms in book publishing, including its newsletters and Amazon’s book review platform, Goodreads; and it advances new models (Kindle Unlimited and Prime First Read) which make books cheaper or free.

“Alarmingly little stands in the way of the company controlling the entire book industry—which is tiny, with overall revenues of $26 billion, compared to Amazon’s overall worth, currently valued at $1 trillion.

Actually what stands between this doomsday scenario is not “alarmingly little”, it is authors and our ability to become good publishers of their own work. Which includes that marketing and promotion work. And includes not putting all our publishing eggs in one basket. See ALLi’s SelfPublishing 3.0 campaign for more on that.

More authors are succeeding today than ever before. By understanding the valueof  our intellectual property, by engaging our ability to create digital assets, by moving beyond old concepts of authorship, by respecting how books readers buy books, and book-related products today, more authors can succeed tomorrow.

The foreseeable future belongs to the author-entrepreneur but the artist-authors, maker-authors and professional-authors can all integrate a creative and entrepreneurial approach to their activities. When we do we grow opportunities not just for ourselves, but for all authors.

Ain’t that the truth?

Orna Ross

Orna Ross is an Irish novelist and poet and Director of the Alliance of Independent Authors.

This Post Has 2 Comments
  1. I think it might be time to change the defininition of “professional”. I’ve worked as a professional creative (artist) in other fields – graphic design, and bring the same attitude to my writing business. Besides making sure a project ultimately pleases me first, I am customer oriented. Education aside, what makes a true professional is someone who always treats others respect, behaves like an adult in all public forums, is responsive to the needs of their consumers, sets both short and long term goals, and does their best to always create a quality product. I do not think it is right that the world in general believes artists of any kind are obligated to give their work away or price it cheaply in order to make a place for themselves in what is clearly considered a commodities market. But the only way creatives will ever be taken seriously is by standing up for themselves. Start thinking of your consumers as your employers. Those who work for “tradional” employers would never show up for a job if you’re not receiving a paycheck. It’s been shown over and over again, if someone wants something badly enough they will eventually pay for it. For those whose economic situation discourages them from buying books very frequently, encourage them to engage with a library instead of expecting you to give your hard work away. Though the entire world is now running at the hare’s pace, it’s still the tortoise who wins the success race in the end. So be patient. If you are truly independent, you can leave all your works available for as long as you please. Someone will discover them eventually.

  2. Thank you, Orna, for so clearly articulating an evolution of the market that I had not properly recognised. Although I was aware of all the elements, I was confused by them rather than being able to see them in a coherent way. I’ve certainly been one of those authors still mentally living in the era of the professional, and therefore unable to move successfully into that of the entrepreneur. This was the most useful article about the publishing industry that I’ve read in a long time. Cheers!

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