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Ten Years Of Self-Publishing: A Personal Look Back And Forward. Advanced Self-Publishing Podcast With Orna Ross And Joanna Penn

Ten Years of Self-Publishing: A Personal Look Back and Forward. Advanced Self-Publishing Podcast With Orna Ross and Joanna Penn

On the Advanced Self-Publishing Podcast: Ten years of self-publishing. As part of its anniversary celebrations, ALLi has been looking back at the past decade —and forward towards the next. In this podcast episode, Orna Ross and Joanna Penn offer a personal perspective on how the unfolding trends of the past ten years affected their own writing and publishing and their hopes and intentions for the next ten years.

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Show Notes

About the Hosts

Joanna Penn writes nonfiction for authors and is an award-nominated, New York Times and USA Today bestselling thriller author as J.F.Penn. She’s also an award-winning podcaster, creative entrepreneur, and international professional speaker.

Orna Ross launched the Alliance of Independent Authors at the London Book Fair in 2012. Her work for ALLi has seen her named as one of The Bookseller’s “100 top people in publishing”. She also publishes poetry, fiction and nonfiction, and is greatly excited by the democratising, empowering potential of author-publishing. For more information about Orna, visit her website: http://www.ornaross.com

Read the Transcripts: Ten Years of Self-Publishing

Joanna Penn: Hello everyone. I am Joanna Penn, and I'm here with Orna Ross for the Alliance of Independent Authors' Advanced Self-Publishing Salon. Hi, Orna.

Orna Ross: Hi Joanna, and hello everyone.

Joanna Penn: Hello. Today, our topic is 10 years of self-publishing, a personal look back and look forward.

What’s been happening at ALLi this month?

We're also going to talk a bit about London Book Fair, which we both attended, like two weeks ago now, it seems like forever, but we will be talking about that. But first up, we're going to just give you a bit of an update. So, Orna, what's been going on with ALLi?

Orna Ross: Yeah, ALLi. Well, it is the famous 10 years, we're in that mode all of this month, and that's why we were at the London Book Fair; celebrating and catching up with everybody. Then we came back home and brought it all online for people to see, because of course, most of our members are not in London, or traveling to London for the London Book Fair, but there were some good sessions there, including the one we did with you.

Yeah, so we just finished Mini-SelfPubCon this weekend where we, kind of, brought it all together to the wider community. So yeah, we're all celebrated out. What about you? What are you up to?

Joanna Penn: Oh, well, I thought you also have updated the publishing guides, right? I noticed that.

Orna Ross: Yes. Yes, we have, well spotted. We're going through all of our guides at the moment, just bringing them up to speed for 2022. So, we're ticking them off as we go, because every couple of years things change, things change hugely, as we notice with this look back over 10 years. So, we've been reissuing. Most of them are just smallish updates, but some are getting a complete new vamp.

So, John is currently working on the next one, which will be, Choosing the Best Self-Publishing Service for you, wherever you're at. And I think that one has changed quite a bit because we've just got more, and more, and more services. I think in the old days, when we thought about a self-publishing service, we were thinking about big multi-packaged services. Now, we're thinking about the seven stages, and the different ones that are coming in and going, and so on. So yeah, lots of updating going on. Always busy.

Joanna Penn: Yeah. Well, I just wanted to bring that up because I was like, oh, I'll just check that one out, and realized that the version I had was about five years old. So, I think for people listening and watching, if you have one of the ALLi guides, you can go into the members area and get the latest version, and of course, they're on some of the stores as well.

But that also ties into my update, because I finished the re-writes of my first three novels. I'm just doing the print stuff for Ark of Blood, which is the third one, and we talked about doing that last month. So, it's been like a three-month process, and lots of people have emailed me and said they were being really relieved to hear that I was doing that, because so often the advice is never go back, and it does obviously depend on the situation.

So, now I'm working on, How to Write a Novel, and my imposter syndrome rears its ugly head all the time, but I've actually had this draft since 2016. That's how long I've been sitting on it. So, it just shows you that, but now I do feel like these re-writes have helped me see that I can write a book on fiction craft.

Orna Ross: Come on. How many novels have you done now, crazy girl?

Joanna Penn: I've done a lot, but you know, we all have our issues around imposter syndrome. But also, I'm planning a Kickstarter for How to Write a Novel, which will be for a special print edition. And again, I wanted to point this out to people because so often, this is the advanced salon, but you and I share what we're learning, and I'm learning about Kickstarter. So, of course, you did crowdfunding seven years ago, something like that. And again, things have changed. So, we'll be sharing that later on in the year, lessons learned from that.

So, what are you up to you as Orna Ross?

Orna Ross: Well, Orna Ross didn't get much of a look in over the last month to be perfectly honest, but I am so happy to be back, just in the writing studio, in the making corner. I really loved all the out and about, and meeting up with people, especially post COVID and everything, it was fantastic. London Book Fair, I really, really enjoyed it. But, yeah, back now with head down on my fiction, which feels-

It's a slow wind in, always, fiction for me, but it's head down on that for the next couple of months now, until we get a couple of novels under the belt.

Joanna Penn: That's good. Yeah, we often have to change our heads.

Reflecting on the London Book Fair

Joanna Penn:  Okay. So, you mentioned the London Book Fair. So, we're just going to give a quick reflection on the book fair.

My first point was, do we belong or don't we? Because before the fair I had been thinking a lot that we don't have anything, like of course we do books, we have a product in common, but do we have anything in common anymore with traditional publishing, with traditionally published authors who are focused on traditional publishing, the topics that were being covered?

I was like, there's nothing at the fair for us anymore. And I was like, but I'm going because it's the 10th ALLi anniversary, blah, blah, blah.

But I walked in, and it was so funny. I walked into Olympia, and if you haven't been, people watching and listening, if you haven't been to a book fair before, it's a really massive trade fair centre, it's huge. And I walked in, and I was like, oh yes, I remember, I do love this, because there are book covers everywhere, and authors, and people talking about books, and you just wander around. You're like, oh, these are book people, these are people like us. And so, it made me feel like I do belong. Even though we all represent different parts of the industry, there are loads of people there who also, kind of, don't belong. There's just so many different parts of the fair, and you can always find some interesting corner, with some random company doing random things. So yes, I felt like, yes, we do belong and also, we are more empowered. So, you and I did a session on the creator economy, and we were reported on by Publisher's Weekly in a pretty respectful manner, I thought. Whereas, 10 years ago they treated us pretty much like a curiosity, you know, those random people in the corner.

So yes, I feel like we do belong. So, what do you think?

Orna Ross: I think so. I mean, that's why we launched after the London Book Fair 10 years ago, when nobody else thought we belonged, because we just wanted to say, yes, we do, we are. Authors are central to the industry, and London Book Fair actually uses that tagline. I don't think authors necessarily feel central when they're there; Authors HQ is up in the back, kind of, west wing, as I said, behind the remainders and the children’s. So, it doesn't exactly make you feel like you're central, but I think we are. And I think, just 10 years ago, there was no such thing as Author HQ at any book fair. So, it is changing, and I think it's really important. If we're not there, it's another way for us to be overlooked. So, I think it's really important to claim that space, and it's a great way-

Of course, there's lots there that isn't relevant to us, but the whole industry comes together, and why would we miss out on that when it is in our own home territory?

So, yeah, we've done a guide to how to cope with a book fair, which is on the Self-Publishing Advice Centre, and I'll include the link to that in the show notes. I do think it's very important to plan a fair, if you're going to have a good outcome. This year, I didn't plan, I did nothing in terms of business. My only intention was to go enjoy the celebration, and network, and just meet up with everybody and have fun, but that is not the usual approach and that is not the recommended approach.

You had a good fair, I think? Business-wise, you had a good fair?

Joanna Penn: Yeah. So, obviously we both spoke a couple of times, so that's always a good push, because we haven't done much of that in-person for a while. Also, I had a load of business meetings, met with a lot of companies, including meetings about my Kickstarter and special print stuff, and also AI narration with both DeepZen and also Google Play Books. So, that was really good.

There wasn't much of a technological bent at the fair in general, but I was able to have meetings with people. These companies were there, they just didn't have booths. Also, with Creatokia from Bookwire, talking about NFTs.

Obviously, you didn't have time because you were running around with the 10th anniversary, but I organized my schedule upfront and made sure I had all the meetings in place. And that's a tip for people. If you want to talk to people, like, even if you wanted to have a meeting with Orna, or I, you can't just think you're going to run into people, because most people are having meetings around different venues and maybe even different buildings. So, you do have to organize in advance, but also definitely keep a bit of time to just wander around, that's important.

But I did also want to mention the people overload, and social anxiety, and also the sickness, because the Publisher's Weekly and The Bookseller reported on a wave of COVID post-London Book Fair. And to be honest, I walked in, they did check vaccination status, so we were all vaccinated, but obviously we know now you can be carrying and have COVID even when vaccinated.

And so, I must say at one point I was looking around going, there is no way we're going to stay healthy, there's just no way. And actually, you know, everyone got a bit of something, quite a few people did test positive afterwards. But I think you have to make a decision at some point, which is, have I done enough to protect myself, and am I willing to go out there in the world and take the risk of something in order for the benefits of what I want?

And that was also true for me in that, as an introvert and as someone who does have a mild social anxiety, I was like, I don't know if I can cope with this, thousands of people, speaking, stress, headache from too much noise and light and everything, and I must say I had to have a few, you know, I had to run away a couple of times and go sit in my room in silence and darkness for a few hours, and that really helped. But what I would say is, and I actually, I felt like I never wanted to do it again at several points. I was like, I'm not doing this again. And then afterwards, I was like, no, I needed to do this. I need to do this, because if I don't, I will just sit in my room for the rest of my life and I will never go anywhere, and that's not how I want to live. So again, every author has to make this choice, but you must have weighed this up as well?

Orna Ross: Yeah. I mean, I’m more socially, people-y, I think, than a lot of authors. I do genuinely like people's company. I do feel that the fair is just hyperstimulation, quite aside from the people thing, and there were fewer people there this year. It was a smaller fair this year because Olympia is doing renovations, and also because London Book Fair wasn't sure post-COVID. But the sound factor, just the noise drumming all the time and the lighting, and everything like that, it is definitely hyper stimulating, there's no doubt about that. So, I think building in breaks just makes sense.

And also, not cramming. Yes, it's important to plan ahead, and to have a schedule, and to have some idea of what you're going to the fair for, and to have a name, have an objective, have a creative intention for the visit. But it's also important to have free time. Free time to recover, as you've said, but also free time for a bit of serendipity. Because while everybody is busy, and people do have lots of meetings, at the same time, strange things happen at the fair and you bump into people, you know, having a coffee or whatever. I have heard of lots of stories of good things that have come out of that kind of, just by chance, thing. And it's good to leave a bit of room for that. So, overall, I think what we're saying is, it's worth doing if you know what you're doing it for.

Joanna Penn: Yeah, absolutely. So yes, we intend to be back next year at London Book Fair, 2023.

Orna Ross: Yeah, we'll definitely have some presence for sure. What shape and form that will take, we're not sure.

Joanna Penn: We will decide nearer the time.

Orna Ross: We may survey our members, actually. We may survey the members and find out what they think, because obviously there are lots of different opinions about it. But yeah, we'll see.

Looking back before the last 10 years

Joanna Penn: Excellent. Okay. So, let's get into our topic, which is a look back and a look forward. We're going to have a whistle-stop tour. We've talked about, sort of, the last decade. Orna has written some amazing blog posts on the ALLi blog, selfpublishingadvice.org, which has these on, and we'll link in the show notes.

But let's talk about the last 10 years, but before that, before the last 10 years.

So, I actually started writing in 2006 and started self-publishing in 2007. So, oh my goodness, I've been doing this for 15 years now, which is kind of a shocker to me. And when I did it back then, I printed 2000 physical books, and then realized I didn't know how to sell them. So, that's what kick started my journey into digital publishing. Digital marketing, because I tried traditional media. I got on the TV news, the Australian TV news, the radio, didn't sell any books. Got into blogging, started selling books. Got into podcasting in 2009. I published before the Kindle or the iPhone, both of which launched in 2007, which is kind of crazy.

So, I also had to use Smashwords back in the day, because non-US authors couldn't even use any of these systems for a while. And so, what I would say is, those people who kind of go, oh my goodness, it's so hard these days, you do not know. Seriously. It was hard because it didn't even exist. You didn't even have a Kindle, you didn't even have an iPhone, and the print-on-demand was in its early days, it was mostly for Americans. So, basically it was very, very, very hard before, like 2012. So, what about you, Orna, before 2012?

Orna Ross: Yeah, I did an actual print run, self-help kind of book, for a women's group that I was in, back in 2006. I had been publishing academic and non-fiction books before that. I started writing in 1987, and my first book in 1990. So yeah, a long, long time ago. It was pre-self-publishing, really. I mean, the book that I did was successful, but it was largely successful because I worked in the media. I had media outlet. I knew about book distribution. So, it was successful, it went into a second print run, but that was very unusual. And the admin was killing, it was punishing. So, even though it was working, I stopped doing it, because it was just returns, and invoices, and you know, it was all horrible. I didn't enjoy it, that part of it, at all.

So yeah, like you, when I hear authors today talking about how difficult things are, I just can never see it that way. Particularly around distribution, when we can reach globally all over the world with eBooks now, and audiobooks, very easily, and also distribute directly on our own websites to readers very, very easily. The first four stages of the publishing process are really very, very, relatively, very easy now compared to before. So, when everything was a struggle, it was like wading through treacle just to get the book made and get it out there, you know, just distribute it before you even got to thinking about marketing. So, things have definitely got easier.

Joanna Penn: Yes. So, the last 10 years have brought incredible opportunities for authors willing to learn and adopt new practices; new practices for publishing, new practices for marketing, and new practices for business.

What are some of the technological shifts that have improved self-publishing?

Joanna Penn: So, let's talk about some of the technological shifts that have improved the business, and Orna, your lighting is spectacular all of a sudden, I don't know, you've gone like bright platinum. Orna is not a ghost, it's fine.

Yeah. So, back on, sorry, technological shifts that have improved the business for indie authors.

Well, first of all, the hardware devices, like I mentioned, the Kindle, the Kobo, the iPhone tablets, even laptops, all of these things did not even exist before. I mean, they were clunky, and now we've got cheaper internet-connected phones across the world. So, it was that the domain of, you remember the brick phones, they were only for really rich people and the speeds, you could not, and there was no function to read on one of those phones. So, the switch from sort of desktop, and laptop, and mobile across the world, or even mobile first in a lot of economies, has meant that readers and listeners can consume our work. And that is truly a crazy technological shift that has enabled, I guess, internet-business and has enabled us as authors.

So, you mentioned some of the things there, Orna, but what about software?

Orna Ross: Yes, I mean our own websites, and having a transactional website as an author is so cheap and easy now. The design, you know, we can just get these ready-made themes that look amazing and really encourage readers to buy.

We've got print-on-demand, of course, was a huge boon for authors, because no more of that 2000 print run that we were talking about earlier. And then software that helps us to actually do our work on the writing end of things, as well, and in terms of getting our readers to sign up to our email lists, just the backend of that has just become so easy and so relatively cheap compared to before. And it just seems to get better every year, new services, new options. There's a lot of competition in the market, and everybody is keeping an eye on everybody else and going one better. It's really interesting to see, and authors have benefitted hugely from that.

Joanna Penn: Yeah, I think you're right, what's happened is an economy has sprung up to service authors. And while we didn't have much choice before, we now have a lot of choice. So, for example, email marketing, I think I've used four different email providers since I started in 2007, I think that's when I started my email list, and now I use ConvertKit, it's brilliant. And again, the price has dropped so much, the ease to use it. It was very, very hard back in the day, you really had to know a bit about HTML and things like that, and now it is just drag and drop and that kind of thing.

I remember when Vellum came in, I think it was probably around 2016, and those of us who, you know, I always hated formatting eBooks, and you had to pay people, and then suddenly I could do it myself, and boy I love formatting on Vellum. Yes, it's Mac only, I know, all you PC people. But Atticus now has come in, Dave Chesson, and we have these brilliant people who provide great tools for the author industry, and so much is free.

How has marketing changed for indie authors in the last 10 years?

Joanna Penn: Let's talk about marketing shifts as well, because again, this is something that I think people think is so difficult, but there are things that I use, for example, that have worked since the beginning. So, one is free, using free books. We've been able to do that pretty much since day one, and in fact, cheaper pricing is what enabled those early Kindle millionaires. And still, I use Permafree books, we use free giveaways on our email sign up. So, free as a marketing tool was only enabled by digital, because you couldn't do it with print books, because you'd bankrupt yourself. I mean, many of us give away hundreds of thousands of free books, and we do that because we can do it digitally. So, what are some of the other marketing shifts that you think have happened?

Orna Ross: Well, of course it's much easier. I mean, free is one form of content that you give away to attract your ideal reader, but this has been a tried and trusted method for indie authors to attract readers. So, the whole content marketing, putting your work out there, show your work, as-

Joanna Penn: Austin Kleon.

Orna Ross: Thank you, I was going to say that guy whose name I can't remember.

Austin Kleon's best book title ever, that's the whole book, there and then.

And then KU, of course, came in a few years ago and other subscription models as well for eBooks, and now for audio also. All of these things have been hailed, each time each one of them has emerged the doom and gloom merchants of publishing, of which there are many, all, you know, this is the end of publishing as we know it, this is the end of anybody making a profit from books. But it's just not true. Readers like, if they don't know an author, they like to sample their stuff before they decide to go further, and if they do like an author, they have absolutely no hesitation then about transferring over from free. Yes, there are the freebie merchants who will never pay for a book, but they're always there, that's not who you're talking to.

So, we've got fantastic outlets for blogging, for podcasting, for video, social media, ads, email marketing. So many ways that we can actually find the right readers and then bring them into our authorly orbit. All of that gets easier and easier, cheaper and cheaper, and more and more effective, I think as well, because the other thing that's become much easier is our ability to communicate with each other and share with each other what works and what doesn't work.

And that too has been amazing, because I remember when authors didn't talk to each other, and there was a huge amount of smoke and mirrors around publishing, and nobody knew what happened once you went over the publishing hill, it was almost seen to be the end, it was like marriage, you know, it was the end of the fairy tale. And of course, it's not like that in real life, in marriage, or in publishing. So, it's great that we can talk to each other, share our stuff.

You have shared every step of your journey with figures and facts and everything all along the way, and our members talk to each other about what has worked for them, what doesn't work for them, and so on. All of that, I think, can't be overestimated in terms of how much it helps us.

Joanna Penn: Yes. So, that really represents the community, and the mindset shifts that have improved business for authors. And I think also that authors, I mean, like we've talked about, these things, blogging, podcasting, social media ads, email marketing, they have to be learned to be used, and you have to try these things. And I think, what has changed for those, I guess, authors who are managing to make a business, is that they've embraced that. And that is something that I think was more difficult early on. For example, when I wrote my Business for Authors, that first time, it didn't sell anything. Nobody wanted that book when I put it out. As ever, I was too early with that book. So, that was really interesting. And now we, like, you and I were having a conversation about digital sales tax before we started recording, we just weren't having those conversations years ago, because that wasn't the type of thing that we even knew about.

So, I think we understand the value of copyright more, we're educating each other more, we're networking more, and also the culture has changed to where readers and consumers want to support creators. People would much rather buy a handmade artisan product from an individual creator than a mass market thing that's the same as everything else, and that's the attitude we can play on, I guess, when we're trying to sell direct. So, that is definitely, sort of, a roundup of the trends.

Oh, we should say that the pandemic – there was a pandemic, as well, in the last decade that has actually accelerated the move to digital, and what we can say is it represents the maturation of a digital-first and/or digital-only economy. And in fact, many authors and some booksellers who were positioned with digital did fine in the pandemic. But what has happened is, those businesses that were not digital, those booksellers that weren't digital, have now moved into it. So, I would say that is a kind of maturation.

Orna Ross: Absolutely, and I think all of this together then adds up to this kind of mega trend of authors finally getting confidence in themselves as creators and as publishers. So, I mean, 10 years is not a long time for that huge mindset shift that was necessary, both in readers and in writers. So, I mean, 10 years ago, readers didn't really trust buying things on the internet, so they wanted to buy through Amazon, because Amazon had their email address and it was easy, and they could just, you know, the same with Apple or whoever, a trusted big brand name was what readers wanted.

Now, they've gotten much more used to buying directly from authors, and authors have gotten much better at understanding the value of intellectual property and that they own the rights, and much better at talking directly to readers and understanding the reader journey and how a reader comes to them, and so on.

So, I think, this growth in confidence, as we see ‘publish me, please' kind of going out of the author community, and a much more sort of taking charge and becoming the creative director of our own businesses, as that grows and grows, and more people see it happening, it really is infectious. And the community then can achieve all sorts of things that it cannot achieve if it doesn't have that empowered mentality, which is why I think the next 10 years is going to be phenomenal for those who are willing to make those changes and are willing to, I mean, you know, becoming empowered sounds wonderful, but it means facing into your fears. It means getting over yourself. It means coping with the very real challenges, this is not an easy way, and it will challenge you each step of the way, but it's worth it, it's really well worth it.

Joanna Penn: Yes. So, we should say there, of course there are challenges, it's not all rainbows and kittens, and just running through fields of wheat. We have had some issues, and of course this business model has its challenges. Subscription models have driven prices down, and income is reduced for authors who only depend on subscription and some of those big companies. Online marketing, and ads, and email marketing has become common and, as we just mentioned, adopted by all those companies who weren't doing it before. So, many of us are finding prices are going up, profit is squeezed, book sales are going down, as other people come in. And also, there are a lot of books being published, and global reading rates are expanding, but not necessarily as fast as the number of books are available.

What technological shifts might improve self-publishing in the next 10 years?

Joanna Penn: So, we have to think about the challenges and also the opportunities as we go forward into the next 10 years. So, let's talk about some of the technological shifts that we think will improve the business further for indie authors.

And again, I should point to a blog post that Orna has put out this week, 18th of April, I think it went out, or 19th of April, today even, a brilliant blog post which we'll link to.

But Orna, why don't you start? What is one of your technological shifts?

Orna Ross: Well, I think the biggest thing that we're seeing, it's started already, and we're really going to see more and more of it as the decade unfolds, is this decentralization. So, in the past we had a central publishing world, all the books went in through there and got funnelled back out. Now we're going to have this kind of, some people are calling it fragmented, I like the word decentralized, whereby, in some cases it's going to be authors selling directly to the reader. And we've just seen this phenomenon that everybody's talking about, Brandon Sanderson's Kickstarter, which is just unbelievable. And he's really shown that when readers know, like, and trust an author, where they will go with them.

Also, services like Patreon, Substack, all of these services that are coming in to support the creator, we're going to see more and more of that, and more and more competition. So, instead of, yeah, it's been this kind of centralized cobweb of publishers feeding out material, it's going to be readers discovering authors.

And you know, this idea of a famous author is going to be, well, you know, who you know, they're famous to you if you know them, but if you don't, you'll probably never have heard of them, and this is happening more and more. You see events with big author splash names up and you say, who's that, I know nothing about them?

So, as authors we need to think about that, we need to think about what that means for us and how we reach our people in a decentralized environment.

Joanna Penn: Yeah, and I agree with you. I'm still in a number of traditionally published author communities, and people are like, the number of books that people sell now to hit like number one on the New York Times is so much smaller than it used to be, because the blockbuster era is over. It pretty much is over, and the only blockbuster names were people published back in the eighties, nineties, even seventies, and now it is more about, as you say, this kind of decentralized or fragmented thing.

But also, people say, oh, well, I can see that your book X isn't ranking in the top 100 on Amazon, and I'm like, yeah, but you're only looking on one store, on one platform, you have no idea where I'm selling books. And this is an attitude shift, it's from trying to get to something on one store versus fragmenting your business so that you're reaching readers in all these different ways, through all these different multiple streams of income. And then the numbers become quite hard to track, to be honest, but you're not reliant and you're not aiming everything at that one thing. So again, it's the blockbuster model for those big author names is gone, but also the blockbuster model for the specific one store is fading away, and we can all find our niches.

Again, Kevin Kelly's, A Thousand True Fans, talk about being early, he wrote that in, what, 2002? I think 2002-ish, but it's like, my goodness, that is truly where we're getting to, right?

Orna Ross: Yeah, definitely. Though I don't think those who comment on the business have caught up, they've only just caught up with beginning to look at Amazon figures. So, they really do not, and this is one of the things why it's important that we're there in the industry, and making those noises, and telling people what's going on, because there is no way. I had this with my agent recently. She was totting up books from the various outlets and things, and she was really quite surprised. And I, by no means, sell a huge amount, in indie terms, at all, but she was comparing it to her traditionally published clients, and she was really surprised when it was all added up, because she had been going on the Amazon rankings. And that's as far, I think, as a lot of the people who are commenting on self-publishing have got. So yeah, we've a long way to go to show people what we're doing and how we're doing it.

And that's something we need to think about as well, when we're reaching out to literary influencers, be they reviewers, or bookstores, or librarians, or whatever, how we present ourselves and how we show what we are actually managing to achieve is important. And understanding our own business models, and what we're doing and how we're doing it, and how do we present that to readers as well, because people don't know where to look for that information.

Joanna Penn: Yes, and then also some of the tools and technologies we've been talking about in previous shows, we've talked about the AI voice narration, for example, and as I said, I mentioned DeepZen and Google Play Books, is who I'm talking to about that, and that is definitely going to go mainstream in the next decade. I think audio will be ubiquitous, I think it will be likened to eBooks now. It just has to be for everything, there has to be digital versions in voice and text.

And then obviously we've also got things emerging like metaverse adoption. Now, again, metaverse being a word like internet, none of us believe, except perhaps Mark Zuckerberg, that there will be one platform to rule them all. There won't be, we'll spend time in these different places, as we do right now. But I will put a pin in it and say that Orna and I will be doing some kind of, something like this, but we'll be doing it in more of a virtual reality space within the decade. In that you could join us in some interesting place, or join us at London Book Fair, virtually through your virtual reality headset, or whatever that turns out to be.

I also think we'll be doing things like augmented reality storytelling, I've thought about, and that might be non-fiction alongside our fiction. So, I would like to do a guided walk through some of the locations in London that I have based some of my books, and you'll be able to click on your glasses, or whatever, and see me walking next to you telling you about it. I think that type of thing is going to be available within the next decade, and I'm excited about that. So, that could be a product, there are all kinds of things we'll be able to do.

So, what are some of the other things you're excited about?

Orna Ross: Yeah, I think a lot of what you're talking about there is super exciting in terms of how we think about our readers, and how we present our stuff to them, and how we create that bond. I think that's the most important thing that needs to happen in this next phase, is that we understand that we're responsible for the reader discovering us, and then we're responsible for the experience that they have. And of course, that's true already, but some of these tools are going to bring it alive in a way that wasn't possible, and bring it alive globally so that time and space really does shrink, in the same way that it does in a book, all the stuff that goes around the book, which has been pretty flat, you know, author interviews, and that kind of thing, are going to become very exciting. And I suppose, if you look at Pottermore, I think she had the budget to do things that we're going to be able to do in a different way, in a smaller scale, obviously, just because the technology will get better and it will get cheaper, and it's going to be a really interesting time.

Now, a lot of authors, when you start talking about this, they get quite scared and they think, I just want to put words on a page, I don't want to be part of all of that, but I do think there will be a big advantage to authors who are in there first, and who begin. Now is the time, none of this is ready, and the same with blockchain and NFTs, and all of that. None of this is ready for us just yet, but the thing about looking ahead 10 years is that you can begin to think about what you're doing now and shaping it up in such a way so that, as these technologies come on board, your author business is able to take them in, in the way that feels right to you, for your books, and for your readers.

So, things that will delight your readers, that's really where you begin with all of this, and then things that delight you, to make for them and to produce for them, and where your books fit into that. So, it gives us a lot to think about.

How can indie authors meet the coming challenges and changes to self-publishing?

Joanna Penn: Yeah, absolutely, and this speed of change can definitely be overwhelming. So, we really want to give you a few tips for what doesn't change, and how to meet the coming challenges in the last few minutes that we have. Because even though lots of technology will change, like Orna mentioned, like, we are both playing with AI creation tools, Sudowrite, built on GPT-3, and I'm using an image creator. There are loads of really interesting stuff that are emerging, blockchain we've talked about. But there are lots of things that won't change.

So, the first one I'm going to pick is to keep creating. So, you guys who follow my show, I am so into all this, and I spend a lot of time on the futurist stuff, but equally, this morning, I was at my writing desk doing my writing. And Orna and I texted, and I was like, no, no, I can't do it now, I'm writing. And then she went back to her writing, and that's the first thing we're doing. We are creating things, because whatever the technological, and marketing, whatever happens, your creative work underpins it all. And that will be able to work together, do more things together, but if you're not creating the intellectual property, then you won't have anything to do in the future either. So yes, keep creating.

Orna Ross: And then, nobody will be surprised that I think valuing your IP, and valuing yourself, it's one and the same thing. Read the contract and agreements that you're assigning, asking for change where they're patently unfair, holding out for good terms, you know, not just taking the first thing that's offered, and also turning away from short-term wins that will actually lead to long-term losses for you. It all, I think, can be summed up in that idea of valuing yourself and valuing your intellectual property, and understanding and holding out for the value of that.

Joanna Penn: Yeah, and just on that really important point that we've talked about before, but a short-term win might be signing a contract that includes a clause for all formats existing now and to be created for the life of copyright. We see this again and again, and authors will just sign it because they'll get the deal now, but a clause like that basically prevents you doing things in the metaverse. And I've had Kathryn Goldman on my show who's an IP attorney, and we talked about the clauses that people are signing now that might just prevent them with the business models of the future.

So, even if you don't want to get into it now, just try and think that more long-term around your contracts. Also, consider different business models, and mix and match the things that suit you, your personality, your book, and thinking again, thinking long-term.

And I also think we have to reassess our business models. Like we talked about at the beginning, we've been doing this for a while and, for example, I've never done crowdfunding and I'm going to do a Kickstarter, and it terrifies me, and we'll talk about that another time, but doing a special print edition, this is not web three, this is like pre-web, but I'm going to do that too.

And we're going to do a live event, for example, we're doing a workshop together in June on the creator economy, which I'm sure we'll talk about later, which again is old school, non-digital, two people in person doing a workshop. So, you can re-evaluate your business models, you can add things to your business models, you can change things along the way. And of course, I'm doing those alongside NFTs. So, you can mix and match, but the important thing is to keep an eye on things and change things up as you go.

Orna Ross: Yeah, I mean, constantly improving, I think that is the thing, and dropping what doesn't work, and moving towards what works better.

And one step at a time. So, one of the things we have to watch out for is procrastination and fear. So, not doing things because we don't understand it, or we're afraid of the tech, or whatever, that's one side of the coin. And then the overwhelm that kind of jumps up when we try to do too much too fast, or too many different things. So, it is one step at a time, and just understanding what your next step is, and just staying there, but staying abreast, and I mean, if you're listening to this show, you're already investing in yourself, investing in learning more. With our writing skills and our publishing skills, we never actually arrive and say, okay, that's it now, I am the perfect writer and I'm a perfect publisher. It just doesn't happen that way. Change is the only thing is the only constant, and being aware of that, and holding that, enjoying that is, I think, going to become more and more. And that's a practice, you know, people say, I hate change, but actually you can come to love change, but you need to practice that. For some people that doesn't come spontaneously, and the more you do it, the easier it gets. So, yeah.

Joanna Penn: Yes, and I always liked the quote from technologist, Kevin Kelly, who mentioned earlier, the Thousand True Fans quote, and his book, The Inevitable, I always recommend, but he says, you need to surf the wave of change, not drown in it.

And as ever, we will endeavour to be here with you along the way, sharing our journey and our mistakes along the way.

So, our next show, we are going to talk about discovering your personal brand as an author, and we will both be sharing some of our amusing journeys, mistakes, changes that we've made along the way.

Anything else you want to say, Orna, before we finish up?

Orna Ross: No, I think that personal branding is the key to a lot of what we've been talking about today, in terms of surfing that wave of change over the next 10 years, understanding how important it is. So, I'm looking forward to that show.

And thank you to everyone for all the good wishes. Again, Kathleen is there with, happy 10 years, ALLi. It's been just fantastic to receive all your compliments, and kind words, and good wishes for the next 10 years. So yeah, we'll be here, as Jo says.

Joanna Penn: Well, I hope we'll be here.

Orna Ross: We will if we can!

Joanna Penn: So, happy writing

Orna Ross: and happy publishing. Bye-bye.

Howard Lovy

Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 30 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.

This Post Has 2 Comments
  1. I’ve watched the arc over 32 years of publishing, self-publishing and the rise of Amazon Publishing. And participated in all of it. Random thoughts:
    We had a golden wave of indie publishing about 10 years ago. I have watched many of those riding that crest disappear. There are people whose names were all over the place and they are gone now. So it’s good to have survived and thrived. I’ve was in at the start of Amazon Publishing and have watched it become more ruthless and more like traditional publishing, except faster. They’ve got the data to know what works and what doesn’t. I also started early in ACX.
    The reality is for most indies, we’ve seen a big drop in income since the golden wave and that’s what wiped out a lot of people. A lot more competition. I’ve seen Bookbub go from mostly being indies to now saturated with trad publishing. I used to run at least on Bookbub a month and haven’t run an ad in years with them. The long tail has died off to a one day spike. Free works in series. Somewhat. KU is a big income source for most indies as we cater to the prolific reader and many of them are in KU. I still have a hard time finding my own book on Apple Books. Weird how they did music well and never focused on books. Yes, love Vellum. Great program. ROI on things like Amazon Marketing Services and Bookbub requires some drilling down on numbers. I think AMS is a bit deceptive in how they present the accounting, listing gross not net against spend. I’ve learned to check income against money spent on advertising overall every month and keep playing with it to see the sweet spot. I’ve also seen so many start ups (not so much any more) offering services to authors that in the short run amounted to nothing. Bottom line: it still comes down to writing good books that readers want.

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