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Opinion: Orna Ross Asks “What Is Publishing For”?

Opinion: Orna Ross asks “What is publishing for”?

how to publish a bookNo, this isn't one of those articles about how self-publishing is the way forward for all writers and Penguin-Random House might as well pack up and go home. 

I'm as indie as an indie author can be but I know from my work with ALLi that a particular blend of character and skill is necessary to self-publish — though I do believe every writer should self-publish at least once, if only so they know what they’re talking about when they have an opinion about it.  

But, as I say, this isn't one of those blog posts. What I’m asking here is a more fundamental question, one directed to all who aspire to publish books; from the self-publisher putting together their first volume to the entrepreneurial author who has oodles-and-counting titles already selling in their millions; from the lowliest intern at the smallest micro-publisher to the top executives at Penguin-Random House.

Too many of us are in danger of completely forgetting what publishing is for.

Essentially, it's to enable the words of an author to reach the head or heart of a reader.

In my estimation, that's one important duty. Books are the repository of education, entertainment and inspiration in our culture and so crucial to our society’s spiritual,  emotional and intellectual welfare. Even people who don’t, or can’t, read believe that.

But even if you disagree, if for you the making of books is no more valuable than the making of baked beans, you still must see that the raw material of the publishing business is the written word, and its supplier a creative brain.

Publishing founders to the degree that it neglects its duty to that brain and the creative process that fires it. I believe that's why corporate publishing is foundering today.

Neglect of authors has never run higher in publishing, revealed in language like ” slush pile” and “list culling”. Free market ideologies run the show and supermarkets and bookstore chains dominate, deciding in advance which books will have the best chance of success, on purely commercial grounds; telling publishers what price to sell at, how many copies to print, what to put on the cover, what to call the books and even what to put inside them.

Publishing  analysts focus only on bottom lines, mergers and acquisitions and ignore the quality of what they call “content”, inviting us to lament a slump caused by the trade not having had a pornography title to keep their growth figures on the up (pun intended) last year.

Neglect and, in too many cases, disrespect of the author is widely acknowledged in the indie author community.  And I’ve written elsewhere of the how difficult I personally found that world, and the joy I felt at being able to leave it to publish my own work, my own way. 

But this is not a trade-only phenomenon. Indie authors also talk too often in commercial, and not often enough in creative, terms. Constant checking of stats, a cyber flurry over the latest indie to make a killing on Kindle and, most worryingly at the moment, a  relentless pressure to work faster and longer, that is at odds with creative rhythms, and that is no guarantee of success.

Please, let me never meet another indie who tells me Russell Blake is their role model (but they haven't read his books). Or one who says they “have to” work 24/7 to keep up with their publishing tasks. Or who tells me they now work for the toughest boss they've ever had.

One of the greatest perks of going indie is creative freedom. Are we going to throw it away by treating ourselves more harshly than any trade publisher would?

An over-emphasis  on money is a  distortion of our business, of what we do and why we do it. The publishing business is a creative business. That means it's changeable, mercurial, hard to pin down. The only thing that sells books for sure is word-of-mouth and what sets that off for a particular title is, to a large degree, a mystery.

The tasks of publishing — printing, design, formatting, marketing and publicity — are easy to organise but good publishing is an art that relies on two skills: the ability to recognise good writing, and the ability to nurture it.

And to do that well, to be a real player in that exchange, the publisher has to respect the author's creative talent, identify their creative challenges, and give them whatever they need to best create.

That's  all the more challenging, but even more crucial, when the writing and the publishing are done by the same person.

Author: Orna Ross

Orna Ross is a bestselling and award-winning author of historical fiction and inspirational poetry, and a creativity facilitator. As founder-director of the Alliance of Independent Authors, she has been named one of The Bookseller’s Top 100 people in publishing. 


This Post Has 28 Comments
  1. Thanks for reminding me about the joys of writing, Orna. Indies do put a lot of emphasis on the business side of things and it’s easy to get caught up in it. I am often amazed at the output of other writers and wonder how they do it. With my current commitments, I cannot spend as much time writing (or produce as much) as some others do. I am in favour of treating my writing as a business but I don’t want to turn it into a treadmill. So it’s good to sit back and look at the craft from a different perspective and give myself permission to put the time I have into producing something I’m proud of rather than striving to churn out what is considered the required number of books each year.

    1. I like you drawing attention to sitting back and remembering why (some of us) write! (I suspect if I HAD to do a certain number of books per year, I might leave writing to others and simply stock super market shelves or similar while telling myself the stories in my head…!!)

  2. Publishing is simply a distribution system. That is it.

    As a person that makes photography books, you can’t even narrow it down to simply the vehicle for writing. And for me, this as been the hardest part of working in self-publishing as it is simply biased toward writers. There is a total vacuum for other kinds of publishing.

    Now, for me, publishing is and should be part of the creative process, at least if you see books as a creative medium, rather than just a container for words–anyone can stream text. Editing is just an important part of the creative process as writing and not simply something you have to do at the end. And to take this further, a book is really a dialog between the form and the content. As far, not many people have been pursuing this. In traditional publishing, it is just too expensive to experiment with, which is why I think self-publishing has great potential. I find this a very exciting time.

    1. Exciting times indeed William! I love that idea of “dialogue between form and content” and would love to see the creative potential of that fully explored.

  3. Sorry, something went wrong, had not completed sentence! Needed to edit! Something like, “I’m well aware I shan’t make a living doing this, but if I had to make one writing, I think I might decide to make one doing something else!’

  4. Reading all the responses, I’m so conscious of the pros and the cons and how we could argue forever.

    Editing my WIP, I’ve just been through a scene where the male ‘lead’ is with his children,shortly after his father;s death. Now this scene could so easily be banned for ‘irrelevance’ by a publisher who wanted to keep the book to a certain size, to keep ‘to the point’ and ‘not confuse the reader with extraneous content’. However, it IS actually quietly and totally relevant to include these kids, and their impact on their parents’ dilemmas… of course, I write it as ‘relevantly’ as I can – but I ALSO want it to *speak for itself*…One HOPES by being an indie write, it is possible to produce stories which are rounded, and thoughtful, and not subject to the limits of writing only to the marketing & sales departments schedules…

  5. fabulous stuff, Orna. You know my thoughts on this 🙂

    I would add again that right now I feel that small presses are offering the very most exciting place for artistically-minded authors – on which note, today saw the announcement of the first Folio Prize shortlist with yet another nod for Eimar McBride’s wonderful A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, from Galley Beggar Press, the latest in an increasingly long line of really exciting short presses

  6. Orna,

    You are right about the commercial pressures and the slow shift to stack ’em high economics, but we must also remember that writing has always been a world fraught with difficulties.

    The challenge for many writers is to make enough to simply survive. For those fortunate enough not to worry about putting food on the table there has always been the luxury of long gestation periods.

    I suppose the happy medium is what is needed. I hope that the indie life provides that for as many authors as possible, unlike in the past when they would have had no chance at all.

    1. Absolutely Laurence, it’s about balance. And honesty about who we are as writers. Writing is, as you say, a challenging pathway and not one guaranteed to put food on the table, alas, particularly for those writing in more literary genres. Day jobs will always be necessary for some. Undoubtedly the indie pathway provides more opportunities and more consistent money than trade publishing. It returns to us the possibility of building a readership over time, instead of having one shot at it, which is how trade publishing has gone. Overwork will not deliver a sustainable writing life, which for most, is a long game. And as you rightly say, always has been.

    2. Laurence, I think expecting to make a living from creative endeavour is unrealistic. Many (most?) writers have another job that puts bread on the table. No one becomes an actor, sculptor or musician with a view to making money. If we see writing as mainly a commercial activity, we are in danger of writing for a market. If we write for a market, the tail might start to wag the dog. Maybe many writers won’t mind, especially if well remunerated, but the tail wagging the dog is how writers came to be regarded as objects to be “culled” and relegated to a “slush pile”.

      The challenge for writers isn’t to make enough money to survive, it’s to write and write well, ie meaningfully, so that readers are changed by our writing (as Francis Guenette suggests above.) The next challenge is to help the writing find those readers. Making money from that would be a long way down my priority list – and I speak as someone who has a following today partly because, in my pre-indie days, I used to give a lot of my pbs away to readers. All I cared about was my books finding their readers. Profit was not my priority.

      A long gestation period is not a luxury. For some authors and for some books it is a necessity! It’s my view that we should resist the pressure to produce fast books in case they become the literary equivalent of fast food – and just as nourishing.

      In any case, readers can tell the difference between writing and typing.

  7. Well, now, just hold on a minute…

    There’s nothing wrong with a commercial approach to publishing as exemplified by the Big Five, not per se. Certainly they’re entitled to make a commercial profit. That’s why they call it a publishing “business”. Any statement that they do it for the greater glory of mankind is not relevant to a commercial enterprise. Stockholders are not investing in the greater glory of mankind; they are investing in a money engine that produces profit. Any board of directors that failed to recognize this would be liable for dismissal.

    The problems with trad publishing that have the special attention of indies have to do with:

    1) Predicting commercial success or nurturing it in their up-and-coming suppliers (new authors). (Not being very good at their commercial approach, in many views, as well as being detrimental to their suppliers).

    2) Taking advantage of a captive supplier market with obnoxious contracts. (Unethical, perhaps, and irritating, but not uncommercial (unprofitable), as long as the supplier market remains captive.)

    Allow me to point out that for normal industries, the number of suppliers (makers) and vendors stays roughly in balance, else suppliers make something else or vendors sell something else. That is one of the glories of the free market. Only for authors (and other creatives) does a sense of “captivity” apply. This industry is very strange.

    Only creatives have a desire to make something without necessarily a commercial motive. We call that a hobby. Hobbies are fine, everyone should have one. Just because some people turn their hobbies into businesses doesn’t mean that everyone has to.

    This post seems to say “nothing wrong with having a hobby, i.e., writing a book to communicate with readers without being concerned about profit.” I agree with that. Just like there’s nothing wrong with singing in the church choir or volunteering at a soup kitchen or working on your life list of birds.

    But what does that have to do with either obsession (24/7) or commercial enterprise? People who enjoy writing and also enjoy building businesses (I’m one) have no difficulty combining the two rationally. And people who are obsessed with their creative work (24/7) may or may not be interested in the commercial side of things — there’s no necessary connection.

    We have a name for people who are obsessed with business building (24/7). We tend to call them entrepreneurs. Just what else would you call an author-publisher, after all?

    1. Interesting take, Karen, and I’m not objecting to profit — quite enjoy it — just to making it the primary motive for writing or publishing. I agree this business is atypical, as business goes, and the irony of creative business is that making profit your primary motive is not necessarily the best way to deliver it.

  8. This is an empowering post for me right now, Orna, and I thank you for that! I’m with Linda in her comment above – I’m never going to write more than one book a year (and that will be a good year) and I’m never going to write a book that I can’t stand in front of a reader as they hold that book in their hands and feel proud of what I’ve accomplished. The driving force is creativity (as you put so much better than I’m doing) not money, or fame, or recognition – though the recognition thing matters if I want anyone to know about my work. When someone finishes reading one of my novels, I want them to be changed by the experience – just as I want to be changed when I read a book. I want what I write to matter. In many ways, social media promotion lays a thick blanket of something I can’t even name over my creativity and though I know it is necessary (to an extent and in certain vital areas) I have to monitor how much time is spent doing such promotion. The writing is what brings me life and makes me soar – so back to the work-in-progress – refreshed by this post and what it has drawn out of me.

  9. Orna, great stuff and SO empowering, and you identify a big part of why I, for one, am in the indie business and happy to be.

    The domination of money and success, epitomised by the phrase ‘getting published’ has irritated me in another group I belong to… since ‘getting published’ is something we can see as a relation of those other phrases you pick out, the ‘slush pile’ and the ‘list culling’.

    The reason to be published is indeed to communicate entertainment, solace, education, encouragement, thoughtfulness, etc to the minds out there, and to write ‘to the market’, regardless of the quality and positive benefit of what we write, and regardless of what we ourselves ‘believe in’ and do best is sad indeed, especially as it may be done only to achieve commercial benefit.

    And that’s not totally weird, Polly-Anna-ish idealism: we are not, as you say, aiming to produce baked beans, or food adulterated with cheap alternatives to what is really nourishing. Let’s not see creative minds being caught up in commercialism/consumerism, it impoverishes everyone. (And reminder to self: am I driving myself unnecessarily? Wouldn’t my novel benefit if I slowed down, just a little bit?)

  10. Brilliant blog, Orna. Thank you. I’m glad someone has articulated the unease I feel that indies might be going the same way as traditional publishers, setting greater store by commercial than creative goals.

    I’m never going to produce more than one book a year. I could edit & research less, I suppose and I could write in a less organic way, so I didn’t spend so much time waiting to find out what my characters want to do, where the story wants to go. I could speed up but I’m not going to because my main goal is to say what I want to say in the way I want to say it. They wouldn’t let me do that when I was traditionally published and the reason was money, not quality. No editor ever said to me, “Your book will be better if you write it like this.” They said, “It will be easier to market” or “It will be more commercial.”

    Some people are measuring indie success by a financial yardstick. Whilst I’m pleased to see more writers earning more money, my main concern is, are indies saying what they want to say, in the way they want to say it? If they aren’t, what’s the point of being indie? And what has money got to do with it? Just because it’s possible to make a lot of money as an indie author doesn’t mean we’re under any obligation to do so.

    When I was traditionally published, pre-2009, I used to teach a one-day novel-writing workshop which I used to divide into 2 distinct halves. I used to say (with a heavy sigh), “There’s writing… and then there’s publishing. It’s not a good idea to get the two confused.”

    Maybe that advice is still relevant for indies today. I’m fortunate in that my indie books earn me a living, but what matters most to me is that each new book should be the best I can write. How much a book earns its author or how long it took to write are just details for me. All I want to know is, “Did s/he say what s/he wanted to say in the way s/he wanted to say it?” and “Is the book good?”

    1. I so agree Linda and your heavy-sighed but sage advice is exactly what we need to remember, every day. I divide them by doing writing tasks in the morning and publishing in the afternoon.

  11. Orna, you are so right about the 24/7 issue. Having worked for many years in the hard commercial world, I know how overwork in that sphere quickly drains the spirit and mental energy, although there was always pressure to work long hours for long hours’ sake. Now writing full-time, it is much too easy to try to work all hours of day and night because I can. Your piece reminds me that it’s important to rest too, because no-one can be at their creative best when physically exhausted.

    I love your take that “every author should self-publish at least once”, too – excellent!

    1. Thanks Debbie and you remind me that overwork is an occupational hazard when we love what we do. Trying to do have it all can mean we end up too busy to enjoy any of it.

  12. Great post, Orna. I’ve decided that I have to work at a rhythm that makes me happy, which isn’t necessarily at the rhythm that will make me rich quickly. I’m trying to define “success” on my own terms. I started out wanting to be the crazy entrepreneurial powerhouse author-publisher, but soon realized that would just make me miserable. I believe that if I focus on putting out a quality product and on writing the best books I can, the money will eventually be sufficient to keep me going.

    1. Thanks Jane, so true. Defining success on our own terms is what it has to be about. And most of us, I think, feel successful if we make enough to keep doing this thing we love to do.

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