Yesterday I attended the second day of the Self-Publishing Conference at Kingston University, which involved no less than four trains to get me from Oxford to Surbiton at the right time! The bonus for me was the chance to meet up with my friend and colleague, Jacqui Lofthouse, who is also a novelist and writing coach.
The day was very well-presented and organised, with Alison Baverstock, whose name you may well recognise from her books on writing and marketing, in charge of the show.
I attended because I've been very interested of late in how self-publishing is going. The conference served to confirm what I'd been thinking - that the rate of change of attitude to it is accelerating, that the means by which to do it are becoming ever-more accessible and affordable, and that the ebook versus printed book debate continues to be dynamic. I was struck by how often people said, during the course of the day, 'I'm going to buy an ebook reader - when the right one comes out.' I certainly feel the iPad is too big and overpriced and I haven't yet been seduced enough by any of the others, but I do feel that the tipping point is coming closer. Samsung is releasing an Android-compatible reader, which is as sexy-looking as the iPad but smaller, more portable, and probably with more functionality.
Don't get me wrong: I have always loved and will always love the paper book. I see ereaders as being useful for research-texts and for portability. But there seems to be a growing consensus that the brave new world will contain not Either/Or but Not/Only/But/Also. We will choose our reading format according to our needs, including cheap downloadable versions on ereaders, eccentrically-appealing nostalgia reads sourced from our own shelves and second-hand bookshops (if those survive, of course) and 'boutique' reads - exquisitely crafted editions which will be cherished as future heirlooms.
As with ereaders, so with publishing. The conference served to highlight that as writers we can now choose the paths we wish to take to publication - and those paths need not be mutually exclusive. The first speaker of the day was Anna Lewis of Completely Novel - one of the companies now offering us the chance of e-publication (compare also Lulu, Smashwords and Createspace). At Completely Novel you can very simply upload your text to be available as an ebook - but you can also opt to have a POD printed version too. You keep your rights and you choose the level of service you want from them. I found it appealing that they do all the tricky formatting of your text and, having looked at their site previously, thought the process was being made as straightforward as possible.
Later Harriet Smart of Anthemion showed another option, software called Judoh which enables you to format your work for all the types of reader out there. Mark Johnson, Community Editor of The Economist, who was involved when employed by HarperCollins to set up Authonomy, discussed how mainstream editors react to self-published authors. As you'd expect, some would run a mile, others are more open to the idea, and indeed some actively trawl the web for talent they can sign up.
Andrew Therkelson, a market research consultant, talked of how book design can sway customer decisions and of how important it is to think of yourself as a 'brand': 'Stop thinking about your book as a creative masterpiece and start thinking about it as a product.' He recommended that you look at your book from the outside in - from the potential customer's point of view - and think of the 'promises' you're making to the customer through your choice of images and colours.
Gareth Howard of Authoright discussed the ways his company can publicise your book for you, given that what he calls 'discoverability' is so crucial to success. This was of just as much relevance to traditionally-published writers as self-publishers, in that marketing/publicity budgets are notoriously low and authors have to do more and more to create a buzz for themselves. Like Andrew Therkelson, he recommends that you think of yourself as the product, in a way: what's the human interest angle to your book? Instead of offering a dry synopsis, excite the reader with the 'juicy story', the personal aspect.
Author Siobhan Curham rounded off the day with the most personal view of all. She had turned down a two-book mainstream deal in order to self-publish, because her previous experience of mainstream publication had been so dire: promises not kept, a ghastly and inappropriate book-jacket which damaged sales, pressure to write a certain type of book rather than the variety of books she wanted to write. Her talk was vibrant, witty, fun - and yet poignant, because she'd clearly been through the mill. She's shown energy and bloody-mindedness, but was candid that she's now being published traditionally again because to go it alone is a 'hard slog'.
So what are the messages to take away from a discussion like this?
First, there's never been a better time for you, the author, to access the public, to do things your way, on your own terms. You can choose your format - ebook, PDF, printed version. You can choose short-run printing or POD. Your book has the potential to look indistinguishable from one produced traditionally. You can choose the level of expenditure you wish to commit yourself to. You can use your own website or blog and social networking to build up your author platform, establishing a dialogue with your readers, creating a buzz around your book. You can branch off in whatever direction you wish as a writer. You answer to no one.
But there are dangers: you may over-value the quality of your work and use self-publishing as an easy way to stroke your ego. You may produce a book which screams 'amateur' because it's badly edited, messily laid-out and has a clumsy piece of artwork on the cover (given to you free by a relative). You may underestimate just how much effort and commitment is required to publicise your book - you need energy, bullishness, passion for your work - and you need to take that work to the world: the world won't come to the work and spontaneously recognise how great it is.
You need spirit and self-belief. You need arrogance but paradoxically humility too, in that you need to listen to advice and be prepared to be flexible. You need to set goals and targets, not faff around. You need to learn skills you may not already possess or buy in services if you can't cope for yourself. You need to think commercially - and that means being economical and practical, but also being prepared to invest enough money to make your enterprise work.
So, you've finished your book. Try the traditional route: send out those submission packages. Roll with the punches - the delays and rejections. Then take stock: if you're being rejected, why is this? Is it a problem with the work? If so, try to fix it. Is it a problem with the market? Maybe it's worth waiting for the market to change, or maybe you should write something new. If, as you take stock, you feel your belief in the value of what you've produced strengthens, along with your indignation and frustration that no publisher is prepared to act as the bridge between it and its potential audience, THEN think about self-publication. Go into it clear-eyed and clear-headed. Make it look stunning, shout about it on Facebook, set up direct sales - and hope that that web-trawling editor comes across it and makes you an offer, and you'll have had the best of both worlds!