Friday, 20 April 2012

London Book Fair and the launch of The Alliance of Independent Authors

The publishing industry year is punctuated by various beanfeasts and bonanzas, including the London Book Fair. As a writer, I've always felt that it wouldn't be appropriate or useful to attend, as the Fair is all about wheeling and dealing amongst publishing folks and agents. Strange, though, isn't it, that writers, who produce the material these deals will be based on, feel like interlopers, when it's the products of their imagination and commitment that provide the raw material for the deals?

This, though, is an industry engaged in looking at the future, with a rabbit-caught-in-headlights expression. It's trying to adjust to the speed of change: digital proliferation, digital rights management, the power of Amazon, the influence of Google ...

For writers, there has been change too. In some ways, disastrous change, in that we've seen publishers become more and more risk-averse, more and more governed by sales figures, more and more in thrall to the power of the supermarkets. Writers have been dropped because sales figures are not good enough. Writers are not taken on because the publishing house can't afford to take a punt on them. Writers are dashing their skulls against the barriers of the industry or sitting at home counting their proliferating grey hairs.

Orna Ross
Or are they? The times they are a'changing and no mistake. Reader, I went to the London Book Fair this year, for the very first time. And I had a blast. The trigger for my visit was the official launch of The Alliance of Independent Authors. Now, that's an irony for a start, isn't it? Orna Ross, an award-winning novelist who has set up the Alliance, chose to do so at the heart of the Book Fair: we were in a room that looked down on the vast arena of publishers' stands, with the low buzz of it rising up to us as we celebrated the power of independence and freedom for us, as writers, to bring our words to the public in the manner of our choosing.

Joanna Penn
Orna introduced two panel discussions. The first was chaired by Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn: industry professionals set out their stalls, trying to woo us with the services they can offer. There was a pretty hyped transatlantic tone to this - the verbal equivalent of punching the air. Tom Kephart of Amazon's CreateSpace advised writers to include as much effective metadata in the descriptions of their books as possible, to help with visibility (or that clumsy word 'discoverability'). Teresa Pereira of print-on-demand service Blurb UK stressed that writers often want print versions as well as electronic versions of their books available. She referred to the recent biography of Apple's Steve Jobs and how readers wanted the portability of the e-version but the production values of the hardback too. Michael Tamblyn of Kobo (which supplies its e-readers to WH Smith's), told us that 7-10% of the books they now deliver are self-published. He said they were looking at making it possible for authors to comment on their own books - having marginal notes, for instance, explaining what they were thinking when they wrote a particular paragraph. Hmn. As if writing the bleedin' thing isn't enough, we now have to analyse our meaning and motivation - when probably all we were doing was thinking of when we could justifiably stop for a coffee and a Kit-Kat!

Linda Gillard
A panel discussion of authors, chaired by Sam Missingham of The Bookseller, followed. This featured Scottish writer John Logan, who self-published after far too many years of 'rave rejections', along with Dan Holloway from Oxford, who ploughs a highly-individualistic furrow with his writing, enjoying experimentation, interaction and the 'freedom to fail'. Joni Rodgers, a vibrant Texan, has experienced both traditional publishing and independent publishing. She was amazingly confident, an absolute hoot. She sees the New York publishing industry as being obsessed with celebrity and says the hallmark of self-publishing will be when it becomes 'the high ground of creative risk-takers'. Then there was our own Linda Gillard (I've just featured her on Literascribe): she's making a satisfying living from self-publishing after being dropped as a mid-list author by her traditional publisher. She reinforced the message that indie publishing is ideal if you don't write in a particular genre, if you want to tackle different types of novel. There was a fascinating discussion of pricing strategies and how authors can experiment with different price-points to gain the best returns. Sam Missingham pointed out the irony that people will happily pay £2.50 for a greetings card yet balk at paying that for an entire e-book. Linda reminded us that the royalty rate in traditional publishing is poor.

In the question and answer session afterwards, the panel members were asked about reviews. Linda feels book reviews don't really sell books anyway. Alison Baverstock, course leader for the Master's in Publishing at Kingston University, highlighted that respected book-bloggers can have a huge influence and Amazon's Tom Kephart stressed the importance of good customer reviews. It was agreed that writers have always had to do a lot of heavy lifting in terms of promotion, whether traditionally published or not. The tricky thing, as Joni reminded us, is protecting writing time and resisting the temptation to 'pull the trigger' prematurely when putting work out there.

Some writers have of course made the news by generating enormous income as indie writers and then doing deals with traditional publishers. (You may remember my interviews with Mark Edwards and Louise Voss last year - they e-published their thrillers Catch your Death and Killing Cupid before landing a contract with HarperCollins.) Linda and Joni both want nothing further to do with traditional publishing, and you often hear the question these days - what can publishers offer us that we can't do for ourselves? However, I do think that writers and publishers don't need to hide behind opposing ramparts, firing off pot-shots at one another. We should all be working together to advocate reading and bookselling. Orna says that the Alliance is all about 'collaboration, connection, contact' and that writing books is 'like football. You've got the Premier League - that doesn't stop you kicking a ball about the garden.' Historically, there's been a lot of snootiness with regard to self-publishing and God knows, there's a lot of dross out there and a lot of dross being encouraged by ease of access to publishing services. But there's a lot of great material out there too, material denied a platform because of market/industry dictats and limitations. I have had the experience of traditional publishing with a highly-respected publisher (Bloomsbury) with whom I was proud to be associated. The harsh reality is that any writer's time in the sun is limited because publishers and booksellers produce and display work briefly and then move on. Self-publishing allows you to take advantage of the 'long tail' of possible sales. It gives you freedom, it does away with the agony of waiting for responses, it gives you control over your income. Traditional publishing still gives you validation and kudos and it gives you access to bookshops, and foreign rights deals you might not be able to garner for yourself. Linda finds self-publishing is 'a way of making friends', Dan sees it as a way of being 'true', Joni talks of 'artistic freedom'. But it doesn't have to be a case of either/or. Orna wants writers to be seen as 'partners' in publishing, not as 'a resource to be mined'. If you buy a hybrid car, you can choose to power it with electricity or petrol. What's truly truly exciting for writers now is that we can choose a hybrid career, publishing independently or traditionally as it suits us. As it suits us. Suits me!

If you want to see and hear more about the launch of ALLIA, here's the link to Joanna Penn's video of interviews with those attending.

 Here is the link to a fascinating and lively interview she and Orna took part in on Radio Litopia - and if you want to find out more about the Alliance and how to join, just click on the button in the sidebar of this blog.

Remember, if you're a writer just starting out, you've finished your book and want to edit it or you're ready to take your book to the market, my upcoming Fictionfire courses, two of which I'm running with Joanna Penn, will offer you practical advice and inspiration.

Write It! will cover all the elements of composing your story, from finding ideas to finishing your first draft.

Edit It! will teach you crucial techniques for polishing and presenting your work effectively.

Joanna Penn of and Ali Luke of will join me for Publish It!, where you'll learn to set and achieve your publishing goals, and Market It!, where we'll show you all the exciting online and offline opportunities for you to publicise and sell your work.

Trinity College
Full details of these courses are on the Course Dates and Details page of my website: and there are discounts if you wish to book more than one course. The courses run on 19th, 20th, 26th and 27th May at Trinity College Oxford - so don't leave it too long to make your booking!


Dan Holloway said...

great to see you at the launch. I do agree about working together for the greater goal of getting people excited about words, their power and their ability to convey emotion, truth, change, and everything else - and whatever does that is something to celebrate. Self-publishing provides a wonderful opportunity for readers and writers to emerge in communities that were to a large extent cut out of traditional publishing - or, worse still, "written about" by it. It provides a way out of the vicious circle of marketing logic that says every new acquisition has to fit a proven market - a logic that means anything totally outside what exists can never be reached. To the extent we see traditional publiahing values championed as a paradigm by independent authors I'm sceptical. To the extent groups like the Alliance offer a voice to those whose concerns and motivations for writing we can't even begin to wrap our heads around and treat those motivations and concerns on an equal footing, this is something to be celebrated as genuinely revolutionary.

Lorna F said...

Thanks, Dan. Working together is the key, gaining a voice is crucial.