More Open For Indies? What I’d Like 2014 to Bring

Happy festivities. In this season of round-ups and forward-looks, when Janus stalks the blogosphere, writers everywhere are musing and reflecting. And whilst I am happy to grinch along with the best of them, it seems churlish not to join in the speculation.

But first the important bit. Here is a present. Click the image below to download an exclusive pdf of SKIN BOOK, beautifully illustrated with 8 pictures from Veronika von Volkova’s stunning Grime Angels series.

SKIN BOOK pic-page0001

It’s been a fascinating year for self-publishers. At the start of the year I had just begun work on the Alliance of Independent Authors’ Open Up to Indies guidebook. At time of writing, that guidebook’s release is imminent. But the backdrop against which it will see the light of day has changed – if not beyond all recognition then at least significantly. This autumn, Crimefest announced that it will be welcoming self-published authors next year. The Author Lounge at this year’s London Book Fair included self-publishig luminaries like Mel Sherratt. The Folio Prize, launched as the serious literary alternative to Booker, opened its doors to self-publishers, self-publishing conferences started talking about writing as well as marketing. And the Guardian has been running a self-publishing showcase giving blog time to indies for several months now. We’ve even seen a major serious writing award for the originally self-published A Naked Singularity.

The door feels ajar.

Whether or not it is, now that’s another matter. For me personally, it’s been a year of as much frustration as liberation. I still feel like the amusing pet as often as I feel like the welcome family member. It is getting easier to write about self-publishing. But as a literary writer and poet it remains as hard as ever to get the things I self-publish actually written about. I get to talk about self-publishing more than ever. But about my self-published writing as little as ever. There is still much work to be done to get people talking about self-published books rather than about self-publishing: the phenomenon.

These are the things I’d like to see for self-publishing in 2014.

1. Slow writing and the death of the algorithm

The best marketing for your book is other books. Write more. Be prolific. The tipping point to success comes when you’ve written x number of books. More books breed more discoverability. These have become more than mantras of self-publishing, givens that every writer has to take on board.

And these truisms are poison. Roz Morris wrote a brilliant post earlier this year about the slow novel, about the fact that some genres such as literary fiction spill their words more slowly than others. And yes, I absolutely accept that some genres are more sales friendly than others. But sales are not the be all and end all, and should not be the guide for whether or not a book receives coverage or acclaim.

One of the delights of this year in literature has been the domination of the literary press by slow novels – some, such as Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Girl, so slow their publishers have sent out search parties. And the year ended with acclaim for slow writer extraordinnaire Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch – her third book in 21 years.

But this level of acclaim – and in the case of Seth and Tartt attendant sales success – is a closed book to self-publishers where worthiness of column inches is driven by the incessant demand to proliferate.

I would love 2014 to be the year of slow self-publishing, the year when writers who spend years crafting boxes of literary delights are plucked from the multipublishing masses and championed as self-publishing’s vanguard, by other self-publishers as well as by the media.

2. The media reviewing and talking about our books outside of the context of special ghettos set up on our behalf.

We have seen positive steps this year, with the Guardian’s self-publishing showcase leading the way. But there remains the suspicion that we are a curio, something strange and esoteric to be looked at in the confines of a specially controlled environment.

It would be wonderful to see self-publishing crawl out of its corner and into the features and culture pages. But this needs journalists to lead the way, to stop reacting, being embarrassed at the thought they might be championing something not quite respectable, to start having the courage of their critical convictions.

3. Self-published books are more than just digital

The overwhelming majority of truly great self-published books I’ve come across are not only available as physical as well as electronic books, but primarily physical books. From Sarah Hymas’ exquisite Lune trough Andy Harrod’s devastating Living Room Stories to Anna Fennel Hughes’ layered and profound illustrated masterpiece Crockett’s Fall.

And yet it remains the case that the overwhelming coverage of self-publishing, both amongst the media and fellow self-publishers, talks about ebooks, and there are many how to books and blogs that talk as if self-publishing and Kindle were synonymous – I have even seen posts suggesting as if it’s breaking news that self-publishers could consider having a paperback version of their book.

I would love to see the artisan craft of bookmaking celebrated, to see the beautiful zines and self-published illustrated and experimental manuscripts that are being produced receive the attention they deserve.

4. Celebrating our Differences

This is happening already to some extent. As we get less and less defensive about being self-publishers, more confident that we deserve our places at the table, our agendas get less homogenous. We are no longer banding together out of sheer necessity, and as a result we are realising that often some of us have less in common with some self-publishers than with some who follow a more traditional route.

The real sign that self-publishing is secure will come when we’re ready to admit that we are all different, and all have different aims, some of which might actually conflict, and when we’re happy to disagree passionately with one another, knowing that such disagreements won’t “harm self-publishing”.

5. Stop measuring ourselves against professional publishing

There is an increasing number of sites springing up that are designed to help readers wade their way through the self-publishing mire by highlighting the best of indie. All too often “best” is equated with professional production standards, an ability to attain a certain level of craft in areas from editing and cover design to narrative arcs and managing info dumps.

These sites are very well-meaning and I’m sure there are readers to whom these things matter, but they reflect an insecurity that’s endemic in self-publishing. Too many of us want to hold onto the similarities we have with a world we have left behind and too few of us are ready to embrace the difference and shout them from the rooftops.

What’s great about these sites is that none of the books I’ve read there has been bad. Job done? Well, is that really what readers want? A selection of books that ranges, in my experience, from good to almost publishable in quality? Am I really that unusual as a reader in wanting books that blow my socks off?

What’s so sad is that there are self-published books out there that really will blow your socks off. Kate Tempest’s Everything Speaks in its Own Voice, for example, or Rohan Quine’s The Imagination Thief. I would love to see a landscape in which self-published books are no longer celebrated because they’re solid or serviceable, where adequate or professionally produced is no longer good enough to rack up the 5 star reviews and full support of their peers, where we celebrate the truly outstanding as measured by the subjective standards of our tastes – where we actually have the courage of our convictions not to worry what the world thinks about self-publishing but to say “I adore this book, you must read it” or “this is utter crap.”

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20 thoughts on “More Open For Indies? What I’d Like 2014 to Bring

  1. Here’s to 2014, then. 2013 has been interesting. I know I need to step back and work out what I think I am doing. Perhaps when my health improves.
    But I get entirely all the above points. I’m pretty much a one trick pony. I can’t do all this professional stuff at all.
    best of luck for next year. xx

    • here’s hoping 2014 brings you better health and a fabulous year of writing – I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to step back and think more too in the hope I set off on teh right track next year

  2. I’m very proud to have done it MY way. I was told by agents that at 65,000 words my novel was too short – could I add a few chapters as they like 80,000 words? Not even could I add a chapter to improve the story. It was just to do with maths and printing and cover price. But I knew the story was complete, so how could I add in 15,000 unnecessary words? It is done. I am happy. People are enjoying it. And 2014 is the year to get MORE people to enjoy it. And for the next novel… Thanks for championing the cause, Dan. May we all stay on the right track MOST of the time 🙂

    • the diktats about word count are one of the most infuriating things – I love novellas – it’s so frustrating that there are so few of them because so many publishers have a blind spot

      Very very best for 2014!

  3. Hear, hear, Dan! And thanks so much for including my post about slow writing. If 2013 was the year when self-publishing became recognised as professional, let’s get past that and pay more attention to the content. Just as all traditionally published authors are not the same, self-published authors aren’t either.
    I so agree with your comment on writing about self-publishing but having few opportunities to write about your actual work, your themes, interests, influences, aims, urges to create. It’s easy to find a wide audience for a how-to piece on creating your own book. Much less easy to find the perfect receivers for the souls we are transmitting.
    In fact, in this post you’ve written pretty much what I would write – only you thought of it first.
    Happy new year!

  4. Well said, as always, Dan, but I will take tiny issue with the semantics of #5. I don’t compare myself to professionals; I am a professional, whether I’m working within a corporate publisher or on my own. My skill set and craft standards – my professionalism – I own that. A corporate publisher doesn’t endow me with it. In fact, I’m particularly thrilled with my forthcoming book from Perigee/Putnam because I was given so much creative freedom and was included in all aspects of production from cover design to off-the-hook digital edition enhancements. What I bring to the table at a corporate publisher now is far greater because of my indie experience. The smart, forward-thinking publishers are recognizing that it counts as a professional credit.

    For me, as a reader, the publishing origin of a book is no longer relevant. I think we’re agreed on that point. And if I understand you, we agree on the idea that we as authors would benefit from steering The Greater Conversation toward creatively brave, technically excellent books that deserve to be talked about, whatever their point of origin, rather than jabber on about the merits/ vagaries/ vicissitudes of self pub vs trad pub.

    My New Year’s Resolution for 2014: Ban two topics from personal conversation for the simple reason that I’m sick of their irrelevant asses. My weight is one. Publishing is the other. I don’t care how much I weigh; I care about feeling heathy and energized. And I don’t care about publishing; I care about reading and writing. In 2014, my words and actions will better reflect that.

    Also, your are a delicious human, and I’m glad to know you.

    • I am so with you on the weight question. I’ve been on a serious exercise and healthy eating regime for about 6 months now, and it’s amazing how many people assume it’s about weight – it’s nothing to do with how I look, and everything to do with wanting to give myself the best chance i can to get the most from life for as long as possible.

      And I’m with you on stopping talking about publishing too and just being able to get on and talk about the words – it’ll be a wonderful day when we can all do that.

      And yes, I accept your first point. I think mine is a parallel rather than a conflicting one (parallel in the sense that there’s room for different approaches) – I want to make amateur no longer a dirty term but something to be celebrated – but yes, of course there’s room for professionals in self-publishing too, I just won’t ever think they’re better than amateurs – just doing different things that can produce equally spectacular results

      Oh, and you too are, of course, a delicious human being 🙂

  5. As usual Dan I play echo to all above! Particularly the incessant jabber about ‘being as good as…professional as…well edited as… i.e Self congratulatory re-assurances.That was all devised for the unconvinced! Now we are convinced and those things are as givens.

    What remains to be done is to feel as certain about all the advisory marketing ‘platforms’, planning, blog touring..social networking. They may be necessary, indeed without them books may languish, as would a meal beautifully prepared grow cold without a plate or implements to serve it. It is only the writing that counts and that is where the adventurous self publisher may hold the pennant. Nobody is pulling his’er strings!

    I confess to a certain injection of chutzpah in the week that my self published, un-sellable, ‘nobody- will-read’ a ‘new history of science in poetry’ book was nominated as ‘runner-up highly commended’ Book of the Year by the Scientific and Medical Network.

    That will not necessarily translate into sales but it was no small vindication of self belief!

    • huge congratulations!

      I think we have to hold on to the idea that the truly outstanding and original will stand out in time, and that they seem to be hidden at the moment because self-publishing is still young

  6. Brilliantly well said. As someone who writes at the speed glaciers move and sells far more in print than online (from one store and my handbag, too) I really loved points 1 and 3 but the rest go without saying, too.

    Nice one, well said.

    Cheers

    MTM

      • Ooooo you flatter me ambassador! The way I do it is to always have a handbag and always have a book in it. If people ask me what I do I say and offer to show them a copy. Often they’ll buy it. I do try to make sure they buy voluntarily and don’t feel forced but on the whole they really do seem to want to. I do events, too and sell quite a few at those.

        Cheers

        MTM

  7. I’ve been contemplating self-publishing for a while, mindful that my ‘type’ of books probably aren’t going to be commercially viable for a traditional publisher. The one thing I’ve been trying to do over the past three years, though, is build up a decent catalogue of novel drafts in various stages of production. Glad to note that my hunch about this being the right thing to do is confirmed in this article.

    Happy New Year!

  8. Philippa – unlikely to find *help*, yes, but I already know several who will provide services for a premium price – self-published authors are often seen as a massive target market that service providers are desperate to tap

  9. Big respect to you, Dan, for the energy and passion you bring to nudging our literary culture in exactly the directions you indicate here: you’re at the forefront of the forces that are hammering it, by slow but sure degrees, into something whose mechanisms will be motivated by greater intelligence and greater humanity than before.

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