It was a great privilege to speak at today’s launch at Kobo’s London Book Fair stall, of Open Up To Indie Authors (download it here), which I co-authored with the wonderful Debbie Young, published by the Alliance of Indie Authors thanks to the tireless efforts of Orna Ross. The book is more than just an essential campaign document and rallying cry. It’s a guide to working with every sector in the global literary sphere, from bloggers through prizes and bookstores to festivals, making the case for the inclusion of indie authors, helping indie authors to understand the industry and helping the industry to see why it needs indie authors.
l-r Debbie Young, Jessica Bell, Hugh Howey, Orna Ross, Diego Marano, Me
Here’s the text of the speech
Those of you who know me will know that, among other things, I am a fairly outspoken atheist. Nonetheless, by training I am a theologian, and I am going to start with a little sortie into that world.
Most people are familiar with the parable of the Good Samaritan, found in Luke’s Gospel. Not so many are familiar with the context in which the Gospel’s author places it. Jesus has just delivered his mission statement, for want of a better phrase – “love your neighbour as yourself.” The person he’s speaking to, being simultaneously a handy rhetorical device and someone who’s not going to fall for a politician’s generalities, pulls him up and asks him exactly what he means – “who is my neighbour?” a question Jesus answers, in a manner familiar from all the great orators, with a story, the story of the Good Samaritan.
There is a simple point being made, and it’s one that the author of Luke’s Gospel makes repeatedly, from the Sermon on the Mount to Pentecost, the instant hook of his sequel, the Acts of the Apostles. And the point is this. What matters in deciding “who is my neighbour?” is not the answer. What matters is how we ask the question. And we can ask it in two very different ways. We can ask, as Jesus’ interlocutor does, “Who are the ones I have to love?” Or we can ask, as Jesus reimagines the question, “Whom may I love?” It’s a dichotomy you will find as a pretty much constant feature in human problem solving. On the one hand, we can approach problems by asking, “How do I avoid all the things I need to avoid?” On the other hand, we can approach them by asking, “How do I encounter all the things that are worth encountering?”
You probably start to see where this is going. But let me digress. Self-publishing, like Lionel Shriver’s eponymous Kevin, has become one of those awkward problems in the literary world, one of those things that we need to talk about, that we need to do something about, but we can’t quite figure what. Self-publishers and traditional publishers, and hybrid authors and bricks and mortar stores and journalists and service providers eye each other like a GIF flickering between suspicion and desire.
But the simple truth of it is this. Everyone in the business of books has just one duty. And it’s not to themselves. It’s not to bookstores. It’s not to progress and nor is it to the preservation of the physical book. It’s not to shareholders, and it’s not – though I wish it were – to writers. Every one of us has a duty to readers – to those who read avidly – that they keep coming back for more; to those who might one day read – that the experience brings something wonderful to their lives; to those who have never read before – that they discover worlds they could never have imagined; to those to whom books are the most precious thing in the world – that we never disappoint them; and to those who believe adamantly that books are not and could never be for them – that we provide them with the means to discover they were wrong.
And that brings us back to the question of what to do about self-publishing, and back to the Good Samaritan. Each of us in the business of books can ask the question, it turns out, in two ways. Just like we can ask “who is my neighbour” two ways. We can ask “How do we keep all the bad books out?” Or we can ask “How do we make sure to let all the good books in?” And the simple truth is you can’t do both. You can never do both. But the problem is when you put those questions on most people’s they sound just the same. And those simple syllogisms that won’t sit at ease together are the reason why we can never decide what to do about self-publishing, and why whenever we start to try we sound like we are tearing each other apart.
But the solution is straightforward. Which question serves readers? Now, of course, there’s a different combination of readers and industry cogs for every shade of grey. But if each sector of the industry keeps its eye first, last, and only on its readers and asks the self-publishing question in respect of them, we will very soon get on the right collective footing.
I just want to speak very briefly about the part of the industry that matters to me most, the one that made me first want to get involved in the Open Up to Indies campaign, and the one that makes me more convinced than ever of the need for such a campaign.
The literary media loves to be the second to discover the next new thing. Journalists love the thrill and the kudos of being the one to break the story about something or someone original and exciting. But they are driven by the fear of the finger-pointing of being the one who backed a dud. And so they persist in steering the middle ground, relentlessly ignoring the wild, the brilliant, the flamboyant and the flawed – in other words systematically averting their gaze from what self-publishing does best.
In this world, readers will never be sold a pup. But they will never be exposed to something truly astounding and life-changing either. This is a world that asks the wrong question. This is a world that protects readers from the bad. This is a world that denies reader whole swathes of the outstanding. This is a world that has to change. And that is why Open Up To Indie Authors is essential.