Open Up To Indie Authors


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.Image

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.

Self-publishing Summit

Yesterday I had the pleasure of addressing New Generation Publishing’s Self-publishing Summit. It was a wonderful chance to catch up with old friends like Stuart Evers and Polly Courtney, both of whose passion and professionalism shone through their every word.


(l-r Stuart Evers, me, Tom Chalmers of Legend Press, Dan Cooke of New  Generation)

It was particularly interesting to have to prepare for an event like this as I also prepare to launch my book about self-publishing. It’s very easy, as a blogger and organiser of festival-style events, to get caught up in a bubble. We can imagine that the issues facing self-publishers are very different from the reality. So it’s essential to use opportunities like this to listen to the questions as much as what the panelists are saying. What struck me most about the questions was how technical and specific they were. There were questions about the most appropriate platforms for different formats, about the editing process, about the use of social media (a very interesting point from one audience member was that it would be incredibly useful to have a mentor – one of several areas where writing groups showed their value).

This was both encouraging and discouraging. Encouraging for me personally, because it showed the real gap for a book that takes you through not just the technical how-to but how to question, pin down, and then follow your dreams for your writing (a particularly astute point Stuart made was that any company that sells the dream often gives you nightmares – which is why it’s so important to be clear right at the start just what your dream is). Discouraging because it suggests that people aren’t thinking hard enough about what their dreams and aspirations are – what do they want to do with their work? How do they want to change the world? It’s always wonderful to talk to writers at these events, and of course their questions are skewed because they know they have a limited amount of time to ask them, but it’s interesting how rarely (with one notable exception yesterday) someone just has to tell you about their burning desire to do xyz.

spi cover 2

The conference was very niftily laid out to take you through the process of self-publishing, with panels that took you in order through a general survey, editing, production, and finally marketing. I had been asked to talk on the first panel, and then the summary panel at the end, so whilst other panelists came and went, I got a fascinating insight into the whole picture.

What was especially interesting was the emergence of particular themes across the panels.


(l-r Iain Broome, Polly Courtney, Catherin Coe, Julia Malone)

1. The absolute priority of craft. This is something we often hear given lip-service in blog pieces, but I was heartened by the unanimity with which panelists insisted that the first, second, and pretty much last task of the writer was to write the very best book possible. This was also given some interesting spins. Ben Galley reminded us that there is no such thing as an overnight success, emphasising the point the agent Meg Davies had made earlier in the day that it often takes 10 years for a writer to produce their very best work. Polly Courtney made the very important point that whilst ebooks have an eternal shelf life meaning that success can be slow and not instantaneous, you nonetheless only ever get one chance to win any one reader. It is, therefore, imperative that you finish crafting your work before pressing publish. Ann Moragn, who acquired a book deal from Harvill Secker from her blog A Year Of Reading The World, stressed that the project and your passion for it always comes first, that she had no idea or intention of a book deal when she started the blog.


(l-r Ben Galley, Samsun Lobe)

2. The importance of direct engagement and live performance. Direct engagement with fans is something I was expecting to hear about. And I did. But I was very pleasantly surprised how many people expressed the value of readings. I started off on the first panel by saying how bookshops were starting to get the hang  of just how exciting readings could be if they experimented with new formats – both agent Simon Benham (not surprisingly – he agented Ben Myers’ super first novel, Richard) and I talked about crossing over with music – but how many bookstores were still missing a trick and losing out to other arts venues like music stages and galleries. I also encouraged people to put an acting lesson into their budgets. Simon also stressed the success of readings organised outside of the bookshop and festival scene (there was much talk about how many more established festivals have lost their way, failing to pay fees and putting on very staid and tired formats of event – this provided one of several opportunities to talk about the Alliance of Independent Authors’ Open Up To Indies campaign) – village halls and pubs, especially outside of London, could be fabulous audiences. SF author Samsun Lobe stressed the importance of the conference circuit (rather timely given this week’s announcement that Crimefest is opening its doors to self-publishers) as a place where everyone there was there specifically because they like the kind of thing your write.

3. The importance of niche. Specialism was stressed again and again. Be it getting your genre right when you put your book onto a platform like Kobo, or simply knowing your audience exactly (though Stuart made the excellent point that this comes after the writing – you shouldn’t write for a particular reader, but write the book you have to write – THEN you need to know the readership, for which I pointed out the fact that the best place to start is to look at yourself and ask which of your own features drew you to that work). Samsun’s emphasis on specialist conferences was particularly relevant here.

4. A subdued approach to social media. Throughout, there was very little said about social media. The marketing panel was interestingly split. Ben Galley did an excellent job of tubthumping for it. Ann Morgan showed the importance of realising that social media is a very wide area encompassing blogs as well as twitter and Facebook and, of course, Goodreads. All were agreed on the importance of not using it to sell but to inform and interact. Stuart Evers made the point that you should never do what you’re not happy doing. He also made an impassioned stand against the notion of branding – yet again bringing people back to the priority of the writing.

Other points that emerged were the importance of retaining rights and exploiting them – for example in translation, and a general positivity about changes in the publishing industry. Meg Davies felt that publishers were starting to return to a more long-term model of giving authors a few books to find their feet, recognising the time it takes to reach their prime. Stuart Evers pointed out that the industry takes more risks than we think, but that many of them, the ones that don’t pay off, we simply don’t see.

All in all, a fascinating event, with much to be cheery about.

If you would like an email when my book comes out on December 16th, do drop me a line here.