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.

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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.”

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.

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(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.

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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.

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(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.

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(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.