If you were at London Book Fair (LBF) last April, on Wed 19th April you would have noticed a group of authors gathering in the Old Press Room overlooking the main hall, away from the main action.
As anyone who has ever been to a mega-trade fair knows, writers don’t really have a place there, where the focus is all on business. The only scribes at events like LBF usually fall into two categories: the celebrity authors, who’ve been brought along by their publishers; or the ones who don’t really get how it how the business works, and are wandering around, unable to get anybody’s attention, because everyone is too busy buying and selling.
These gathering writers were different, a new breed and they were forming a new breed of writers’ association. All had either self-published or were preparing to, and they were here to launch the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), a global, non-profit, collaborative collective of independent self-publishing authors.
ALLi was born out of my own experience of going indie in 2011. I’d been a writer for 20 years, first a journalist, then a novelist. I’d published nonfiction with Attic, a very small feminist small press, and Penguin, a very large conglomerate. The more I learned about publishing – my day job in the noughties was running a writing school and the small literary agency that grew out of it – the more troubled I was by developments in the book business.
The days when a sympathetic editor would spot potential in your tyro manuscript, take you on as a fledgling writer and nurture your emerging talent, with a view to recouping their investment on your second, third or fourth book, were gone. In the 1990s, free market ideologies had taken over publishing, paving the way for conglomerates, supermarkets and bookstore chains to hoover up the business, almost wiping out the profit for small publishers and booksellers, and decimating writer royalties.
The story of contemporary trade book publishing, says Sam Jordison of The Guardian, is a story of ‘the slashing of lists, mergers, collapses, buy-outs, sackings and losses on a scale never before witnessed… Waterstones or Tescos book buyers, rather than the book-buying public, decide whether a book succeeds. Supermarkets tell publishers what price to sell at, how many copies to print, what to put on the cover, what to call books and even what to put inside them’.
An exaggeration? Not in my experience. This was precisely the publishing milieu I entered with my novels, when I started publishing fiction in 2006. Though I’d previuosly worked in journalism, I was shocked by the money-focus and cynical ploys of corporate publishing, a business model that seemed ever more centred on chasing the next bright young thing and the bottom line buck.
From capitulation to Tescos to pretend charts in the shops, your bestseller status bought and paid for by the publisher; from the pressure to repeat what you wrote first time out, to the short schedules and shelf time; from the closing out of writers on decisions about presentation and marketing to the downward pressure on royalties, it’s a bruising environment for any writer who thinks their job is about something more important than sales targets, and who sees books as something more than just another consumer commodity.
The Rise of Self-Publishing
But then, hope arrived in the form of the digital technology and print-on-demand. For the first time ever, self-publishing became a viable option for a novelist with an interest in poetry and meditation. And the Internet provided new tools by which one might be able to build a readership in what had, ironically, become the old-fashioned way: one happy reader at a time.
In 2011, I decided to give it a go. I started with a pamphlet of poems, the logic being that it would be easy and short, allowing me to get to grips with unfamiliar skills like formatting. It was poetry, went my logic, nobody was going to read it anyway, so I could make all the mistakes I wanted.
I learned what I needed to know, then moved on to writing a meditation guide to foster creativity, which I had long been promising my Inspiration Meditation class, and to sell on my website.
From the off, I loved self-publishing. Not just because the books sold – and they did! a poetry pamphlet! a meditation guide! – but mainly for the way it restored to me something I’d lost by working within corporate structures.
For a writer with a passionate interest in the creative process — my blog is called The Go Creative! Blog – it was clear this was the most creative pathway to publication, forcing a writer to think not just about the book, but also how to present it, format it, cover it, blurb it. All the things I had complained about my publisher doing badly before.
Now I had all the freedom. And all the responsibility. It was heady stuff but I was soon having more fun, garnering more readers and making more consistent money, than at any time since I’d started to publish fiction. Before long, I was seeking a reversion of rights from my publisher, so I could reissue my novels myself, with the titles and treatment I had originally envisaged for them.
Many writers have yet to understand the opportunities inherent in the new technologies which simultaneously do four things that are very good for writers. They:
shorten the ‘supply chain’, removing the need for some or all of the following: agent, publisher, wholesaler, and bookseller.
expand the market beyond your own territory to a global readership. On the Internet, there’s no such place as ‘abroad’.
eliminate out-of-print. The old model of having a few weeks during which your book had to prove itself or die is extended into ‘the long tail’.
provide a point-of-sale just in the moment a reader decides they want your book.
Any one of these would be a good thing for writers. Taken all together, they add up to a revolution.
In the history of human communication there are only a few key moments. One was the move from bard to scribe, when storytellers started writing stuff down. Another was the invention of the printing press, the advances at Gutenberg that allowed books to be cheaply made and distributed. Another was the move from silent movies to ‘talkies’. I believe we’re now living through a cultural change of similar order.
The Alliance of Independent Authors
But there’s no such thing as an unmixed blessing. It soon became clear to me that writers wanting to harness the opportunities inherent in this revolution, needed support, information, collaboration and self-belief. I looked to see if I could find a non-profit association of writers working together for each other. Not a group that was jumping on the bandwagon but one conscious of the issues of ethics and excellence and had the democratisation of publishing and the empowerment of writers and readers at its heart.
When I couldn’t find such a group, it gave me pause. The more I looked, the more urgent seemed the need for one. Self publishing writers were marginalised in a way that made little sense to me — excluded from most writing organisations on largely spurious grounds, not featured in literary events and festivals, ignored by prizes.
An organisation was needed to promote their interests within the literary and publishing industries — booksellers, wholesalers, agents, trade publishers and media, expressing their particular (practical and creative) needs and the self-publishing writer’s position on the most important debates.
I had – during a year of cancer treatment — realised that I wanted to change my life: sold my business in Dublin and moved to London. For the first time in my writing life, I didn’t have a day job.
And when I thought about it, I realised that when asked by my grandchildren where I was when this revolutionary shift was going on in the writing and publishing world, I want to be able to say: in the heart of it. Not just stretching my own creative boundaries but also helping other writers to recognise and relish our new creative freedom.
So I cleared the decks of everything else but my writing, gathered up all the knowledge gleaned from two decades in publishing and gave birth to the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) a support and a campaigning organization.
The core aims of the alliance are to provide support, guidance, advice, contacts, advocacy and connection for the self-publishing author, to fostering excellence, advance the interests of self-publishing writers.
We provide a range of benefits: advice, meetups online and off, contacts and collaborations, news and information, an agent to sell suitable titles in international markets, and much more. And we have great plans for the future.
From our beginnings that day at the London Book Fair, the Alliance already has a strong base and new members join every day, bringing with them varying levels of experience and sharing their knowledge with their fellow and sister writers.
We welcome any self-publishing writers interested in working together in a spirit of mutual co-operation, empowerment and service to the reading and writing community.
As our watchdog advisor, Victoria Strauss, puts it, “Self-publishing is an increasingly viable alternative for new authors seeking an audience and established authors looking to bring older work back into circulation. [But] as with any publishing option, it needs to be undertaken on the basis of knowledge, not hype.”
What Is An Independent Author?
There’s a lot of confusion around terminology, with people using the term ‘indie’ or ‘independent author’ interchangeably with ‘self-publisher’, and people meaning wildly different things when they use those words. If there ever was a time when ‘indie author’ and ‘self publisher’ were synonymous terms, our diverse membership makes it clear that is no longer the case.
Here is ALLi’s definition of an independent author:
You see yourself as the person with primary responsibility for each of your books, its creative director — not just in getting it written, but also in getting it published and getting it read.
You recognise that ‘indie’ does not mean ‘self-publishing only’ — but you will have self-published at least one book.
You view ‘independent author’ as an inclusive designation. At one end of the scale are those who exclusively self-publish, owning their own ISBNs and licensing their own rights. At the other is those who choose to work with a company to do some of the publishing tasks – which may be a paid press, or a trade publisher. In between are the many writers who choose different pathways for different books, weighing up the requirements and opportunities on a project-by-project basis.
You acknowledge that even the most indie-spirited self-publisher works in collaboration with other publishing professionals and that most are open to making mutually beneficial partnerships with distributors, agents, marketeers, booksellers and, yes, trade publishers, so long as the author’s status as creative director of the book through all stages of the process is acknowledged.
You seek agreements and contracts that reflect this equal-partnership model, shunning publishing practices and royalty rates that are unfavourable to indie-minded authors.
You recognise that you are central to a revolutionary shift in publishing which is moving from seeing the author as resource (in the new parlance ‘content provider’) to respecting the author as creative director.
You understand that this shift is prompting everyone in publishing to rethink what they do and how they do it and that in this shifting landscape, your decisions and choices have implications for all writers and the future of publishing. You are committed to the empowerment of authors and the democratisation of writing and publishing.
You are proud of your indie status, which you carry into all your ventures, negotiations and collaborations.
Visit Orna’s festival link. Orna also appears at the festival in Beyond Fiction (Aug 24)