With a long history of independent short film making (see some examples on festival website) including THE UNIVERSAL HAMLET which won an award at the first Toronto Online Film Festival way back in 2001, I was perhaps better placed than most to adopt the ‘indie’ publishing approach. I’ve always seen my writing more as creative art than mass media product and so the idea of retaining complete control over the publishing process appealed to me. My first venture into an ‘indie’ world of publishing was cross media – setting up 3dnarrative in 2000 which produced short films and published my first novel The Threads of Time in 2003. It was an experiment in ‘self publishing’ as much as anything to see how one could avoid the elephant traps of the ‘vanity’ publishing industry. Ten years ago nearly everyone I knew was very sniffy about the idea of ‘self’ publishing and the concept of ‘indie’ publishing for books didn’t really exist. Independent publishing just meant companies which weren’t in the Big League of publishers.
Creatively I have a low boredom threshold and though initially I found the ephemeral nature of live theatre/drama irritating, it wasn’t half as irritating as the waiting that goes on in the film or publishing industries. Of course you can keep on writing but you do build up a huge portfolio of work that is essentially ‘finished’ but not placed. And that always used to annoy me. I didn’t feel the creative communication was finished until the work was ‘out there’ in some way. So I got diverted again by theatre and live performance/ processual drama for some years (and had a creative ‘blast’ doing so, running a Theatre Company producing new work and delving into Boalian methodology) and my next ‘publishing’ experiment was in 2007 when I first encountered the world of ‘blogs’.
My approach to new technology is to see what the tools can do for me by trying to use them creatively for my own purposes. Subvert the media if you like. It’s usually painful, the learning curves are steep, but it definitely pays off in the long run. In this case I wrote an online serial blog novel (I certainly hadn’t read any but I’m sure there were other people doing the same thing) Published online between January and October during 2007 ‘Otro Mundo es Posible’ was an episodic tale of a woman who grows up believing that she is Che Guevara’s love child. 2007 was the 40th anniversary of the murder of Che Guevara. It was part of the ProjectJam (no longer available online) which as well as this novella, kept a daily blog of world events in a number of countries that had associations with Che Guevara – contextualising happenings 40 years on.
A very short limited paperback print run was self published (indie publishing still wasn’t a ‘concept’ term) in 2007 and then in 2008 I took advantage of a new scheme (again, experimenting, with a critical stance) where effectively the book was published POD by YouWriteOn with the English title ‘Another World is Possible.’ All the cries were once more of ‘vanity’. But as it turned out initiatives such as YouWriteOn actually provided a way for a lot of writers who for whatever reason couldn’t find mainstream publishing contracts to start experimenting with an ‘indie’ model.
This is certainly how it worked for me. In 2010 I set up HoAmPresst Publishing, whose aim was to publish limited edition paperback works independently – a way of getting my vast ‘back catalogue’ of prose and plays (as well as new work) into print. The first publication was Brand Loyalty in 2010. There have so far been 3 print editions of Brand Loyalty. I undertook a comparative analysis by ‘indie’ publishing using a printer and for a year publishing an edition with YouWriteOn. I was comparing the marketing reach, the price comparisons, the quality of the finished book among other things. I realised that I didn’t need the likes of YouWriteOn and it was just as easy to take the full responsibility myself. I learned the technology.
At this point POD became a real option but I preferred the ‘limited’ edition concept. Partly I will admit because of a lack of desire to ‘market hard’ which is, I believe, essential to get a paperback sold. And because I find most POD terms and conditions extremely non transparent. It was a personal choice and I’m sure I’ll engage with POD in some form at some time in the future. It begs a question though: Is limited edition publishing always vanity? I don’t think so. I think it can represent a different market view. I am motivated by moral not material incentives and I want to make my work available and give people informed choice, not hype and market and con them into thinking it’s a must have fashion item. (Vanity publishing is discussed elsewhere in the festival)
Anyway, to move on with my ‘publishing’ journey/adventure/experiment/business. I have always been interested in ‘Branding’ as a concept (Brand Loyalty is a fictional exploration of what might happen to the world by 2030 if we continue unaware of the power of the media which mediates for us and ultimately constructs our identity.) It’s one reason why my publishing ventures have always had production companies or publishing imprints – a form of brand, or at least an identity over and above myself. A hat to hang things on.
Part of this has been my reluctance throughout my career to engage in ‘business’ models such as the formation of ‘limited companies’ but at the same time it works as a personal motivator. Giving a project or ‘experiment’ a name or a brand identity enables me to distance myself from it similarly to the way the people do when they form a ‘company’ which has a distinct ‘identity’ apart from their individual identity.
I seldom start writing a novel or story without a title first (even if it changes) and I don’t communicate creatively without having some form of creative ‘identity’ to hang my hat on. It’s what makes me work harder, longer and keep my ‘quality’ control up. I’m doing something for other people. Something that isn’t ‘just me.’ Something beyond my personal identity (which I jealously guard), something that I am allowing into the world of social identity. It has never been an attempt to try and throw a smokescreen and hide my vanity behind an ‘organisation.’ I have always been transparent about the purposes and aims of my creative endeavours. I just have real problems with the notion of identity as an economic entity in a capitalist market driven economy. These are my ‘personal’ issues but real ones that I had to /have to resolve when I engage in creative communication through publishing.
We move onto the present. I first became aware of ebooks in 2011. I was, like many people, sceptical. I looked into it. Did a lot of research. Began to realise the possibilities. Digital publishing is a lot cheaper than print publishing (and better for the environment) and as such provides a prolific writer such as me a way to ‘indie’ publish without having to put up a lot of cash.
I first tried to adopt what I thought was a truly ‘indie’ model. I spent 6 months avoiding the new vanity models which I’m afraid do proliferate in the ‘marketplace.’ I learned the technology for myself. (Again this is discussed elsewhere in the festival) I found (with great difficulty) a ‘distributor’. My problem was that most of these ‘distributors’ want to do the conversion/formatting for you (it’s where they make their money). But I’d learned the technology to do the formatting myself. I spent 6 months with a distributor and it wasn’t a happy time. While others (who had poo-poohed the whole indie/self publishing idea 10 years previously) were happily publishing via KDP and building readerships and platforms and the likes, and getting good feedback on their royalties etc and thus able to market more effectively and achieve the nirvana of ‘visibility’, I was stuck in a Groundhog day of errors – everything from the ebook price to the title to my author name to the genre of the works was got wrong and all of this meant that my work remained invisible -and I couldn’t calculate the number of sales on a monthly, or daily basis, so I couldn’t work out basic things regarding my ‘market.’ Note, none of this was primarily in order to see if I could sell ‘a million’ or make a fortune, but it’s vital if you are indie publishing that you know where your work is and how its selling and can respond to market intitiatives and opportunities. Epublishing offers the writer the opportunity to have a direct less mediated relationship with readers but it IS still mediated through the distributor/retailer. And I learned the hard way that to be ‘indie’ I really had to be ‘indie’ and that meant dealing direct with Amazon and Kobo rather than going through a middleman. Ironically it seemed, going back into the ‘industry’ barney about vanity publishing. Wiser, understanding many more reasons why there is that barney at all. It’s the economy stupid. It’s not about critical values when it comes down to it. It’s about MONEY.
So, finally in April 2012 I bit the bullet and undertook what I considered to be a ‘dance with the devil’ with Amazon. While I’m not sure I’m comfortable with their business models I have learned that in all publishing endeavours compromise is necessary and I am ‘experimenting’ with what Amazon and Kobo have to offer. I’ve done free promotions, I’ve dipped my toe in the forum world to find readers but mostly I’m developing my own catalogue which I suppose is my first step in platform building. I want my work to speak for itself. And I need the work to be available before that can happen. People can’t begin to discover it if it doesn’t exist outside my computer or head.
It’s a punishing publishing schedule. I need 27 hours in the day. I have currently on my ‘slate’ 3 x stage plays from my ‘back catalogue’ and 4 x novels (new and back catalogue) to publish by next spring.
And I have plans for the future. Serious plans. Of expanding my ‘publishing’ empire. In February I turn 50. I’ve been working as a professional writer for over 20 years and I had intended slipping into retirement aged 50. Out to pasture. Sit in the garden. Reading. But no, now with the rise of epublishing I have a whole new 10 year plan. It seems criminal to bow out just when all my experience seems to be segueing together and I can be part of a publishing revolution. I have asked for (and will get) a publishing company for my 50th birthday. No, I’m not expecting Penguin or Random House, I have a name and a brand identity ready to go. I am developing my business and marketing strategies and will be dipping my toe well beyond my own creative talent. But it’s top secret now while I build my catalogue. In a fast moving industry I’m taking a risk and playing a long game. If I’ve learned one thing in life it’s that this is no bad thing. Nothing is wasted and careful planning towards a clear goal, with flexibility built in, is actually a good thing. So don’t expect to see any actual CONTENT from my new company/imprint until 2014. But it will be ‘born’ in February next year. Before then I have my HoAmPresst work to continue, oh, and my latest imprint Guerrilla Midgie which is the focus for my ‘advocacy’ writing.
When I used to run multiple professional jobs or projects I used to have a different bag/case for each ‘project’ or job. I find that having different imprints works the same. It means you know what hat you are wearing and can focus on that task in hand. My hats at the moment are #1 indie publisher of fiction and drama via HoAmPresst , #2 indie publisher of advocacy writing via Guerrilla Midgie, #3 editor of the Indie ebook Review online site and of course at the moment #4 Director of the first Edinburgh Ebook Festival. These are my hats. They are worn variously and sometimes simultaneously on the head of who I am which is: a writer. An independent writer.