Okay, so I sat down and wrote a thing – a whole thing! – about self-publishing and lit festivals, and made cogent arguments for indie inclusion, and created incisive sentences about self-publishing’s relative legitimacy, and…
And you know what I realised? It doesn’t matter.
If you don’t think self-publishing is a valid thing, if you consider $700millionUSD in book sales in 2017 alone to be just a blip on the radar…then I can’t help you. I really can’t. I mean, I think it’s time we started talking about self-publishing without wincing, because that sort of behaviour just makes us look immature. And sure, there’s still a shit-load of hobbyists in self-pub, but things are changing fast – and I mean, lightning fast.
It’s fairly clear by now, as Barnes & Noble circles the drain, that the publishing industry as a whole is in a state of flux. I don’t imagine for one minute that legacy publishing is going to die out, but it’s reacting painfully slowly to something that’s been on the horizon for some time – the hungry behemoth that is Amazon – and now the ripples are spreading. Every time I visit an author forum, I hear talk about publishing houses shutting their doors, or lowball advances, or belt-tightening at trad pub houses. Authors are now openly discussing things like rights reversion. If you’re not already part of the conversation, maybe you should be lifting your head and looking around.
Maybe you think everything is peachy. Then again, maybe you’re only looking at Nielsen BookScan figures – you know they’re wildly inaccurate, right?* Maybe you haven’t noticed that more trad pub authors are branching into hybridisation, which just means you’re not paying attention. It’s a bit concerning, though, don’t you think, that the trad pub industry doesn’t seem to have accurate data about what’s selling? Personally, I find it concerning as hell.
It’s time we got beyond the ‘Is Self-Publishing Real Publishing?’ questions – they just go around in circles anyway. We can argue over the issue of whether gatekeeping in trad pub provides quality control (I have two words for this argument: Sean. Penn.). Or whether self-publishing is too much work – because working your butt off to write a book that tanks when your publisher (who has off-loaded most of the promo to you, dear author, because – excuse me for quoting Chuck Wendig – fuck you, that’s why) doesn’t have a sufficient grasp of the market (see inaccurate sales data, above) to get your little book any traction is so easy. Ahem. Or I can point out that literary awards are now starting to accept self-published books, or that poetry would hardly exist in this country without self- and micro-publishing. Or I could explain that I can now hire the same independent freelance editors, typesetters and cover designers that trad pub houses employ to bring my own book out…
Look, I can argue the toss with you about self-publishing until I’m blue in the face, and it won’t make any difference. People who don’t like self-publishing will just turn up their noses regardless. Meanwhile we’ll all still be wondering if we’re going to wake up tomorrow to discover that our trad publishers have cut their entire mid-list, or have been too busy watching Barnes & Noble sink into the sea to worry about the content creators.
I honestly have no clue what the publishing landscape will look like when the dust settles, but hey, we can wait to find out – or we can do something about it.
Thousands of authors – particularly in the romance industry – are already benefiting from self-publishing. Romance authors were the earliest adopters; in fact, they’re the ones we should be keeping an eye on now. They’re not arguing about self-pub anymore; they’re just quietly going about the business of writing books and selling them, and the median income for romance authors has tripled as a result. You want to know what writing-career longevity looks like? US romance authors are lightyears ahead of Australian authors in terms of mature consideration of the issues around professional self-publishing, and how it can be used to forge long-term careers.
And the question of whether self-publishing has enough street-cred to be included at the lit festival table? It doesn’t even come up. Romance broke away and made its own table years ago, with RWA. Fair enough, too – a whole genre was left out in the cold because of a) sexism, and b) a stubborn refusal by the lit industry to give credit where credit was due, and c) a certain distaste in the industry that congeals in the fault line between art and commerce, and d) a lack of appreciation for the preferences, interests and buying power of the average discerning romance reader. And do you see what’s happened to trade romance publishers now? That’s right: romance self-publishing has impacted the market to the point where trad houses like Harlequin have given up on five of their romance lines in the last year.
If you want to talk about #ThisIsHowWeIndie, that’s Exhibit A.
So can we please stop arguing about self-publishing and move on to getting good at it? The only way we can do that – the only way we can keep up with what’s happening in major markets like the US, in fact – is if we finally put all the rubbish aside and get together to talk turkey.
Here are some things I’d personally like to see at a self-publishing festival:
- a workshop on rights reversion
- a round table discussion with hardcopy distributors – first of all identifying local distributors, examining what they do, and what services they provide, also examining the limits of their services and what gaps in the ecosystem need to be filled (because there are gaps, believe me)
- panels and stalls for cover designers – let’s see the pretty pretty, and talk about rates and what working with a cover designer entails
- panels and workshops with editors – give local freelance editors a forum to talk about their rates and services, discuss how to work with an editor, what professional editing really involves, and correct invoicing
- discussions about typeset/formatting/file conversion – again, who’s providing these services and what’s considered appropriate rates
- a ‘from go to whoah’ workshop – walking newbie authors through the steps to get from a Word doc (or a Scrivener doc, whatever) on your computer to a book in your hand
- stalls and panels for readers, with lots of cool books available
- panels and stalls with micro presses, explaining what they can provide as an alternative to doing it all yourself
- also, stalls and panels with self-pub service providers and self-pub consultancy services – what they do, how much they cost, how they can help
- panels and workshops with freelance promoters/marketers – who they are, what they can do, and how much they charge, along with concrete data about how outsourced PR helps with sales (US authors already talk about outsourced PR in a casual way, as if it’s commonplace, which suggests we’re way behind)
- a workshop on advertising – Facebook, Amazon, BookBub, the works
- discussions with bookstore reps – we need more talk about how to streamline the process of getting hardcopy into stores, what discounts to offer, how to invoice and work this out professionally, instead of the scattershot approach that is currently doing no one any favours
- library supplier reps – ditto
- printers/distributors – there’s only one in this country (that I know of), and it’d be good to know exactly what services they provide, what they charge (prices have gone up recently), how to make the best use of their services, and how they envision their services evolving into the future as demand increases
- stalls and panels with author support networks – ASA, Writers Vic, etc, some professional networking events (preferably over cocktails), and maybe some talk about self-care, considering the amount of work involved in self-publishing
- at least one workshop on hybrid authorship – including discussion about managing contracts (especially non-compete clauses), coordinating with your publisher, maintaining professional balance, title scheduling etc
- a panel with agents – let’s talk about what an agent can do for a hybrid or self-published author, and how an agent might work with an author to control, enforce and sell their rights, help them get into foreign markets and cross-media, and figure out a long-term career plan
- a panel or workshop on audiobook production
- …and maybe something on foreign translation
- a workshop on business planning, banking and budgeting, including tax
- a profile management workshop – platforms, social media skills, the works
This is all stuff I’d like to see at a self-pub festival, and if regular lit festivals can’t be bothered, we might as well be proactive.
But mainly I’d like to see authors and service providers engaged face-to-face in a professional forum that allows them to talk through the realities of self-publishing and how it might work for them, with an opportunity to smooth out problems, and some genuine discussion about where the road is leading.
Let’s get off the fence and do something.
*From Philip Jones’s article ‘A passable year’ in The Bookseller: “…the data we now use is incomplete: there is no market overview of the e-book or audiobook download sectors; no window into self-publishing; and no up-to-date numbers on those publishers (Quarto and Bonnier Publishing, for example) whose major business is done through outlets not tracked by Nielsen BookScan. Some publishers are completely invisible to us”