Lots, but they need do nothing. They glow on their own.
It’s always an interesting exercise to look back on a big event and think about what was really going on. At the time you are often too embedded to spot the significance.
My main feeling on leaving Bloomsbury’s Self-publishing in the Digital Age Conference, organised at The Wellcome Institute last month, was of total exhaustion. Witnessing that much sheer energy was extremely tiring – and having given the initial presentation, and then chaired a panel in the afternoon, I confess I picked up a copy of Hello at Euston Station and tried to talk to no one else until I got home.
Now, one month on, what stands out? The main thing is how self-publishing has come of age. For so long derided as an undifferentiated mass of second-rate content, unable to achieve the quality barrier demanded by the traditional industry and therefore necessarily awful, a much more sophisticated picture of associated activities and involvements is emerging.
In reality the market is highly segmented, and people are self-publishing for a variety of reasons, from a stage in their creative process to the fixing of a family memoir, from a publisher-luring e-book to book as a business card. And then there are those who have simply gone around the traditional industry, convinced that their content had a market, whose profitable exploitation they were reluctant to share. The conference featured a panel of successful self-publishing authors – Joanna Penn, Nick Spalding, Ben Galley, and writing partners Louise Voss and Mark Edwards – and all talked about their path to being read. This is a key point. Those who self-publish successfully are offering content that others want to read; material that connects with an audience. Far from being the result of some marketing-based sleight of hand that lands the unsuspecting purchaser with material they did not want, self-published titles that sell achieve that most precious marketing endorsement – positive word of mouth.
Being more specific, and for those who weren’t there, the day left me with these issues to ponder further.
1. How do we harness all that energy?
Trying to get published has always been a long road, punctuated by frustration. The positive energy of this audience was palpable – eager to make creative progress and now equipped with the means to investigate how much wider interest they arouse. The morning session ran over, the audience sat on; enthralled by a presentation from Jon P Fine (Amazon’s Director of Author and Publisher Relations) – and missing lunch in the process
Publishers and agents have already established that self-publication offers an increasingly useful resource for strong new material. Such authors demonstrate the proactivity required of those seeking external investment, have already established a platform for wider media engagement – and demonstrated demand for their work. And given that all self-publishers learn in the process that much more effort goes into publishing than they had previously realised, the gateway to achieving a traditional deal is altering. Penguin’s purchase of self-publisher Authorhouse (access to lots of new content) and its merger with Random House (prospect of streamlined functionality in a difficult market) confirm big changes in established business processes.
2. What are the roles of the publisher and author today?
This event was put on by a traditional publishing house; and while books were for sale, they were an adjunct to the audience’s investment, an incremental sale on top of the conference price. This is significant – publisher as organiser and purveyor of content, achieving monetarisation through new methods of delivery.
Authors too need to consider how their content can be most profitably released to fund their continued writing. So if your ideas achieve their fullest expression in your book, but in today’s time-challenged world your audience would rather hear you speak than read it themselves, can a version be included in the price of an event? We need to be alert to these buying signals and respond accordingly.
3. New players in this market
Amazon’s Janus-like personality was evident throughout. At another festival earlier this year I had the odd experience of running a panel on self-publishing in the morning (Amazon very useful) and being part of a panel discussing traditional publishing in the afternoon (Amazon very threatening).
Amazon had flown over to be at the conference, and described the range of services offered to authors who want to self-publish. But they are not the only option. Other suppliers are springing up to provide services to this market: editorial support (copyediting and proof-reading); mentoring on particular elements (plot, dialogue, overall structure); creativity workshops/holidays. Traditional publishers have long relied on freelance editorial services, but are now starting to compete with self-publishing authors for their time. The Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) tells me that an increasing percentage of their members’ business comes from this market. They find the self-published pleasant to deal with, prompt payers, and unlikely to impose a set number of hours on how long the process should take.
Organising a conference on this subject was perhaps brave, but then Bloomsbury have had practice. Their publication of my book on self publishing – The Naked Author – just over a year ago, may have seemed like turkeys voting for an early Christmas.
Perhaps it’s significant that my next two presentations are an academic symposium (free to students) and then the Conference on Journalism and Mass Communication in Singapore at the beginning of December.
In conclusion, and as we reflect on an excellent conference, it is clear that self-publishing has slipped the net. Not that long ago it was considered the publishing industry’s private embarrassment. Now it has become an industry focus point, a publishing medium ready-made for our digital age and a form of mass communication. Times are indeed ‘a changin’...
Dr Alison Baverstock
Department of Journalism and Publishing, Kingston University.