Thursday, 19 April 2012

An Alliance of the Real Innovators

“Hello. We’re here. We’re at the London Book Fair and we’re here to stay!”

Thus, in a room overlooking one of the great bastions of the traditional publishing industry, Orna Ross launched ALLIA - the Alliance of Independent Authors.

ALLIA has already kicked off meet-up groups in Florida, San Francisco, Japan and Dublin, and hopes to get one going in London following this launch. A key part of the Alliance is the sharing of information and they intend to have live on-line groups too, initially twice a month, as well as “real people on the end of a help line.” And everyone, please note: the online version of the ALLIA launch will take place on the 19th May at 13:00 EST!

The morning was structured round two panels. The first, chaired by Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn, was a selection of those providing the self-publishing tools: Tom Kephart from CreateSpace, Teresa Pereira from Blurb UK and Michael Tamblyn from Kobo. Amazon’s role in the self-publishing world is well known. They offer services such as CreateSpace for print books, Kindle Direct Publishing for Kindle ebooks and Amazon Author Central for book promotion.

Tom Kephart of CreateSpace began by asked the audience what they wanted from the Amazon offering. “UK based services,” came back the answer. “No more waiting three weeks for print books to be delivered from the US.” And “Electronic transfer of money.” Was there a Kindle ‘pixie dust’? A key to success? If there was one, it lay in metadata. Metadata allows Google, Twitter, blogs etc to work in concert and allows readers to discover your books.

Kobo had hoped to launch their self-publishing platform at the London Book Fair, Tamblyn said. It is currently in beta and will be rolled out this quarter, with plans to expand to a dozen new countries in 2012. They are also hoping to introduce Kobo Pulse, which will allow authors to write comments in the margins of their own texts, to create a dialogue with their readers. “When authors are given control and visibility, they do amazing things that the traditional publishers out there are just not doing.”
Tamblyn pointed out that Kobo are selling 16% of self-published books in South Africa and 14% in Africa and the Middle East, and some of this is because authors are free to set prices at a level that customers in these markets can afford.

Blurb began as a print on demand service that catered for artists, with tools aimed at beginners as well as experts. They aim to produce high quality books that “represent who you are.” Developing communities, among authors and between authors and readers, is important to them. In 2011, they released their ebook platform. Currently their ebooks are simply replicas of their print books, but they are looking at developing ebooks that are “enhanced without being over-complicated.”

Blurb has printers on every continent (though as the print facilities for Europe are based in the Netherlands, this can still mean a 7-10 day delay in receiving a book ordered in the UK).

Both Kobo and Blurb are open platforms that do not impose exclusivity deals.

The author panel, chaired by Sam Missingham of FutureBook, consisted of four authors with widely different experiences of self-publishing.

Linda Gillard was a well established, award-winning, mid-list author when she was dropped by her traditional publisher for ‘disappointing sales’. Her agent tried for two years to find her a new publisher, but she was repeatedly told that her new book was ‘unmarketable.’ However, she had a loyal fanbase who, when she finally admitted that she’d been dropped, persuaded her to self-publish. At one point last summer, she was selling 100 copies a day, and this ‘unmarketable’ book has now achieved almost 30k downloads overall.

“When I finally realised I was successful as an indie author and that I was going to go indie permanently, I felt elated. There was a real sense of creative freedom.”

Her key advice to authors was to not to think about making sales but about building new relationships with readers.

John Logan is a writer from the remote Highlands of Scotland, more at home on his farm than talking to London-based editors and agents. He self-published his first novel in 2011, after receiving ‘rave rejections’ from editor after editor who loved the book but couldn’t get it past their sales departments. He had 700 downloads in the first seven days.

His role models, he said, were “writers like Tomas di Lampadusa, who never published a word in their own lifetimes.”

Words with Jam columnist, Dan Holloway “didn’t have a clue” about publishing when he first went on line in 2008. He encountered a great deal of snobbery and skepticism about self-publishing and decided it “must be worth exploring.” Having a background in the world of Art, he was disappointed that people didn’t talk about literature with the same degree of passion and controversy that they would talk about, say, Tracy Emin or Damian Hirst.

His approach to self-publishing was not about selling books or making money. He wanted to find a space where you could ask interesting questions and where there was a freedom to fail. “In the traditional publishing world today, you can’t even fail once.” He has written an interactive novel online and loved the immediacy of getting feedback “even as you write the book.”

Joni Rodgers, from The League of Extraordinary Authors, is a Texan author and fan of Amazon. “It’s like that big sandworm in Dune,” she says. “Sooner or later you realise, either it’s going to swallow you up, or you’re going to get up there and ride it!”

Rodgers straddles the worlds of traditional and self-publishing. Having published celebrity memoirs with one of the big publishing houses, “I’ve been to the puppet show and seen the strings.” But the publishing economy is tough at the moment, and they can’t afford to take risks. She sees self-publishing as “the high ground for creative risk takers and for the books that don’t fit into the pitch at the marketing meeting.”

Right now she is self-publishing a novel with Kindle Select about the relief effort in Houston that followed Hurrican Katrina – a book that had “too much sex and too much politics” to make it through that marketing meeting.

“I’m riding that sandworm, baby.”

There was some discusson of the pricing strategies used by the different authors. It was clear that there was often a ‘sweet spot’ at which a book would start to sell, but that point varied from country to country and book to book. People paid “less for an ebook than they would for a greetings card” but at the same time, the author could still be making more per sale than they would from a traditionally published book sold at full price.

All the authors agreed that it could be tough to get a review for a self-published book. But at the same time it was recognised that the mediators were changing. Book bloggers were becoming far more influencial than traditional print reviewers, and their attititude to self-publishing generally more responsive.

The strongest feeling, throughout the whole morning, was that here, among self-publishers, was where the real revolution in publishing was happening.

As Orna Ross said in her closing remarks, there have been certain pivotal moments in the story-teller’s art: from bard to scribe, from scribe to printing press. And now we are on the cusp of another massive shift.

I couldn’t help thinkingof all the Independent Booksellers I have interviewed in the past few months who, when asked about self-published books, grimaced slightly and sucked their teeth. There has to be potential, surely, for an alliance independent authors and independent booksellers – both of whom are capable of innovation that leaves vast, unwieldy corporations standing.

If anyone can make that happen, then perhaps ALLIA are the ones to do it.


  1. Could I correct an error? My unwanted & "unmarketable" book was HOUSE OF SILENCE (which became my first & very successful indy e-book.) The one that was shortlisted for the awards you mention was STAR GAZING, my last traditionally published pb.

  2. Sorry, Linda. I was scribbling so furiously I was bound to get something wrong!

  3. Thanks so much for this terrific post! You are absolutely right that we're ripe for a coalition of indie authors and indie booksellers. I'd love to be part of that.

    Another small correction (and you did an AMAZING job with the furious scribbling, by the way!): we're the League of Extraordinary Authors, LeagueXA on Facebook:

    Thanks again for covering the event. I must also add huge kudos to Orna Ross, a full-on creative force!

    Peace and grooviness ~

  4. Thanks, Joni. Sorted. And doesn't that picture of Orna just capture what a force of nature she is? I was so lucky to get it - I usually manage to just miss moments like that!

  5. Hi, was good to meet you in that Big London Catriona...can I inveigle you to make a wee change in mine too? (I think you gave fuller account than most, more detail, so then folk like me come after you over the wee details etc!)...Could you change "agent after agent" to "editor after editor" on mine? (I did sign contracts with agents who believed fully in the book, and other books of mine, they considered my novel a "certainty" to sell they told me, and also my book's wee claim to fame that gave me real confidence in it is that the film consultant who had discovered Slumdog Millionaire was a great supporter of my novel, The Survival of Thomas Ford, and thought Ford was the best book she had read in the last 4 years. All best, John

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