Indie Publishing

The Simple ThingsI booked a last-minute ticket to the Queensland Writers Centre’s (QWC) Going Indie seminar, unsure what I was going to hear, but hopeful it was going to be applicable.

I’ve had good fortune with QWC’s workshops and figured this one, which was tackling the oft-sneered-at, but increasingly decent option of self-publishing, would offer a handy industry-in-flux oversight. I have to say, though, that I hate the term ‘self-publishing’, so was relieved when the panellists swiftly renamed it ‘indie publishing’, as in reminiscent of the respected independent music industry.

I turned up largely to hear Sally Collings*, esteemed writer, editor, and publisher, and person self-described as being able to offer a 360-degree view of the publishing process and industry. In fact, I’d have turned up just to hear her speak—her wisdom, warmth, out-of-the-box, and ‘unashamedly commercial’ approach to non-fiction publishing are something I’d love to learn from and perhaps one day emulate.

She was joined by poet Graham Nunn, who was awarded the Johnno Award for his service to the industry last year, and spec fic writer Alan Baxter, who described himself as ‘just another kung fu-teaching writer’. No, really. He writes and he teaches kung fu.**

Alan BaxterThe panel in essence echoed the conclusions I’ve come to myself in recent times. Notably that there’s never been a better time to be a writer and there are a bunch of opportunities to publish and be published in a variety of formats. All three made incredibly salient points, including (in no particular order):

  • Indie publishing appeals to control freaks who like to be in charge of the project from start to finish (hello, me!), as well as people who are authorities in their niches, have direct links to their audiences, and who know more about the subject than any publisher would.
  • Indie publishing enables you to be creative and task risks you couldn’t within a traditional publishing framework.
  • No matter what you do in publishing, you must be your own gatekeeper, i.e. whether you’re self-publishing or being published by a traditional publisher, be sure you’ve done your best work.
  • An independently published book must never look like one—quality design and content are a must.
  • Because self-publishing’s easy, everyone’s doing it, which means there’s a bunch of competition and noise out there. It is levelling off, though.
  • Indie and traditional publishing aren’t mutually exclusive. You can do both, and both at once if it works for you.
  • If you do self-publish, it’s key to have a marketing strategy.
  • You should invest in the writing community of which you’re a part as the engagement, support, and advice are critical.
  • The fundamental thing is the writing. It never occurred to Baxter that he was independently or traditionally publishing—he was just writing.
  • Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. As noted above, quality is key.
  • It’s possible to source cover artwork from such sites as 99 Designs, which also allows you to create Facebook polls for friends and fans to vote on, i.e. developing awareness of your book before it comes out.
  • Postage costs in this enormous land of Oz we live in needs to be factored in. Baxter’s example was that his book was a mere (but fiscally painful) three grams over the minimum postage weight. It meant that he had to spend hundreds of dollars on postage he wouldn’t have needed to had he printed the book with a font 0.5 px smaller than the one he did use.
  • Don’t be afraid to give work away—writers such as Cory Doctorow have built strong careers based on this philosophy (but don’t give your rights away if you can help it).
  • The only thing worse than piracy is obscurity. The people who’ll pirate your work weren’t the ones who’d ever have paid for it anyway. If they have it, they might read it. If they read it, they might like it and mention it to others. Those others might actually buy it.

While the session was ultimately positive, I was pretty disappointed to hear that Nunn wasn’t publishing to make money. A bestselling poetry book sells, he told us, 500 copies nationally. That’s a woefully low figure and it’s probably just as well he’s not after commercial success—that’s a huge obstacle to overcome. Still, the glass-half-full way of looking at that is that he’s not letting it put him off and he’s publishing because of his poetry passion.

Like Collings, I’m unashamedly commercial about my intentions—people don’t practise law or medicine for the love of it and don’t feel squeamish about getting paid for their expertise. I’m still just trying to 100% work out how to produce commercially and critically successful non-fiction work. After today’s panel, I don’t think indie publishing is the answer, but I do think it has an important supporting role to play.

*Her latest book is The Simple Things, which she co-wrote with Antonia Kidman.

**An interesting side note: After reading some woeful efforts, Baxter saw a need for a book offering some pointers for writing action and fight scenes—something his expertise well-positioned him to do so. It continues to tick over on Amazon.

Bookcamp

I’m heading to If:Book Australia’s Bookcamp in a fortnight’s time (and yes, I realise that sounds like the publishing industry equivalent of ‘band camp’. It’s not, honest. It’s far less salacious and potentially happily even more nerdy).

Bookcamp’s actually an ‘unconference’ that’s designed to bring together creative, bookish people from a bunch of backgrounds to explore books’ future. It will be ‘bottom-up, grass-roots, and collaborative’, i.e. entirely outside the traditional conference model box.

The theme? The emerging future.

Hmm. Lots to ponder there.

I went to If:Book’s last unconference (at least, I think it was an unconference) entitled The Reader. It was a fantastic day organised by a fantastic organisation that ‘promotes new forms of digital literature and explores ways to boost connections between writers and audiences’. As a side note, I love its logo and website design (I hope the If:Book team don’t mind, but I’ve included a small screengrab of their design here for reference. You can visit it in full at www.futureofthebook.org.)

If:Book BookcampIf:Book Australia was set up by outgoing Queensland Writers Centre CEO/incoming Brisbane Writers Festival Director Kate Eltham. If you haven’t yet heard of her, I’d recommend you rectify that now, starting by following her on Twitter: @kate_eltham. The Australian newspaper named her one of 10 Emerging Leaders of Culture way back in 2009, something she’s well and truly proved in the three years since. Eltham’s not only one to watch, but one we’d all love to emulate.

In fact, ‘digital champion’ Eltham was one of the few people the industry who didn’t completely freak out about the ‘death’ of the physical book at the hands of the digital one. She correctly predicted that there’d always be room for physical books and that e-books were just joining the conversation. What mattered, and what we all fall in love with over and over again, are the stories themselves—the container in which they come now just involves more choice.

But I’m getting carried away. The above’s not gush—it’s meant to be useful-background-information segway. That is, an unconference organised by an organisation involving Eltham is the kind of conference writers, editors, designers, publishers, and readers ought to attend—it’s likely to yield some groundbreaking and inspiring results.

The thing about unconferences is that they don’t have pre-determined programs. Instead, the website tells us, we participants will get to suggest topics and then be responsible for leading discussions and brainstorming sessions around them.

Sounds great, except that I’m rubbish at thinking of topics. Which is why I’m writing this blog. If you were me and you had the opportunity to put forward some topics you’d like tackled at Bookcamp, what would you recommend?

To give you some ideas, the unconference will also have a guest speaker—independent writer, designer, and publisher, Craig Mod, who divides his time between Palo Alto, New York, and Tokyo, and who has created a stack of impressive projects and publications.

His interests and work, his website tells me, are about digital books, publishing, and start-ups—three areas that are increasingly, happily converging. Like Eltham, he’s a ‘technology optimist’ who sees a bunch of publishing opportunities awaiting us, best summed up as follows:

The old guard is crumbling. A new guard is awkwardly emerging. Together, we can affect the shape of the new guard.

Which returns me to my previous question: If you were me and you had the opportunity to suggest topics you’d like tackled along the theme of ‘the emerging future’ at Bookcamp, what would you recommend?

Small Beer Press

The Lovely BonesI’ve long been interested in setting up my own small press, mostly because I’ve seen the way the industry is heading and at least partly because the free tools now exist to largely go it alone. I’ve been even more mostly interested (if you get my meaning) because I’ve admired how the uber-talented Dave Eggers has maintained control of his creative output and his profits, which is what I see as being key.

When the Queensland Writers Centre announced it was going to host award-winning indie publishers Small Beer Press as part of their industry talks, I figured it was the perfect opportunity to find out more about the practicalities of setting up and running a small press, as well about its long-term viability. I mean, really, does anyone ever make a living from running their own press? Or are they just in denial about/staving off the inevitable monstering of all publishing and sales outlets by behemoths like Amazon?

I’m not sure I have the answer to the above, despite the fact that Gavin and Kelly’s talk was interesting and that it I took copious, scrawled-in-haste notes. What follows, in no particular order, are some quotes and thoughts that emerged from the session:

  • Kelly won a round-the-world trip by answering the question ‘Why do you want to go around the world?’ with ‘Because you can’t go through it’. Damn. Wish I’d thought of something that clever.
  • Gavin started the zine and, subsequently, the publishing house because he realised he was never going to reinvent the world.
  • The couple went to pubs in New York and quizzed friends who worked in the publishing industry. It was smart because they both got to drink beer and find out which pitfalls to avoid purely because their friends were willing to fess up to their own, hard-learned publishing errors.
  • Amazon is not our friend (but we already knew that, right?). Gavin referred to it as ‘intrinsically evil’ because they want to be and control absolutely everything everywhere. Kelly referred to it as ‘evil, but very, very smart, which is the worst combination’. I’m inclined to agree, with Amazon taking cuts left right and centre—including a cut per book sale for marketing/advertising, even if they’ve effectively done none.
  • Working in the industry is ‘a bit like working with a manic depressive’.
  • You wake up and go: ‘Oh look, Amazon has eaten somebody else’. Sigh. I can even recall where I was when I heard Amazon had absorbed The Book Depository.
  • Technology has made a lot of things possible. The question is whether the large publishing houses will be able to adapt and take advantage of these fast enough (yes, indeedy it is).
  • The ‘small beer’ in the name was a reference to ‘small beer now, large beer later’. Were they to start again, they’d probably name the press something to do with super heroes.
  • Random House have a sneaky clause in their contracts that says if they sell your books at a discount, they get to halve your royalties from those sales.
  • Mentors are key.
  • Aim for ‘covers with narrative’ when designing cover art.
  • The emergence of lots of similarly looking covers might be a subtle effort to group like titles together, e.g. the iconic (yes, I just used that to describe the following) Twilight and Lovely Bones covers were incredibly successful and spawned a whole raft of similar designs.
  • Nobody reads a manuscript in the office. They read it on public transport or at home.
  • Gavin and Kelly are experimenting with the submission guidelines, asking writers to send in just three pages. You know, they say, whether the writer knows what they’re doing within the first page. You know if you want to maybe publish them within the first three.
  • Disappointingly, they’re not in any way across social media. That’s perhaps the part I most wanted to know—how they’re utilising free online tools such as these to promote their press and publications.
  • I get the sense that they’re living a bohemian lifestyle on a ramshackle farm in Massachussets. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it signalled to me that they’re not quite making enough money to make it viable financially. Which is not the answer I wanted. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t have to be a goldmine, but it does need to pay its own way.
  • If one person likes and publishes your story, that’s enough—it’s all you’ve ever really been looking for.

TwilightClear as mud? Yeah. Gavin and Kelly were pragmatic and witty and insightful (I laughed often and loved their way of looking at and framing the world), but the talk wasn’t quite as inspiring as I’d hoped.

I’m still keen to start my own small press, but I also want to find out more about viable business models that enable you to balance creative fulfilment with earning enough to pay your mortgage. I’d like to hear how Eggers has made it work…

The Reader Symposium

About a month back I attended the Queensland Writers Centre’s The Reader symposium.

I’ll admit that I had to look up what a ‘symposium’ was, precisely, having assumed it was a fancy word for a conference or conversation but, not actually having attended one before, not being entirely sure. Thanks to the Macquarie Dictionary, I can now confirm that it is, as I suspected, a fancy word for a conference or conversation.

I was also intrigued as to how this symposium was going to approach the topic of the reader—the third but oft-forgotten figure in the trifecta that includes the writer and the publisher. It is, after all, a fairly elusive concept, especially in the current Chicken Little climate, which is seeing the publishing industry run around like headless chooks claiming that their sky is falling down.

The ridiculous panic is another blog altogether, and one I don’t have the energy or enthusiasm for right now. Let’s just say that as a Gen Y on the cusp of Gen X and nowhere near the Baby Boomer age bracket, I see ebooks not as the death knell for life as we know it, but as another reading opportunity that will see us read more and might even get some non-readers in the door.

But, given that I didn’t know what to expect from said symposium, I came away with some food for thought—not least talk about how we could play a ‘reader’ drinking game, knocking back shots for every mention of such words as ‘physical book’, ‘game changer’, ‘ebook’, ‘the smell of books’. It earned a few chuckles, as we all hunkered down for a day of debating the apparent reading revolution.

Some of the other gems I learned included (in no particular order):

  • The future is already here—it’s just unevenly distributed (this is a quote, but from whom I’m not sure).
  • A few years ago, electronic publishing was daggy—Stephen King abandoned his experiment in it and Amazon was originally mocked for the Kindle.
  • Authors no longer need publishers, but neither authors nor readers have abandoned the traditional publishing model—they’ve just expanded on the spectrum, if you like.
  • There’s still a publishing gate and gatekeepers—it’s just that the gate is no longer attached to a wall.
  • There’s been a shift towards community, which is why we’re talking about readers.
  • We have an ingrained need to tell stories that pre-dates the invention of the book and that will post-date it too.
  • The conversational style of Twitter leads people to say things in public that they shouldn’t.
  • Social media is about conversation—it’s not a one-way broadcast system—and readers expect it to go both ways.
  • The invention of the book allowed for private reading, as opposed to public, communal reading.
  • Health professionals used to consider reading novels the main cause for uterine disease (another example that truth is indeed stranger than fiction).
  • Our reading habits have changed. We used to be scuba divers, but these days we’re jetskiiers who skim and have a broader knowledge. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
  • We read websites like the letter F. If it’s important, don’t put it in the bottom right corner.
  • With the advent of technology and wifi in our homes, we have very little actual need to go out.
  • We’re attached not so much to the book, but to the sentimental values and memories and experiences we have while reading it.
  • As we’ve seen with Borders, books are not potatoes (teehee).
  • Libraries and bookshops have never really cannibalised each other before, and this is likely to continue.
  • You leave a little bit of yourself behind in a book (ewww).
  • Book buying can be determined by location. For example, if you’re in a physical book store, you’ll likely buy the physical book in front of you. If you’re at home and can’t be bothered going out, you’ll buy and download the ebook.
  • The book is a new technology—it’s just been around long enough that we don’t tend to think of it that way.
  • How do writers change the way they write for the digital environment? Write less (it got a laugh, but it’s true).

The symposium didn’t necessarily provide me with the answers I’m after about how the ebook war will turn out, but then nobody yet has them and we’re all kind of watching from the sidelines and waiting for the war to end and the dust to settle so we can move on. It’s frustrating for someone like me who doesn’t see this so much as a war but as an opportunity.

But, as I said above, that’s a blog I can’t be bothered writing right now. Until then, I’ll continue to ponder the gems the symposium threw out and remind myself that I now know what a symposium is.