Independent Publishing: The Game Has Changed But The Values Have Not

About five years ago I was asked to give an address to a writers’ workshop in the west of Ireland about my experiences as an author and the world of self-publishing. I’d self-published five books at that stage through my own imprint and Facebook was an incidental college social experiment by the boy Zukerberg. A Twitter was someone who insisted on behaving like a twat in public. Sure, print on demand (POD) was beginning to build up some steam and former vanity publishers were scratching their heads and wondering how they could make a quick buck with this new phase of order and print technology. In many ways 2005 was the real start of the POD gold rush, where vanity and new reputable print and author solutions services expanded or diversified their businesses.
Likewise, in 2005, I was separated and I relocated and found myself with a great deal more time on my hands after a hiatus of not writing for a few years. I was thinking of diving back into the publishing submission world again, but with my eye on the development and rejuvenation of self-publishing, I was also taking stock of where authors belonged in the overall industry. In many ways, 2005 was the beginning of the last growth spike for publishers leading to 2008. There still seemed a little wriggle room for new and serious authors willing to toe the legacy line and bide their time while they submitted to agents and publishers. It wasn’t that I had given up on publishing or publishers, but I had given up on the process that surrounded how it was being executed. I hadn’t given up hope, rather, belief in the prescribed methods to publication. There is no book I have ever self-published that did not benefit from the myriad rounds of submission to agents and publishers, and did not benefit from their professional input and advice. In fact if I am honest, had I never exposed my writing to potential readers and the publishing industry, I don’t think I would ever have self-published. My manuscripts would have found their way to dark and forgotten drawers as far back as 1990 had I not undertaken the submission path.
When I did my talk in the west of Ireland at that writers’ workshop – understandably – much of the conversation did focus around the traditional industry and the frustration authors felt with it. Self-publishing as a option for authors remained a ‘marginal’ option, and back then tutors taught how the industry worked and the art of writing, and not how it really was and what alternatives authors had. Things have changed a lot since then. At that time, writers expressed a great deal of frustration and the focus always seemed to be about what publishers were not doing rather than what writers were doing. Every writer – published and unpublished – had a story of how they felt the industry wasn’t working for them and how it had not met their expectations.
By 2008, I stopped appearing at writers’ workshops because I felt worn out hearing the same arguments. I returned to self-publishing and discovered a very changed world for writers. I eventually self-published in 2008 and the early incarnation of The Independent Publishing Magazine was a place to record my self-publishing experiences. I’d spent years researching the area and felt my own experiences could help other authors. The Independent Publishing Magazine over the years has become a great resource for authors – whether an author is considering self-publishing or not. I remain a strong advocate for publishers like Macmillan, Faber, Canongate and Penguin.
My last novel was published by an Irish commercial publisher last year and much of the last six to nine months of my time has been focused on marketing the book rather than attending writers’ workshops. So, it has been a while since I attended a writer meet-up, and despite the fact that as a publishing consultant I speak with publishers and authors services every day, the one thing that struck me from meeting authors attending a meet-up of the Alliance of Independent Authors for the Dublin launch is the shift in focus in what authors want to do with their work once it is written.
The vast majority of discussion on the launch night was not about the industry but, instead, where authors feel they rightfully belong in it and what they can do best to achieve publication for their books. In other words, authors are no longer turning up at literary events to castigate the industry. They want to take their place within it with whatever efforts they can muster to write a good book and reach their readers.
It only makes me more assured that the industry needs to be about helping to evolve a healthy community of authors and readers, rather than focusing its primary relationship with the retailer. Here’s the beef. Authors  have the experience of soliciting the interest of publishers through agents or directly to a publisher’s editor, but now believe publishers only true customer and client is the book retailer. It clearly is not the case in all circumstances, but it remains the perception of authors published or self-published trying to engage with the industry.
What was paramount in the minds of almost all the authors at the launch of the Alliance of Independent Authors was how they go about marketing and branding once the big boys are not involved. This is the biggest challenge self-published authors have and it now appears the area where they often feel least adequate in. Lack of marketing is one big reason why most books released by author solutions services can’t compete with a commercial publisher. The truth is that many author solutions services primary goal is to sell services and not books. But importantly, marketing is the area many self-published authors do the least work in – even knowing that commercial marketing and proper store distribution is what sells most books.
In short, self-publishing is about harnessing an online presence and the ability to grow that presence and ultimately make it a brand for you and your book.
Circumventing what publishers once provided is not an excuse for a poorly self-published book, nor is it an absolution from what needs to be done to write and publish a book of quality!


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