“Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself.” said Angela Carter, and that used to be about the closest most of us budding writers got to seeing our books in print. But it seems, for indie writers, “the times they are a changing”…
Once upon a time there was vanity publishing for those excluded from the publishing elite, forced into paying for the privilege of having their book published. Vanity authors were deemed fantasists, egoists, believers of that old adage that “Everyone has a book in them.” What they were not, were proper writers; they were from the wrong side of the writing lines, at the margin, an embarrassment.
Self-publishing has existed in the shadows ever since – a social outcast – and yet Virginia Woolf did it, as did Mark Twain and James Joyce. William Blake did nothing else. The Elements of Style, by the fabulously named William Strunk Jr, has been a key source for all aspiring writers for over 50 years now. It first appeared in print in 1919, written by the Cornell University English academic. It comprised eight “elementary rules of usage”, ten “elementary principles of composition”, “a few matters of form”, a list of forty-nine “words and expressions commonly misused”, and a list of fifty-seven “words often misspelled.” It was published privately in 1919 for in-house use at the university. So we see that the bible for all writers was originally a self-published vanity project.
I am a self-published writer and 2015 is promising to be a good year for us indie writers. The caricature of the self-published writer has tended to be one of a retired male, often embittered and full of life’s disappointments, putting the world to right. However, new research has recently exploded that myth. Alison Baverstock, Associate Professor of Publishing at Kingston University and chair of the 28th March one-day conference “Is everyone now a publisher?” reports in a Guardian article that the profile of the modern self-publisher has now changed somewhat, and that she is now predominately female (65% of self-publishers are women), aged between 41- 60. Half are in full-time employment, 32% have a degree and 44% have a higher degree.
Professor Baverstock’s claims were backed up by a recent Falmouth University “Routes to Publication” Symposium at which I was asked to speak. Our panel comprised five graduates from the 2012 Falmouth University MA Professional Writing programme. We have all been published since completing the course – a healthy success rate. My fellow panel members were all women; three published traditionally and one, like me, self-published. Falmouth University’s Susannah Marriott, Chair of the Symposium and Non-Fiction Tutor, Writer and Editor, introduced proceedings by referring to “the new face of publishing.” The ensuing forum produced the interesting conclusion that the experience of all five authors had led them to the view that self-publishing offered the most viable and satisfying route for the first (or second) time writer. As Marriott said, “This is the age of disintermediation…the traditional model has been blown apart and now everyone has the technology to become a publisher.”
The Bookseller has been reviewing new book titles for over 100 years but has steered clear of the arriviste self-publishing social climber – up until now that is. In December last year Caroline Sanderson, the magazine’s Non-Fiction Editor, presided over the selection of the first batch of self-published books to be covered in their first ever Independent Author Preview (in partnership with Nook Press). It was good to see titles from my own stable – Bristol-based Silverwood Books – being selected along with colleagues from the global Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi). Caroline said, “I do think that pretty much all the books I’ve included are good enough to be traditionally published, and by that I mean, well enough written.”
All the positive noises do need to be tempered, however, by some hard financial facts about the writer’s lot, unearthed by recent surveys on income earning patterns in the modern day. Digital Book World research carried out in 2014 shows that almost a third of published authors earn less than $500 (£350) a year. Traditionally published writers earn a median annual income of $3,000-$4,999; indie authors fare less well earning a median of $500-$999 and the hybrid authors – those who publish both ways – do best, with earnings of $7,500-$9,999 a year.
So success is relative but, encouragingly, according to Alison Flood in The Guardian, Nielsen Research published in 2013 showed that although self-published books still only account for 5% of the total UK market, year on year growth of the indie sector was 79% up, with 18 million titles worth £59m.
With Spring comes the annual London Book Fair (LBF) where the world’s publishing industry assemble, dressed up to the nines in all their finery. They flirt with each other, show off their new collections, cut deals in low-lit halls lined with functionally furnished cubicles with all the charm of a Japanese Konkatsu (marriage hunting) – not much more than a soulless speed dating event. Agents pimp their wares and publishers bulk-buy in hope, bordering on desperation. Until recently, the increasingly vibrant self-publishing sector has struggled to take root in the concrete jungle of the LBF but now an oasis of events, networking sessions and exhibition stands devoted to the indies has emerged and gets bigger every year.
There are also exciting live events, including the LBF Indie Author Fringe Festival, a self-publishing conference for authors on 17 April 2015, hosted by ALLi and IndieReCon, taking place at the new Foyles Bookstore in London’s Charing Cross Road – the venue itself causing a break with tradition.
So, who knows where we’ll be this time next year?