How many self-publishing authors do you need to change a light bulb?

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. So, a week and a bit on from Bloomsbury’s Self-publishing in the Digital Age Conference, what stands out?

The main thing is perhaps how self-publishing has come of so age. For so long derided as an undifferentiated mass of second-rate content, a much more sophisticated picture of associated activities and involvements is emerging.

In reality the market is highly segmented; 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 was marketable but reluctant to share the spoils.

The conference featured a panel of successful self-publishing authors – Joanna Penn, Nick Spalding, Ben Galley, and writing partners Louise Voss (Kingston) and Mark Edwards – and all talked about their path to being read. This is significant. Those who self-publish successfully are offering content that others want to read; material that connects with an audience and achieves 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 three issues to ponder further.

1.       How do we harness all that energy?

Publishers and agents have already established that self-publication offers an increasingly useful resource for strong new writing. Such authors display the proactivity that justifies external investment, have already created a platform for wider media engagement – and revealed demand for their work. And given that a common experience for self-publishers is to realise how 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 (providing access to lots of new content) and its merger with Random House (offering the 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. Books were for sale, but were an incremental purchase on top of the conference price. This is significant – Bloomsbury acted as organiser and purveyor of content, but achieved monetisation through new delivery methods.

Perhaps authors should follow their lead. If your ideas achieve their fullest expression in your book, but today’s time-challenged audience would rather hear you speak than read it themselves, can a version be included in the price of an event?

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 session on self-publishing in the morning (where Amazon could be considered very useful) and being part of a panel discussing traditional publishing in the afternoon (where Amazon were seen as very threatening).

But Amazon 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/writing holidays.

Right now self-publishing is one of the hottest issues in the industry. Perhaps it’s significant that my next two presentations are an academic symposium (note to Kingston students that it is free for you to attend) and then the Conference on Journalism and Mass Communication in Singapore at the beginning of December.

Looking back to the conference, it’s 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 is the author of The Naked Author: A Guide to Self-Publishing and is course leader for the MA Publishing at Kingston University.


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