By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
‘What New Avenues Might Be Possible’Many observers in the publishing trade continue to keep an eye on the self-publishing sector’s development. While it’s long been understood that there could be much there for publishers to learn from socially mediated author-reader relationships, agile book-pricing experimentation, and other elements of a self-directed commercial context, there’s also an ongoing story playing out in how the independent movement is maturing.
Following our interview last week with Jon Fine, former Amazon Director of Author and Publisher Relations, the founding Director of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), Orna Ross, helped bring our attention to a moment in the development of international self-publishing that she’s dubbing “Self-Publishing 2.0.”
At first glance, the event might appear to pertain only to internal operations and services offered to the membership of ALLi, arguably the world’s largest association of independent authors with a general reach of some 30,000 writers divided between its base in the UK and other territories, primarily the States and additionally in parts of Africa, Australasia, Canada, Europe, India, and South America.
But there are implications beyond ALLi’s service-organization offerings and evolution. They include a signal reflection of the need Fine recognizes in his comments to Publishing Perspectives for authors in the indie camp to be discernable as either professionally and commercially oriented (careerists, if you will, primarily motivated as market authors) and storytelling enthusiasts who, for the most part, are far less engaged for profit or notoriety than by the simple need and joy of telling stories.
‘A Furor Ensued’
“Most of those who thought ALLi was splitting the membership were unaware that ALLi has had a vetted Professional Membership category…generally considered to be 50,000 recent sales or Kindle Unlimited subscription downloads, or other sales equivalent.”Orna Ross
In an ALLi blog post on July 4 headlined, Happy Independence Day. But How Independent Are Indie Authors?, Ross first touches on the Brexit referendum vote on the UK’s membership in the EU, noting self-publishing authors’ general conditioning to a changing landscape as a plus. She then goes on to write about a new era “in which trading conditions have changed and new possibilities are emerging for those who are alert to opportunity”—this, in reflection on Fine’s comments about “an increasingly sophisticated author space,” several years now into the indie movement’s development.
Ross agrees with Fine that the current landscape for indie writers. which she dubs 2.0, is a place agreeably down the road from the early days of self-publishing platforms. It includes that rising sophistication among authors, and, Fine says, a parallel sophistication in services and consultants to those authors. But it also comprises the hurdles of what Fine refers to as “increasing saturation”—or, in another of his favorite phrases, the digitally enabled “tsunami of content” now weighing on the market.
This came quickly to a point when the ALLi leadership announced a new feature for its Professional Members. Here’s Ross in her article:
“In response to requests from some of our Professional Members, we introduced a closed forum to give those members privacy for peer-to-peer conversations. To our surprise, a furor ensued.
“Some of our Author and Partner Members feared they would lose out on Pro Members’ expertise, others questioned the use of the word “professional” in this context, and others felt that such a move was elitist, a betrayal of ALLi’s stated principles. (In our name, the capitalised ALL and the small i are brought together to symbolize the large group working for the small individual; and vice versa).
Ross goes on in her article to break down the complaints fired back at the leadership for its establishment of the pro members’ forum. She takes in turn topics of what “professional” means in ALLi’s lexicon, the educational aspect of the pro members’ work with other members, and allegations of elitism leveled at the group for this pro forum development.
We’ve been in touch with Ross to learn more about the clamor that ensued when ALLi introduced the pro forum.
Community, Commerce and the ‘Power Author’
“Most of those who thought ALLi was splitting the membership,” Ross tells Publishing Perspectives, “were unaware that ALLi has had a vetted Professional Membership category, from the start, with the criteria for admission based—since 2014—on the sorts of numbers at which publishing rights buyers sit up and take notice, generally considered to be 50,000 recent sales or Kindle Unlimited subscription downloads, or other sales equivalent.
“So ‘Professional’ for this member category means self-publishing is your job. It’s not about production standards of design or editorial, and no longer has to do with professional achievements in other parts of the book-industry.”
Ross goes on to describe the importance of the “power authors,” as she describes this upper echelon in market terms, for what can be learned and refined from their experiences.
“I think these ‘power authors’ are key to how the self-publishing landscape unfolds as we head into this new phase for self-publishing. I’d like to see us having discussions about what it means to be an author, in these digitized days, and particularly what it means to be an independent author. Right now, most of our pro members have attained their success by selling digital books at low cost through distributors like KDP, Kobo and Ingram. Is this really the only, or easiest, way to tell our stories, spread our messages? How might this method be supplemented or expanded to suit more authors and readers?
“For example, one of our members has 180,000+ active readers with an enterprise grossing upwards of $200,000 a year, from a web series running for the past nine years. He uses a free-content, subscriber-supported model, supplemented with revenue from ads on all that traffic.
“To my knowledge, there is no other private forum where such ‘power authors’ with an indie mindset can get together to talk about possibilities across genres, across territories, and across formats, to see what new avenues might be possible for authors.”
Getting Past the Emotion
What Ross ran into is a loud echo of the dilemma Fine spotlights in his comments.
By definition—and through no one’s fault—a highly professional, commercially accomplished career author in the indie camp can have a hard time being recognized as such by the industry, and by readers. This is because digital self-publishing is available and welcoming to all comers, many of whom have no desire to scale the heights of commercial authorship. They’re the ones Fine talks about as simply having a burning desire to tell a story. There’s nothing wrong with that. There are no “good” or “bad” people in this story.
It is a perfectly natural trees-and-forest problem, however. Standing out becomes more difficult, not less, over time, as more writers produce their own works for an extremely crowded market and a readership that has grown at nothing like the speed of the writers’ corps.
“My own sense, looking across the board, is that outside of highly experimental, academic, or avant-garde work, fully accessing the potential for global readership and having a reasonable output of titles are more central to sales success than which genre a book is in.”Orna Ross
Even without the stigma against self-publishing, which has dogged the sector to varying degrees since its digital inception, the diversity of the indie choir has been both its glory and its challenge. In fact, Ross tells Publishing Perspectives that one criticism of the pro forum involved genre: literary fiction authors and those who work in “minority genres” that don’t typically sell as robustly as others might never reach the levels of sales that popular-genre authors do.
To this, Ross tells us, she answers, “My own sense, looking across the board, is that outside of highly experimental, academic, or avant-garde work, fully accessing the potential for global readership and having a reasonable output of titles are more central to sales success than which genre a book is in. To put this another way: if books are good, and well marketed and distributed, that level of success is possible in most genres. Precisely how possible, and how different genres do actually vary around this, is something we’re currently investigating.”
She concedes that such investigation, itself, is hardly easy. This might be, it seems, the most stubborn of practical objections to sales numbers as eligibility criteria.
“It would be nice to see the generosity flowing in both directions, with support for pro members’ needs flowing from authors who have not yet managed to break through to those levels of readership.”Orna Ross
But the broader question ahead of Self-Publishing 2.0—if the sector is indeed starting to find some definition in two general channels of purpose—is whether it now can handle the emotional component that has wracked its development so far.
A cherished egalitarianism has been, for some indies, a defiant glare back at the trade industry. The kind of emotional reactions that Ross and the ALLi leadership experienced around the introduction of the Professional Members forum are a reminder that somewhere between the storytelling enthusiasts and the more commercially engaged indies, there lies a corridor of ambition. It’s filled with people whose goals might be to be members of that pro stratum or at least to have access to its discussions about issues that pertain to big sellers.
Such vehement objections show us that today’s writers whose work has not—or not yet—found acceptance in standard trade channels or the wider marketplace can still react at times with the understandable but counterproductive energy of rejection.
Always proud as a community of an atmosphere of mutual support, however, some indies in that corridor of ambition may be reaching more readiness to support the needs of the commercially successful among them.
As Ross puts it to Publishing Perspectives, “It would be nice to see the generosity flowing in both directions, with support for pro members’ needs flowing from authors who have not yet managed to break through to those levels of readership.”