In And Around London Book Fair: Authors, IndieReCon And ALLi’s Third Anniversary


And Spectacular Weather

As if heeding a request from London Book Fair (LBF) director Jacks Thomas, the sun flooded Olympia London with bright springtime light all week. We weary stand-and-stairs brats now head back to planes, trains, and waiting families.

Smaller by design — Olympia is a markedly more compressed space than Earls Court  — the transfer went remarkably well. I logged a top number of 13,670 steps in one day at Olympia, compared to the 36,000-step day I once had at Earls Court.

And the move itself is an accomplishment by Reed Exhibitions, not to be overlooked. Consider the intricacy of bringing together thousands of exhibits along with nonstop informational, promotional, and contextual programming, plus multiple settings for business transactions and meetings as well as a vast showplace for products and services. In effect, a small city that used to stand in one location this year stood in another, fully functioning. Not easy.

While many of us accustomed to the previous location’s layout were busy adjusting to the new groundplan (and I, for one, could sometimes be seen confidently striding off in the wrong direction), the industry in LBF’s Brigadoon-like annual appearance from the mists looked smart and compact under the massive barreled glass ceilings overhead.

The Old World filigree of metal struts and supports does nothing good for your wi-fi reception, of course, but natural light is a nearly-even trade: We didn’t feel cooped up as trees blossomed and parks filled with lunchtime sun-seekers all around the city.

The Pursuit of Blue Sky

“Blue sky” thinking and analysis is a fond framework in certain business-model thinking, of course.

And once the industry’s authors turn the corner and understand that writing is a business, albeit it a creative one, then we’re better able to assess the tone, the bearing, the key dynamics evident in this sector, just as we assess such factors in the content-acquisition or distribution side of the industry.

The writer Isabel Losada — I’m glad I was able to meet her Friday at the IndieReCon event — produced a series of insightful and articulate posts for The Bookseller’s blog section.

Her final installment, An author at LBF: A fair trade, closed her series this way:

These are fantastically exciting and challenging times to be in publishing. If you take a few steps backwards or if we could have seen the whole London Book Fair from above this week, don’t you think we would have wanted to cheer? It’s a privilege to be part of this amazing industry, even a tiny part of it. Sometimes, I think we’re all f****d but this week I think we’re all bloody marvelous.

She’s not alone in either thought. And all that cheering does writers the most good when it’s channeled into sensible, professional effort.

#LBF15 to #IndieReCon

As the author corps moved from Olympia to Foyles in Charing Cross for the live-and-streamed events called IndieReCon, the enthusiasm ramped up. This extensive and challenging program — two days online and one in the live setting — was organized and produced by the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) which Orna Ross founded three years ago at London Book Fair.

During the hours I was at the multifaceted event on the flagship store’s sixth floor on Friday (17th April), the messaging heard most frequently was about the cooperative generosity of independent authors, a trend proudly in evidence in things as simple as everyone diving in to share furniture-moving duties when it was time to sell books at day’s end. More importantly, the sharing of tips ‘n’ tricks, the passing along of knowledge via the vines and tendrils of various social media, has become a hallmark of this subset of our writers’ community.

I’m not entirely sure that we can say, as someone did, that traditionally published authors are more jealous of each other’s success than self-published authors. I’ve heard lots of envious, off-the-record chafing at colleagues’ success among the self-published, and I’ve seen what looked like authentic mutual support among the “tradpubs.”

But such is the tone, even today, among some in the independent sector. A need for group-wide self-congratulation on avoiding a supposed “negative” bearing in the traditional industry is usually in loud evidence.

In many cases, what’s thought to be “negative” in the industry is actually business. And from the viewpoint of untrained authors entering by self-publishing pathways, this can be misinterpreted as “negative,” when it’s really the mandates of profit and expediency in corporate settings. I’m looking forward to a time when so many in self-publishing no longer feel the need to chastise the industry for being “negative” and can approach with the professionalism they owe themselves. ALLi is helping us get there.

Observations And Cool Heads

I was glad to have a chance to introduce SELF-e, the new Library Journal and Bilbioboard process by which independent authors can submit their ebooks for consideration in the US library system.

Open to writers outside the States as well as to Americans, the process provides state and national librarians with chances to learn about and offer self-published material through a process of curation — and at no cost to the author. There’s more information here, in case you’re interested. I’m pleased to be working with Library Journal as a consultant to help inform writers of this new, no-cost way to expand their discoverability in the potentially crucial library space.

I was also pleased that Scott Beatty, Chief Content Officer for Boston’s Trajectory, joined a panel headed by Toby Mundy and including Sharmaine Lovegrove and Katie Donelan. Great to see the news about Trajectory’s work in potential discoverability getting out (not to mention its growing leadership in distributing Western literature to China).

And I was glad to have Alison Baverstock of Kingston University; Peter Frazer Dunlop agent Robert Caskie; and IngramSpark’s Robin Cutler with me for a panel discussion on effects that self-publishing developments have had on trade publishing. For the most part free of trad-bashing, we  again got a glimpse, thanks to these speakers, of a career concept that may not one day depend on such sharp divisions over mode and method.

In what feels like a pivotal moment this spring, the independent author corps may be getting closer to conceding that many times a traditional-industry “rejection” is for good cause — as when the work just isn’t good.

  • Too frequently, the quick assumption has been that an agent or editor’s dismissal was wrong-headed, rude, an arrogant action taken by a haughty gatekeeper.
  • Too easily have we assumed that because anyone can publish in the digital age, everything has good reason to be published.
  • Too seldom have we asked, “Well, could it be that the book wasn’t any good?” or “Perhaps the author in question simply wasn’t ready for publication?”

When the community as a whole can handle such points with candor — while maintaining that generous, cooperative sense of welcome and inclusion — the best service will have been performed. And ALLi will be able to take credit for a great deal of such progressive thinking.

More Gain, Less Giddiness

For now, here were rich signs of rising intelligence on the group scale, again reflected in some of Losada’s writings — specifically in this case warning writers that accosting agents and editors at London Book Fair is the wrong approach:

As an author, if you’re anything like me, we can be a danger to ourselves and our own careers.  We forget that not everyone is quite as enthusiastic about our work as we are. And even if they are: there is a time and a place where they want to talk about it. You can be sure that, unless they have asked to see you and made an appointment, this isn’t it.

Beyond Divisions

In our closing interview onstage — marking ALLi’s third anniversary during our FutureBook #FutureChat from The Bookseller — Ross told me how eager she is to see the movement get beyond the self-publishing vs. traditionally publishing stage of “civil wars,” to borrow Philip Gwyn Jones’ hot-button phrase during the Fair.

Many agree with Ross on this and were impressed with how clear she is on the point:

I look forward to the day when we’re all authors…And I don’t like the term “traditional publishing,” which seems to imply that it’s over. Trade publishers are a service for authors. So are paid author services. A lot of authors don’t want to self-publish. They actually want to be cared for and minded.

For her, Ross said, the “indie author” is a far broader and more inclusive term than its usual connotation of a self-publishing writer. In fact, she sees it as the proper term for what many call a “hybrid author” who works both as a self-publisher and as a traditionally published writer:

Indie authors — there are loads of them in the room here — may have published with a traditional publisher and will do so again. That’s not “hybrid.” It’s just an independent author.

I wrote here recently of the understandable fellow-feeling of self-publishing as a movement and how easily that sense of togetherness can draw some writers off-course: some have become bullies on the march for self-publishing rather than putting their writing first and understanding entrepreneurism as the means, not the end.

To its credit, ALLi is not part of that confusion and has navigated a difficult journey in three years, avoiding being hustled by crusaders into something that’s more about politics than creativity.

One of ALLi’s campaigns, Opening Up to Indie Authors, is about recognizing the value of long-existing elements of publishing and asking for their benefits for those outside the traditional route, rather than trying to tear down such key features of the industry. As Ross put it, it’s:

A plea to the literary infrastructure of the writing world (prize programs, bookstores, etc.) that deals with writers and readers and books and cares about literary matters. How do we get them to embrace self-publishing in a way that works for them, and how do we as self-publishers help them to do that?

As the independent sector looks for ways to approach in a healthy, collegial spirit, ALLi’s own “Self-Publishing Advice Blog” run by Debbie Young, is soon to get a new name, the “Author Advice Blog,” Ross told us, again in reflection of the fact that the means to publication are just that — more means to an end, less causes to champion.

Working with her on the IndieReCon effort to help put across these concepts have been ALLi stalwarts David Penny, Young, Roz Morris, Dan Holloway, Joanna Penn, Rohan Quine, Carol Cook, by remote, Jane Steen and Miral Sattar in the States along with Shelli Johannes and Ali Cross (who had created the first IndieReCon online event last year), Matera Women’s Fiction Festival’s Elizabeth Jennings, Literary Translations’ Athina Papa, and a host of others who have labored from their respective quarters to raise the professional profile of independent and self-publishing writers enabled by digital technology. Good will and dedication were all around us Friday.

The Reach Of ALLi

It may surprise some to know how large ALLi is, especially when everyone it influences — including by means of subscriptions to free email lists and other elements such as the free online activities of IndieReCon — are factored in. I asked Ross during our interview:

There are many types of ‘members’ of ALLi, but if you take them all together [meaning inclusive of unpaid subscriptions and events] we have about 25,000 members and subscribers today.

And it’s far less the UK-centric outfit than it may seem because it was founded in London:

It has always from the beginning been about one-third UK, one-third US, and one-third elsewhere. [Even the] IndieReCon was started by two US independents and we have people tuning in from all over the world.

A distribution map on the organization’s home page reveals that 44.7 percent of the membership is in North America; about 47.9 percent is in Europe; 5.8 percent is in Australia.

Again reflecting the organization as a resource in its field, Ross will join us in early October for the Novelists Inc. First Word program, in which a key point of discussion will be ALLi’s “Going Global” campaign, designed to place resources into different nations’ local and regional writerly communities.

Ross and I shared an almost comical exhaustion by the time we sat down for our staged chat on camera Friday and I came away feeling that — in addition to her right-headed, sensible understanding of the dynamics affecting this very large, complex non-profit organization’s sturdy growth and campaigns — our tiredness might have helped us move past the giddy boosterish tone that many of these events can take on.

At times, self-publishing advocates can appear almost zany about what, again, is a business. Some of this was on display at LBF’s three-day Author HQ back at Olympia. Nobody’s fault, this rah-rah energy has somehow become part and parcel of the movement and topic in its early years. Maybe this is inevitable. Enthusiasm is good when realistic, of course. It’s that balance that will finally serve everyone best.

Ross and I couldn’t have lifted a pompom between us. But I liked that, because it produced a very serious moment when I asked her what goal she might hold out for ALLi now, with the maturity of its three years’ work in establishing such campaigns as the Ethical Author effort introduced at The FutureBook Conference last November and Young’s new one, Authors4Bookshops, which she introduced Friday with Piers Alexander.

Ross told me that her goal now is to see some of ALLi’s experience and energy go into finding and amplifying voices that might not otherwise be heard, to bring out the writings of under-served talents who may have no ready outlet even to the comparative accessibility of self-publishing. She’s talking about how professionally viable self-publishing isn’t free and needs the kind of support that ALLi can bring to bear for those who can’t muster the resources needed.

That’s a worthy goal and ALLi’s people are particularly well-positioned — and, yes, generously minded — to move on it.

Likewise when Young spoke about Authors4Bookshops, we heard level-headed guidance from the stage about how authors need to remember the pressures and limitations with which physical-store booksellers today are struggling and how important it is to approach them with supportive, efficient grace. All this while standing at Foyles, one of the leading icons of bookstore retailing in London.

Underscoring this, we were reading LBF panel warns of indie arrogance by my Bookseller colleague Sarah Shaffi, who found retailer Henry Layte talking “know your place” at LBF’s Author HQ. Shaffi wrote:

Layte, who also co-founded Galley Beggar Press, which published Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction winner Eimear McBride, said: “It’s quite a good idea to get your attitude about your book and position in the industry right before you approach retailers. We get people turning up quite arrogantly, saying: ‘I’m a published author, what are you going to do about it?’”

And on Friday, as we laughed about how many ways you find people pronouncing “ALLi,” the serious side of the author corps’ diversity seemed to move a welcome step forward in urgency.

That’s good. More diversity, as Ross is talking about exploring, can best be served by realistic, practical intent, and by leaving partisanship behind.

Many are still here for the fight and/or the gemütlicheit, I’m afraid. But more may be remembering that they didn’t go into the bookish world to mount barricades and be swell together, nor to zip around at meetups and parties.

They went into it because they had a mind to be writers.

ALLi’s next year, and the wider author community’s growing comprehension of its range and potential, should be one of our best stories ahead.