Writing can be a lonely business, and the fragmentation of the publishing industry can leave aspiring authors feeling unsure as to whether they’re got more or less opportunity of getting their work read than ever before.
Last weekend’s Writing In The Digital Age conference – an event organised by leading manuscript assessment service The Literary Consultancy – was a rare opportunity for the UK’s leading publishers, editors, agents, writers and digital innovators to gather in an atmosphere of honesty and openness to swap experiences, perspectives and practical advice.
From a blistering keynote by journalist and sci-fi author Cory Doctorow to a panel about what book reviewing means in the twenty-first century, it was a rollercoaster ride through the opportunities and challenges on offer for those of us mad enough to cobble together careers based on words.
If you fall into that category, here are seven things you need to know.
1. Take control of your own career.
Whether you choose to self-publish or pursue the traditional route, it is no longer viable to shut yourself in a garret and expect the royalty cheques to come. Orna Ross, founder of The Alliance of Independent Authors, got it in one when she said that “every writer should be an indie [independent].” Define why you want to write, what sort of things you want to write, how much money you want to make, and the lifestyle you want to live while you’re doing it. Make it into a proper business plan, with a timeline, marketing strategy and KPIs. Then go out and find the tools and partners that are the best fit.
2. Self-publish, at least once.
Ross also insisted that even trade published writers should experiment with self-publishing at some point. It’ll give you a much better understanding of the full range of publishing services and tools out there, and will encourage you to get over the mental barrier of sharing your work. Beware of making anything public too early – you still want to thoroughly polish before you slap an ebook onto Amazon – but genre novels, specialist non-fiction, short stories and experimental formats might get more traction on niche platforms than in the traditional marketplace. You won’t learn until you start producing, and there’s real value in overcoming your ego and learning how to ‘ship.’
3. Turn one manuscript into multiple streams of income.
Marketing guru and novelist Joanna Penn explained how she makes a living as an “entrepreneurial author” by turning her projects into print books, ebooks, audio books and public speaking opportunities – not to mention ensuring everything is translated and spread across the globe – so that she gets every bit of a juice out of every piece of work.
4. Think beyond books and experiment with multimedia storytelling.
David Varela is a transmedia storyteller who applies his writing skills to everything from digital games (Sherlock: The Network) to fitness apps (Zombies, Run!). Screenwriter and director JJ Abrams collaborated with writer Doug Dorst to create S, an incredible romantic-novel-cum-library-book. As Francis Bickmore, Publishing Director at Canongate put it, “Stories are spells. You need to find immersive ways to draw your audience in.” Don’t constrain yourself to words on a page; and if you don’t have the skills to bring your hybrid to life, use social networks to find someone who can.
5. Get creative with funding.
Unbound is a brilliant website that offers crowd-funding for books; writers pitch ideas and readers pledge money to make them happen. Everything is transparent, with Unbound and the author splitting the net profits 50/50, and authors offer all sorts of enhanced treats – an insider view of their writing process, tickets to launch parties, goodie bags, lunches – to draw their supporters in. Don’t forget that there are more conventional sources of funding, too. If you think your book could have the potential to push creative or digital boundaries, it’s worth checking out the grants and bursaries on offer from the likes of Arts Council England.
6. Don’t sacrifice editing for marketing.
Piers Alexander, who won last year’s PEN Factor competition for promising debut writers and is about to self-publish his first novel The Bitter Trade, delivered a brilliant keynote discussing the fine balance that writers need to strike between reaching out to readers and producing good art. While it can be incredibly helpful to spend time building a social media community, designing your perfect cover or refining your sexy elevator pitch, you need to make sure the majority of your effort is being ploughed into making your book the best it can be. Without that, it’s all so much turd-gilding.
7. Never give away your DRM.
DRM, or digital rights management, is a set of technologies that was ostensibly established to prevent people from illegally copying online content. However, while it has proved pretty useless when it comes to piracy, it has proved an excellent tool for unscrupulous publishing corporations to control authors’ works – and income. Cory Doctorow is on a mission to make authors realise that opting into DRM is tantamount to putting yourself in chains. Educate yourself on the issue, sign up to the Open Rights Group – and think very carefully before you tick that box.
Words: Molly Flatt