A thrilling ride at the fair…

The London Book Fair finished yesterday and I spent two days there with my writer friend Mel Sherratt. Mel and I were invited to take part in a couple of panels in the ‘Authorlounge’, an event which judged by the turnouts is rapidly gaining in popularity.

There was a time when the London Book Fair was totally trade dominated, but with things changing so rapidly in the publishing industry authors are beginning to play a larger part. This is no doubt a reflection of what is happening out there in the big wide world, as authors take advantage of new trends and opportunities.

The two panels we took part in were ‘the author’s journey’ and ‘the future for authors’. During the former I was asked how I had come to write my two novels ‘Kiss and Tell’ and ‘Defending Elton’ and why I had chosen to publish them via Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing [for ebooks] and Create Space [for paperbacks].

When I chose to publish via Amazon, my quest to secure what is usually referred to as a ‘traditional deal’ hadn’t come to an end, indeed, even as I write this my agent is seeking an offer. However it really doesn’t matter what stage of the writing journey you are on, the option to get your work ‘out there’ rather than have it languishing on your hard drive gives writers a new chance to find and build a reading audience.

It was good to have an opportunity to share my journey with others, and I know that Mel felt the same. There is a definite sense of community amongst writers, and the vast majority of us are quite willing to share our ups and downs. Though the pitfalls do shift a little over time some things remain pretty stable. Both Mel and I pressed home the point that before a writer goes anywhere near that ‘submit’ button they must make sure that their work is a ship-shape as it can possibly be.

Put all subjective issues to one side and concentrate on the basics. All novels benefit from a solid narrative structure. It doesn’t mean the structure has to follow any given template but it must be able to convey the story. Proper formatting is crucial, as is careful spelling and grammar, copy editing, proof reading and a decent cover. These are basics that everyone can address, and without them you are giving readers and other interested parties an opportunity to ‘pick’ at your book.

Even traditionally published books have proof reading errors in them, as I’m sure we’ve all discovered, but they are few and far between. The standards are generally very high and independent authors can just as easily reach them, albeit with a little professional help along the way.

If I were to choose any two areas where outside help is best sought I would say in copy/proof editing and cover design. Readers will soon get annoyed if there are a series of daft mistakes, and they may not even be attracted to the book in the first place if the cover seems shoddy or lacking in intrigue.

It was a pleasure to meet so many writers in and around the book fair. I know from the feedback we received that the vibes were mainly positive. These are unparalleled and exciting times. During the panel debate Amazon’s Daniel Cooper announced that this year over a quarter of their best sellers were now written by independent authors. If nothing else that is surely testimony to just how rapidly things have changed, and it clearly gave an added impetus to all those who wondered if success could only be secured by the old tried and trusted methods.

So why should authors continue to suffer the long and bumpy road of literary agent and publisher rejections? It’s a good question, and one I was asked by the audience. I don’t doubt that there may come a time when nobody will bother to ask it, should things continue to change at such pace, but I don’t think that time has yet come.

I’m going to skip the literary agent question because I believe that whatever happens in the future writers and agents can continue to forge valuable partnerships. For reasons outlined below the role of the agent might change a little, but essentially the relationship can stay intact.

It’s a different issue though when it comes to publishers. The stigma stain attached to direct publishing has largely been mopped away, but it’s still visible. Literary ‘snobbery’ is fading too, but it still remains, and as Mel pointed out even the most successful independent authors still get refused when they apply to join such establishments as the Crime Writers Association. They also find their books aren’t submitted for major honours or prizes.

If you do run a blog or website and feature writers and reviews etc then please do consider all work on its merits. Nobody is asking for special favours, just equality of opportunity, surely something we should all support? The vast majority of course do, but from time to time you still find some who say ‘sorry we only consider traditionally published work’. In doing so they are ignoring over a quarter of the public’s favourite reads… perhaps they should ask themselves why?

Despite this, the barriers are coming down, and the Berlin wall moment may be closer than some think. Meantime, both Mel and I will continue our quest to secure a traditional deal, in one form or another, but only because that tipping point has not quite been reached. For my own part I would appreciate a publisher who believed in my work and was prepared to back me. It doesn’t necessarily mean that more of my books would be sold but it would give me peace of mind at a vital stage of my writing journey – a touch of added security in a precarious world.

In future times though this might not be necessary, as the more success independent authors have, and the more literary agents stick with their writers however they get published, then the less the traditional gatekeepers will hold sway. The model of the ‘hybrid author’, who may have a traditional deal for some aspects of their output and a direct deal for others might well speed up change even faster.

I guess ‘change’, by definition, can be a scary thing to some. We tend to rest more comfortably with the status quo. Writers though have nothing to fear from this change, quite the contrary, and literary agents can easily adapt. It’s really the larger publishing houses who have most to lose because for so long they had exclusive rights over what we, the reading public, could access.

I’m not going to second guess the future. After all very few successfully forecast the dramatic changes of the last few years. I tend to think though that in the future traditional and direct publishing will happily exist side by side, as indeed will ebooks and paperbacks. There may be a transitional period of give and take, and that may not suit some, but the two chief beneficiaries will be writers and readers, both of whom will have more choice, and surely that can’t be a bad thing?