Report: The Author As Publisher: Opportunity or Vanity?

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Words by Chris Russell,photos by Katrina Hopewell.

On a sweltering midsummer’s evening, the panel at June’s Byte the Book sought to answer one perennial question: does self-publishing represent opportunity, or vanity? Type & Tell’s Jon Watt chaired the event, which pit indie-publishing sensation Joanna Penn against literary agent Euan Thorneycroft, of AM Heath.

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Our panel from left to right: Euan Thorneycroft, Joanna Penn and Jon Watt (chair) of Type & Tell who were our sponsors for the night.

Under the name JF Penn, Joanna has published multiple NYT and USA Today bestsellers, racking up over half a million sales across 83 countries. Ditching an unfulfilling job in the corporate sector back in 2006, she navigated the choppy waters of self-publishing for a few years before striking gold when the Kindle finally went international in 2011. Describing herself as an “independent author” rather than a self-published one – “self-publishing” implies a one-woman show, she explained, whereas she employs a whole team of experts – she has since written 23 books and built a hugely profitable business over which she has complete control. She admitted that, when she started out, there was a tangible conflict between traditional and self-publishing, but that has largely evaporated. “Self-publishers used to be quite combative,” she explained, “mainly due to being new to the industry, and a little insecure … but that’s all changed. It’s an ecosystem now, with all sorts of creatives putting their work out there in different ways.”    

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The panel in full flow. It was the perfect weather for a hot debate.

Euan agreed, reminding the audience that, when the Kindle first landed, sensationalists were desperate to declare the “death” of the traditional industry at the hands of self-publishing. But that hasn’t happened. In fact, he added, digital sales have recently plateaued for most publishers, which may suggest that eBooks have reached their zenith. Joanna countered this, however, pointing out that while this may be true for the “digitally mature” markets (USA, UK, Canada and Australia), it is not the case for emerging markets such as the Middle East and India, where the vast majority of people read on their phones. “Every year,” she said, “my traffic from outside the USA and UK goes up. Fifteen per cent of my podcast listeners, for instance, live in China.”  

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Our audience enjoying some serious discussion.

Perhaps the most important takeaway of the evening was this: writers finally have the freedom to forge their own path through the industry, whether that’s through publishing independently, traditionally or via a hybrid of the two. Not all genres lend themselves to self-publishing, explained Euan, pointing out that while crime, thrillers and romance thrive online, literary fiction struggles. Joanna agreed wholeheartedly. “I love business,” she declared, “but not all writers do. If you don’t want to spend your afternoons poring over data, you probably shouldn’t be publishing independently.” Most importantly, she said, writers must define what success means to them. “If you don’t decide what your definition of success is,” she concluded, “you will never be successful.”

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Byte the Book always has time for networking; here’s Justine at the centre of the hub.

As for the question of whether or not self-publishing could still be described as “vanity” in the modern era, both panellists had interesting takes. “Nobody uses the term ‘vanity publishing’ anymore,” said Euan, “it’s outdated.” Joanna, meanwhile, turned the entire argument on its head. “Independent authors just want lots of people around the world reading our work. We don’t really care whether our books are on the shelf in Waterstones. Isn’t it more vain to want a Penguin logo on your spine?” Now there’s an interesting topic for tomorrow’s water-cooler…

This event was sponsored by Type and Tell. The Type and Tell platform enables authors to create, publish, print and sell high-quality books, providing them with 100% author royalties, professional care and global distribution. You can read more about Jon Appleton’s experience self publishing with Type and Tell here. If you have any questions about their service please take a look at their site or get in touch with their country Manager Jon Watt, his details are in our Hub here.

If you enjoyed this report and want to keep up with the latest happenings in publishing as well as network with publishers and authors alike keep yourself posted by visiting our events page here. You can join us from £30 a quarter here

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