Transcript: Indie Authors Unite

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Interview with Orna Ross, founder, Alliance of Independent Authors

For podcast release Monday, May 19, 2014

CHRIS KENNEALLY: Around the world, book publishing is undergoing transformation. And the change is not only to business models and technologies, but also to human lives. Consider the example of Irish born, London dwelling author Orna Ross. She thought the experience of publishing her own work as radically empowering and the change led her to want to empower others like her in the same way.

Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. My name is Christopher Kenneally for Beyond The Book. In April, 2012, Orna Ross led the launch of the Alliance of Independent Authors at the London Book Fair. At the time, self published authors were on the outside looking in at Earl’s Court. Just two years later, bestselling authors and self-publishing vendors had moved to the center of attention at the London Book Fair. And later this month, the Alliance debuts its 2014 edition of its guide Choosing A Self-Publishing Service at Book Expo America.

Orna Ross joins me now on the line from London. And Orna, welcome to “Beyond The Book.”

ORNA ROSS: Hi, Chris. Thanks very much for having me.

KENNEALLY: We look forward to chatting with you. We’ve been covering self publishing a great deal here in the U.S. for Beyond The Book. But we’re interested in hearing your perspective there from London. And indeed it’s a global one. We’ll tell people about your background.

Orna Ross worked for 20 years in media and publishing and published fiction and nonfiction with both small and corporate publishing houses before striking out on her own in 2011. She is the author of Go Creative! series which teaches the application of creative principles and practices to everyday life. In 2013, The Bookseller, Britain’s trade magazine for the publishing industry, named Orna Ross to its list of the 100 most influential people in publishing. The Alliance of Independent Authors known by its membership as ALLi offers advice, support, education, contacts, and community to author publishers and it lists a global team of advisors and partners to foster ethics and excellence in self-publishing, and to encourage success. And ALLi advisors include Mark Coker and Joel Friedlander, both previous guests on Beyond The Book, as well as Tom Chalmers. He’s the founder of London’s Legend Press and IPR License, a platform to list and license literary rights. And Tom will appear at Book Expo America’s uPublishU with my own CCC colleague, Skott Klebe, on Saturday, May 31st.

And Orna Ross, we’re interested in hearing, as I say, your perspective on self publishing there in London. And I understand actually you prefer to call yourself an author publisher rather than a self-published author. What’s the difference exactly?

ROSS: Yeah, I don’t mind what people call us really. There are so many different terms going around. But we found it useful in ALLi to make a distinction between the person who self-publishes a book for family or friends or for personal expression and who doesn’t really expect to sell a lot of books, and the person who wants to make this their career, who wants to actually become a full-time working writer and publisher.

And that’s not to say that one is more important than the other. I have a really sort of dedicated belief, not just in the power of the written word, but I actually really believe passionately in the power of the published word. And I think that because I come from a creative perspective as a creative facilitator. You understand that publication, i.e. sort of presentation and putting whatever it is you’ve made from sort of daily dinner to a very long novel, you know, putting it out there is fundamentally part of the process. And I know having worked with writers in the past, you know, in writing school in a literary agency context, I know how very difficult it is when you’ve written something and worked very hard on this project, sometimes for many years, and the challenge of putting it out there was really so enormous for so many writers that self-publishing, indie publishing, indie authorship, author publishing, whatever you want to call it, it’s just been a fantastic introduction to our world I think.

KENNEALLY: Well, indeed. And I think the other point between distinguishing between self-published author and author publisher is, you know, the author publisher isn’t doing it alone, that there’s an approach here about partnership and about involving a whole range of professionals in the process of getting a work from the desktop or the paper and pencil to the actual published final document.

ROSS: Absolutely. And this is one of our core principles. When you become an author publisher, you are essentially entering into a partnership or a number of partnerships. You’re going into the collaboration business. And so what distinguishes from our perspective, how we have defined independent author is not whether you use a trade publisher or an assisted self-publishing service, whether you go DIY to Amazon only or whether, you know, what service you use, so much as an attitude of mind essentially that says, I am the creative director of my book from conception to completion. But self-publisher, independent author, these are misnomers in a way. You know, they are relative terms. But the idea that we do it on our own or, you know, almost nobody can produce a good book on their own. You need input from other professionals like designers and editors and beta readers and reviewers. And, you know, it really is a very social business, publishing. And writing as a consequence now for those of us who publish ourselves I think has gone from being the loneliest job in world perhaps to being the most social job in the world. It really has been a massive turnaround.

KENNEALLY: You know, it’s interesting Orna, when we think about self-publishing is very much a 21st Century activity. But of course it’s not. And I was thinking as you were talking about the importance of working with others of one of the great 19th Century self-publishers, Walt Whitman, who published the first edition of Leaves of Grass on his own. But he did have to reach out for reviews from some of the poets and others that he knew. He wrote to Emerson, for example, to get him to review Leaves of Graves. So even 150 years ago, people understood that they needed to work together.

And I think the other point about all of this is the distinction between, if you will, amateur and professionalism. Now that’s a discussion we had recently at the Independent Book Publishers Association conference, and sort of debated this notion of self-publishing, amateur or professional. And as I see it, ALLi really falls on the camp that this is a professional activity.

ROSS: Yes. I mean, everyone who wants to self-publish well is welcome in the Alliance. And we have people – you know, we do have a number of members who have this one book that they want to publish for family or friends. And that’s absolutely fine. And we have an associate membership for aspiring self-publishers. So we really have a very diverse membership.

But I do know that what is appreciated by our members is that more professional. And we also have a professional category. And it can be quite difficult for the independent author who has sort of moved beyond the stage of the first book. In doing that first book, you learn an enormous amount. It really is a very steep learning curve. And once you know that information, your needs, a whole new set of needs open out.

So, for example, you become cognizant of the fact that you’re not just selling books, but you’re also selling rights. And you move into, you know, the world of thinking about translation rights and TV and film, you know, widening out your collaborations. You get very choosy about the services that you will work with and which are most suitable for your needs. You really begin to narrow down the kind of writer/publisher that you are going to be or that you are in this moment, because there are so many different opportunities. At first, I think we’re a little bit like kids in a sweet shop. And we’re running around so delighted with the life that we’re trying this, trying that, trying something else.

But you realize very quickly that actually you cannot available of all the opportunity. There is simply too many. And you need to sort of focus. And at that point, I think it becomes very useful to have a core group of author writers who are in a similar place, who have done the basic learning and have moved on to a different level. I know that the professional side of our membership really does appreciate having so many very good and very successful – I mean, we have members who have sold over a million books and people who have really, you know, brought themselves from complete obscurity to significant success, be that – it’s not always about sales. It’s also about, you know, creative success.

And I think we do tend to focus a lot on the big sellers. I just did it there again talking about numbers. But there are very interesting things happening further down the scale where, you know, these people wouldn’t be household names at all, but they are doing extremely well. And I think it’s very interesting that you can now, as a fiction writer, for the first time really since the demise of the fiction magazines in the ‘50s and ‘60s – it was possible then to be a workaday fiction writer, you know, just a daily bread and butter, making, not a killing, but a living and enjoying the work. And I think self-publishing has allowed that to happen again. And I think that’s just as wonderful as somebody selling a million.

KENNEALLY: Indeed. And the way that ALLi is helping to share some of these insights is with this guidebook that you have published now for a couple of years, Choosing A Self-Publishing Service. And as we mentioned, you’ll be launching the 2014 edition at the upcoming Book Expo America in New York City at the end of May. So what should one expect from this guide? It’s kind of a helpful compendium of reviews of various vendors and services.

ROSS: That’s right. I think, you know, when you start to self-publish, it’s quite overwhelming, the amount of service operators who are in the marketplace, and, you know, the aspiring self-publisher who kind of usually keys himself, how to self publish a book, into Google and just gets inundated with information. And this isn’t getting any easier. There are more and more companies coming in offering a variety of different kinds of services. And it’s a very difficult landscape to kind of, you know, grapple with and get your mind around.

So Choosing A Self-Publishing Service is our attempt to do that. So we look at services of everybody from the big ones that everybody knows like Amazon and KOBO and Ingram, down to the local book designer editorial person. And obviously we can’t list every one of these providers. We take a selective sample across the range of the different kinds of services that there are available. We highlight those that we think who are doing a really good job. And we also point a very – put a bright light on those that we think are not doing a good job. And sad to say, there are a lot of people in this arena still who have absolutely no interest in books and no interest in authors and are just interested in profit and sell a dream essentially.

So we have a watchdog desk where we take people’s complaints about services and that feeds our information in the guide. And so what we attempt to do as well is to really equip the person who is starting out with the skills they need to evaluate whether a particular service that they come across is good or not, the things to look out for, things to walk away from, questions to ask and so on.

KENNEALLY: Well Orna Ross, it’s interesting to me that in your work, you really do sort of catch all together the various aspects of publishing, because you have been, as we said, an author yourself. You’ve now got some experience under your belt as an author publisher, self-published author. You’ve been a literary agent. You’ve done lecturing on creative writing and education around writing and publishing. So really you bring it all together in a single place. How do you feel? It must be a sense of responsibility to your fellow authors to really communicate, you know, what they need to be aware of, where they need to be wary, and also to encourage them, too. That’s an important part of it I imagine.

ROSS: Hugely so. I mean, that is my – you know, if there is one word, it is encouragement and empowerment because I do believe, it’s become a cliché, but what a wonderful thing to reside within such a wonderful cliché. This is the best time in recorded history, I think, to be somebody who’s trading in the written word. And I’m just so absolutely bowled over and delighted with what is possible now because I think it’s only people of my vintage and with my kinds of experience that realize, already we have young writers who are completely taking this for granted. You know, it is affecting how they approach their creative work in a most wonderful way. They are learning – what used to happen is you learned to become a good writer behind the scenes. If you were lucky, you had an agent or an editor who nurtured that along for you. But a lot of people, myself included, learned their trade through rejection. So I was rejected 54 times exactly before I got a very nice two-book contract for my fiction from Penguin back in 2003 or 2004 I think it was.

And so, you know, that whole process – Sue Grafton I know has talked about this and caused a storm in the self-publishing community when she talked about the fact that that process actually improves your craft, because you go back to the drawing board to try to make it better. You put it out there again. And that’s one way to learn.

What we’re seeing now is writers actually finding their feet in public. So you’ve got something, you know, services like Wattpad where very young writers, I mean, as young as 13, 14, you know, that stage in life where a lot of people are writers, and then they stop later on, but they are publicly putting out their writing. And then they’re finding that they have a fan base. And instead of responding to rejection, they’re responding to a positive sort of encouragement and affirmation of themselves as writers. And of course as the creative facilitator, I think this is just super marvelous altogether.

So yeah, I do feel a sense of responsibility, absolutely. I mean, that is why I started the Alliance, because when I self-published myself, I realized very quickly – I did originally, in the spirit of experimentation, which is why I did a little poetry pamphlet first. I thought, well if I get this all wrong, nobody’s going to know, because very few people read poetry anyway. And probably nobody will buy it. But almost immediately I realized, oh gosh, this changes everything. And I really wanted to be at the heart of that and beating the drum for writers.

KENNEALLY: You know, Orna Ross, speaking to you today from London, but as listeners may have detected, there’s an Irish accent in there. And I understand as well, apart from your life in Dublin and – you were born in Wexford and live now in London. You try to make it to San Francisco as much as you can. And so I have to ask you, as a way to kind of close this discussion, compare and contrast the experience of self-publishing, of author publishers in the U.K. and in Europe with those of the U.S. and North America. Any particular insights or differences that you can tell us about?

ROSS: Well, yeah. I think you guys in North America are definitely a step ahead. And I think, you know, the rest of the world is looking to you still. And I think when we started here in the U.K., when self-publishing began to take off, we were maybe two years or more behind you in terms of what was going on there. I think that gap is closing a little. But I think there’s something – the reason I go to San Francisco as often as I can is because I come back here filled with sort of a can-do oomph. And I think that American can-do and positivity is something that every indie author needs to have. And of course it’s not limited to one nationality. But it is definitely, you know, that sense of openness, that sense of anything is possible is something that’s essential to bring into the process. And I think that’s maybe why you guys are so very good at it.

KENNEALLY: And, you know, you guys are so very good at storytelling. Maybe we can get some of that when we travel over to see you. But Orna Ross, I want to thank you so much for joining us today from London.

Orna Ross is an author and publisher and the founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors which will be publishing its 2014 edition of the guide, Choosing A Self-Publishing Service later this month at Book Expo America. Orna Ross, thanks so much for joining us.

ROSS: Thank you, Chris, an absolute pleasure.

KENNEALLY: Beyond The Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the world’s most sought after materials, including millions of books and eBooks, journals, newspapers and magazines and blogs, as well as images, movies, and television shows. You can follow Beyond The Book on Twitter, find us on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at our website,

Our engineer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond The Book.

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