An interview with Orna Ross
  • December 7th, 2018

Orna Ross, award-winning author and poet, and founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors

1 H 4 MIN
In this Episode

Orna Ross is an award-winning author and poet who founded the popular Alliance of Independent Authors, an influential professional association for self-published authors.

In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Orna about her background in publishing, the changing roles of literary agents, getting her rights back from a big publisher, the huge transformation in the self-publishing in the recent past, Self-Publishing 3.0, her Go Creative! series, and a number of other topics.

This interview was recorded on October 30, 2018.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to the Backmatter podcast in iTunes or add the podcast URL directly.

This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.


Len: Hi, this is Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this episode of the Backmatter publishing industry podcast, I'll be talking with Orna Ross.

Headquartered in London, Orna is an award-winning author and poet, and the founder director of the Alliance of Independent Authors, an influential professional association for independent authors.

In addition to all of her writing, Orna is a popular speaker and teacher who does a lot of work helping authors and other creativepreneurs develop their skills, not only as writers and creators generally, but also as people managing serious businesses and seeking growth.

In this interview we're going to talk about Orna's career, the Alliance of Independent Authors, her Go Creative! series, and some of the issues of the day in the publishing world.

You can follow Orna on Twitter @OrnaRoss, and learn more about her and her work at

I also highly recommend to everyone listening - the AskAlli Self-Publishing Advice Podcast Salon, where you can listen to Orna's monthly podcast episodes that she does with the amazing Joanna Penn.

So, thank you Orna for being on the Backmatter Podcast.

Orna: My pleasure, and thanks for having me.

Len: I always like to start these interviews by asking people for what I call their origin stories, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about where you grew up - I know from your bio that it's a few different places - and how you eventually made your way into the world of writing and publishing.

Orna: I think once I've said a sentence or two, your listeners are going to know I grew up in Ireland.

I grew up in the southeast of Ireland, born mid-last century, which makes me sound very ancient, and I suppose I am.

Ireland was a very different place then. I was born in rural Ireland and grew up there in convent boarding school, and all of that kind of thing. I always wanted to write, always felt like I was zoomed in from somewhere else.

I was sort of an imaginative child, growing up in a business-driven family. I was a girl among boys. I was a reader among sports lovers. I don't know where I came from.

So books were definitely sort of an escape for me, a view of other lives, other ways to live, other ways to be. I was very romantic about poetry and literature of all kinds.

So at that time - I mean, in Ireland - Yeats, Shaw, Beckett, and the great string of Nobel laureates - they're on tea towels, they're on posters, all these dead white males. That's what a writer was.

So I didn't even actually think it was something I could even begin to think about doing. I didn't even allow myself to want to be a writer, to be honest. The most I could imagine was teaching English literature to kids, so that's what I trained to do. I did an English Lit degree. Eventually the fact that I did actually want to be a writer surfaced, and became something I couldn't ignore.

So I first went into journalism, and then from journalism into fiction - trade published fiction, first with a small feminist press in Ireland, and then with a large corporate publisher, Penguin, in London. And from there, into self-publishing. So that's kind of my trajectory.

Len: And you ran a literary agency for a time.

Orna: Yes. Like most writers, like most creatives, I've done a lot of things over the years. I think you often see that bio, don't you? A writer was a barmaid, da, da, da, da. I've done all of that kind of thing.

But from the mid-1980's, the late 1980's, I've made my living in the written word, in some shape or form. All through that, writing, but never writing in the sort of genre that was going to make a living. So I was always supplementing that with teaching and/or other activities

One of the things I did in Dublin at one time, was run a writing school. We had a lot of very talented writers who were getting offers from publishers, and the contracts were just awful - appalling. Really, really bad and disgraceful, in my mind.

So I took myself off to London and learned about contracts and how-to, and ended up representing those authors informally at first. Then we did run an agency for a while. But it wasn't really me. I liked the part of representing authors, but I didn't really like the part of reading contracts and poring over detail, and all that kind of stuff. So I did leave that behind, but it was worth it.

I took into the Alliance of Independent Authors then, some years later. In fact, founding the Alliance of Independent Authors, seemed to bring everything I had ever done in my previous life together into one role.

I'm still representing authors, but in a very different way, and in a way that suits me much better. I'm very glad to have had that time though. It was a real eye-opener. I felt I got to know the industry in a way that I never would have known it as a writer.

Len: Has the role of literary agent changed in the last, let's say decade, since say the introduction of the Kindle and Amazon?

Orna: Yes, I definitely feel that it has. It's interesting, just this morning, I was giving evidence to the UK all-party group here on - there is an all-party parliamentary writers group, and they are doing an enquiry at the moment into author earnings.

I was giving evidence on a panel with a representative from the Association of Authors' Agents and the Publishers Association. It was interesting listening to the agent talking about "her writers," as she called them, and where she sees her role now.

My own sense is that agents are looking for a role, and more than before, that they can see a situation where the way in which they were that bridge between author and publisher has to be changing, in a situation where authors themselves are developing the skills and the tools to represent themselves in a much better way.

Digital publishing generally has fragmented the hold that a number of professionals within the industry have had on the funnel of information. So yes, I think it's changing hugely.

And then of course you have agent-assisted self-publishing, AASP, which is, in some cases, very useful to an author who maybe doesn't want to get to grips with things themselves.

But in some cases, at the more problematic end of the spectrum, we have agents that are essentially hoovering off rights, just for a morning's work of putting up the book on the various platforms - or maybe only one platform. That's something we've come across in the Alliance a bit, and obviously not something that we think is okay.

Len: On that subject, I've got I've got a couple of questions, one of which is that you made a big career change in 2011 when you got the rights to your work back from your publisher.

I was wondering if you can talk a little bit, just tell us a little bit about that story. How does one go about getting rights back? I believe it might have been from Penguin.

Orna: Yes, it was Penguin. It was because I have been a literary agent. I was very lucky. I had an excellent rights reversion clause. It's one of the most important clauses in a contract, and it's one of those causes that authors are not aware of at all.

Very often in contracts - now, Penguin has a very good boilerplate contract, so there's no question that Penguin would do this. But there are publishing contracts where there is no reversion clause, or the reversion clause is worded in such a way that authors don't understand it, that if even one book remains in print, ever, or if there are ebooks there - now, most titles should be in ebook, and not all are - my point being, if a book exists in any shape or form, and it has sold even one copy in the last however long, the writer is not entitled to get the rights back.

So, my rights reversion clause was good. And Penguin Random House is a very good company, and fair, decent and reasonable. So, I was able to make it happen.

It's very interesting though, my story, if you like, has a much wider kind of relevance, I think, in what has happened since, and speaks to why I was so excited by self-publishing when I saw it appear on the landscape.

I was very lucky. I got a very good two-book deal with Penguin. And I have been a literary agent. I had represented many authors, I knew a lot about the business. I had actually self-published a book very successfully in Ireland, at a time where people didn't really tend to do that - a book in print through the bookstores, and had done quite well with that. and gone into a few extra printings.

So, I knew a lot about the industry, but I was not welcome or wanted at any conversation where anything was being decided at a business level. My [?] date and my cover, my presentation to the marketplace, all of that, I felt was badly handled. Then, at the time there was a phenomenon called "Chick Lit," which you may remember. Essentially, they wanted to slot me into that. And while that was a short term strategy that did make the book a bestseller, I didn't want that. I really wanted to slowly build readers over time - a sustainable model, if you like?

So anyway, on we went - and it just went from bad to worse. The next book was even worse. It was about the poet, WB Yeats, and his muse - and his name wasn't even on the cover. They we're just afraid all the time of frightening away these girl readers who would be petrified by anything that might be even vaguely serious.

And the covers were headless women in backless dresses. They were beautiful to look at, but I just felt they were such a mismatch for the content. I'm quite sure readers who were attracted on the cover were very disappointed with what -

Len: And pink, if I gather the story correctly - the covers, I mean.

Orna: The first one was neon pink, yes. And as I have said many times, "I am the anti-pink." So it was difficult, and it became more difficult. And really, where do you go when it's not working out with Penguin? Where do you go? What's your next step as an author then? That's where I was.

And at the same time as this was happening, I got cancer, actually. So I just took a step back. I said, "What's going on?" Life just seemed to have gone a bit crazy, because, also, I had a reaction to treatment, and stuff like that.

When I came back to working life, I knew I wanted to go again. We had moved to London, as a family, from Dublin. There was this thing called self-publishing, and I took a look and thought, "Not really for me." But then I thought, "Well, it's kind of intriguing." So I did a chapbook of poetry, just as an experiment. Because I'm not very technical, I'd have to learn about e-books - what on earth is an EPUB, and what's a MOBI and all that stuff.

Anyway, I did it. And immediately as I did it - people bought it, first of all. I could immediately see this changed everything. Because if I could get my rights back to my various titles, and I had lots of ideas about things I wanted to write about, I could see that over time I could, I could do for myself what I had hoped they would do for me - that I could build a business book by book, asset by asset, step by step, in a way that just isn't possible when somebody else owns your metadata, somebody else has the channel to market.

You're not in business, under that model. You're more like an employee. And in some cases you're like a piece worker. You're just at home churning out the content, and not being paid very well at all for it.

So that's what I did. And then I was looking for an association to join, because I'm a bit of a joiner. And there wasn't one doing the job that I could see. It just began to grow as a, "Somebody really needs to do this." And then I thought, "Okay, I'll do it." And so I did.

Len: You reminded me there of something I picked up on as a theme in your in your writing, when I was researching for this interview, which is about doing things for yourself, yourself.

You talk about how the education system that we have, for example, is based on an industrial age model which - I didn't sort of go too deeply into that, but it gave me a little bit of a flavor for other things I discovered, where you talk about how often authors just take the contract that they're offered, partly because they're conditioned to feel things like gratitude.

And then, often when it comes to the conduct of their business, even when they become self-published authors, sometimes people seem conditioned to not be as proactive as they ought to be, and there's all kinds of barriers in place.

I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how, when you're talking to people, and you're trying to teach them how to become creative and self-directed, how do you get them through that conditioning?

Orna: There are a number of different approaches, but you're absolutely right. We are. Did you know that our education system was actually devised for the Prussian army, and that's where it originally - the way we are taught in desks with obedience being number one, and uniformity and all of that. It was actually in Prussia in the late 19th century, a group of Americans visited, and thought that was, "Wow, amazing." They brought it to the States, and from the States it was exported around the world, and became the way that we teach people.

It's so unsuitable for today. We're teaching kids to sit still and listen to facts that they can Google in five seconds. We can see the lack of connection there. Anyway, let's not go too deeply into that.

There is a great unlearning that has to happen then. And of course for authors, what you had on top of that was a system whereby a tiny minority of people got through the gateway called publishing. We came to actually think that publishing was somebody else saying, "You're good enough," whereas actually publishing is seven processes that you need to get right: editorial, design, distribution, marketing and promotion, and so on. That's what publishing is.

If that's done well, then you're published well. And if any of that is done badly, then you're not published so well. It is as simple as that.

But we have come to think that it's about validation. It's about being able to tell the folks, "I've been published." It's about the size of an advance - we've got very mixed up in that. I've seen all this, with the terrible, "Publish me please," absolute anxiety and despair, that nobody will publish them.

Within the community, what I'm witnessing is - in the 10 years that we've had widespread digital self-publishing now, there is a growth in confidence where that mindset is beginning to fall away. Not for everybody, it's still there to some degree. There has also been a paternalism in the publishing industry, which is very much about, "You go do the writing, dear and we look after the money stuff over here." And sentences like, "writers want to write, they don't want to publish. They don't want to know about business," and so on.

It's true in some cases, but not taking into account the fact that we're being trained to be like that. And who does that benefit? Does it actually benefit the author to be like that?

First of all, encouraging people to think about their own mindset, their own assumptions, their own presumptions, and to question them.

It's fine if you do come back around to saying, "No actually, I don't want to get involved in publishing, and I do want somebody to look after all of that so I can be free to write."

That's fine if it is a conscious decision. But where it's largely unconscious, and rising out of a sense of inadequacy - "Oh, that's not my role" - then that's something quite different.

So first of all, it's about giving people permission. It's amazing sometimes when you say to them, "Actually now, you can go do it," how many people actually go, "Gosh, I can. Okay, let's do it." There is that whole thing of changing people's mindset with ideas.

But then there is also - to be creative, and to approach business in a creative way means doing things differently. It's not business as usual. There are certain things that we need. We need to balance the creator self, the manager self, and the entrepreneurial self. Those three roles have to be followed through if we're going to have business success.

There is a bit of work there in understanding that - and becoming intentional about the three of them, and how they work together. Once that understanding's in place - authors are very smart. They're very clever people in the main, and they take to it pretty quickly. This community has been on the learning curve of its life in the last 10 years, and has responded incredibly well, and is changing. It's a transformation that we're seeing in this community.

Len: Speaking of transformation and paternalism - before this interview, I sort of warned you that I'd talk to you about politics.

But before we move on to that, I just wanted to mention that you reminded me of a couple of stories that I have about the education system. I did not know that it was a Prussian model imported from the United States that has us sitting in desks. But when I was in my undergraduate years, I had a German professor - who was both German, and a professor of German - who I wasn't getting along with. I tried to get along with him by asking about the roots of words like education, and things like that.

And he said, "Some people think that education is like you have a block of stone and you're trying to bring out the shape that's already there. That's wrong. It's the opposite, you're imposing the shape on the stone."

Orna: Ooh.

Len: We continued to not get along.

I don't know very much about the history of education, but when Adam Smith was writing about the idea that there should be mass education for all of society, the reason he was motivated to do that was, he was looking at this industrial transformation that was happening, and thinking about the deprived lives that people would have, stuck in these factories all day, doing the same thing over and over again.

The idea of public education was actually to give people the foundation to have richer lives, socially and intellectually and politically. And the transformation of education from that original idea of mass education to job training, is something that I think about - and along with that, the idea of obedience.

It's a real perversion of what people were actually thinking, when they were really thinking about, what's the reason to educate people? It wasn't to make you a better worker or train you to follow orders. It was quite the opposite.

But on that wider subject of paternalism, I know you write a little bit about your politics on your website, in your bio. You studied some women's studies in the 90s.

Lne of the things I like to do when I'm interviewing people is - if they have say some local knowledge that the rest of the rest of us might have read about from far away, to tap into that. And so, I wanted to ask you a little bit about Irish politics.

What's been happening in Ireland? The rest of us have been seeing headlines about referendums on things like, well I don't know if there's a referendum, but there's talk about new blasphemy laws. There was a big referendum on gay marriage. I know things have been changing about abortion as well. Can you just give us a little bit of your perspective on what's happened in Ireland in the last 30 years, and what are the forces driving change there?

Orna: Yeah - a fantastic generation of young people, I think, is mainly the driving force. I mean, I love millennial's. I just think they're amazing. And Irish millennials are just a different breed to what I grew up with.

My kids are in their twenties, and we have these conversations. I grew up in a world that is just so foreign to them. I mean, I never thought I would see the day that Ireland would be the first country to actually vote in gay marriage by popular referendum. It's extraordinary to me, and absolutely thrilling in every way.

But the big one, the really huge one - and that was huge and absolutely wonderful - the recent abortion referendum, I was very involved in abortion politics in the 80s and 90s. And the amount of suffering, unnecessary suffering - a lot of people didn't realize just how that constitutional law came into the Irish constitution, that it was actually a group of extreme Roman Catholics. Opus Dei, Dan Brown stuff. And along with some conservative minded politicals in the Irish government, they just set about putting this constitutional referendum in.

And everybody of sane and liberal mind at the time said, "This is going to cause horrendous suffering. It is just bad law." And so it turned out to be. We had a 14-year-old girl who had been raped and sexually abused, was actually interned in the country and not allowed to leave the country, because her parents were going to bring her for an abortion - and that was in the 90s. We all took to the streets, and it was so divisive, it really was. Referenda are anyway, but It was terrible.

So much bitterness, so much - sexism doesn't even begin to describe it. Fear all the female and its role, it's shape. And women afraid, stigmatized, made to be ashamed of all sorts of things.

I remember a time in Ireland when you couldn't purchase condoms, that was against the law. You literally couldn't purchase condoms. And then obviously things like the contraceptive pill, and all of that.

So to see it one generation later, just completely transformed - and Ireland now is almost as liberal a country as any in Europe.

It's interesting, of course, that we're seeing the same sort of backlash as what's happening in the US. It's also becoming live - there's a recent presidential candidate who was stirring up the same sorts of fears and things, and you always have that backlash coming in.

But nonetheless, it just made me so happy to see the transformation that has happened in Ireland, over the last 10 years in particular.

Len: Do you think things could go backwards?

Orna: Things can always go backwards. History is steps forward and then back, and then forward again. That's just history.

Len: On that note actually, you mentioned earlier - you were advising a committee about author earnings. I wanted to ask you about Brexit. Is that having an impact on people in the book publishing world in the UK?

Orna: Yes and one of the topics that was of most concern today was Brexit, and the implications of Brexit. Of course, it's like gazing into a cave - nobody knows what it's going to bring, or be. But the publishing world carved copyright up 100 years ago between the US and the UK, really - as sort of a gentleman's agreement. All the countries are very much bound by the gentleman's agreement that pertained there across the world.

There are lots of changes that are happening that have nothing to do with Brexit, to do with other countries like India and so on, producing cheap print books.

Things are about to change, I think. It's one strand in a big braid of lots of different factors that are changing. But there is no doubt Brexit will have an effect. What that effect will be, it's too soon to say.

Len: While we're on the topic of politics, he EU is undergoing copyright reform at the moment. Controversially, there's something called Article 13, which is represented with the cartoon image of an internet filter - which is something that has a lot of people talking. There's a little bit of a divide, I think, sometimes between people who might be in the content-creation world, and people on the technology side of things.

I was wondering if you could explain maybe a little bit about what Article 13 is, and whether you think its application will help creatives earn more money?

Orna: This is one of the questions where if I'd known you were going to ask me, I would've researched a little bit more carefully.

Just in terms of giving the right definitions - I wouldn't be able to define it straight off. But what I can say is that independent authors are kind of caught in the middle here. It's interesting. There's a big conversation happening, and not a lot of people thinking about the author as author.

There's corporate publishing, which is trying to protect its version of copyright. And of course copyright is the law on which our living rests. Without it, we have no dignity as creators. We have no way of actually earning money. Copyright protection is extremely important for authors.

On the other side the fence, as you rightly say - there are those who feel that the internet and other forms of freedom of communication and speech and all sorts of other things are going to be impacted upon in a negative way. There is no doubt that it will lead to a false legality that we've had recently with GDP, or where authors are going to be questioned about their rights, and whether they are the rights holder, and so on, much more than they have.

We see this already in Amazon and some of the other platforms, where there is quite a rigorous questioning around copyright holding and so on. It's all going to add up to a bit of a headache for authors. It's not fully through yet, but it's likely to carry, I think.

It is another situation - the EU has, a number of times, tried to curtail or tackle the growing power of large digital corporations like Amazon, Google and so on - and in the doing part, the livelihoods of independent authors.

So there would be a T legislation, that would be one example of that, where they are insisting that the purchaser of the product - first of all, there's VAT on ebooks, and there isn't on print books, in lots of the member states. But they are insisting that VAT must be paid in the country of purchase, which is something that's just impossible for a small indie author business to manage. And so the community has responded by geo-blocking most of those countries, and just not selling in those countries.

When that legislation was being drawn up, nobody was thinking about the digital micro-enterprise, which is now probably one of the most rapidly growing sectors in most developed economies right now.

M overall point is, we're not even at the table. We're not even part of the discussion. Today in the UK was the first time that independent authors had a voice in that committee room, and we need more. We need to be there. We need to be talking about things from our perspective.

Len: That gives me a great opportunity to move on to the next part of the interview, where we talk about your work, your founding of the Alliance of Independent Authors in 2012, and your work on it.

Before we do that though, I just wanted to take the opportunity to say - we had to deal with the VAT issue. Fr those who don't know, the way the system works is that if someone buys something from you, you have to try to get three pieces of information, one of which is their IP address, so, where are they on the internet? Where are they physically, where they are accessing the internet? The second thing is the country associated with the payment option that they're using, so like, where's their credit card from? And the third thing is, they select a country from a dropdown. If two of those things match, then you have to apply the appropriate tax rule for that place. And if that place is South Africa, then you don't have to do anything. If that place is an EU country where VAT applies, then you have to charge VAT.

What it means for members of EU countries is that if you have, say a French credit card, and you're buying a book in the United States, you have to say, "I'm from France," and you choose that from the dropdown. Then you have to pay French VAT, even though you're buying a book in the United States. And so it actually means that your country's sale tax is now something that you carry around with you all over the world.

I'm not necessarily complaining about that. But there's all kinds of strange things that happen when these kinds of rules, that are historically place-based, are applied on the Internet. It can become quite a perverted space to try to navigate.

Orna: Absolutely. And a major headache.

Len: And a major headache for everybody.

But moving on, maybe to more positive things - the Alliance of Independent Authors now has a voice speaking to important committees. And the reason it has that, is because you founded it in 2012, at the London Book Fair, as I gather.

I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what the Alliance of Independent Authors is, and what motivated you to get it going, and how you got it going?

Orna: What it is, is a professional association for the independent author. The author-publisher, who wants to make a living from their writing.

We have four member categories. One is for somebody who is preparing to self-publish. So, in order to be a member of the alliance, you have to either have self-published a book,, or be in the act of doing so. We have an associate membership for those who are preparing to self-publish, and then also a standard author membership, for those who have self-published at least one book. And we have a professional membership, for those who have sold more than 50,000 books in the last two years, or equivalent page reads on Kindle, or whatever.

And then we have a fourth category, which good author services can become a partner member of the alliance. That's the way it works.

The reason there's partner membership there, is from the start we saw that it was very important to get good author services. Back then, even more so than now, though it still is a problem of course - there were a lot of rogue services. As self-publishing has become more popular, there are constantly services that are offering things at inflated prices, or poor services, or whatever.

One of our roles is as a vetting agent. To say, "Yes, you can trust this company." Or, 'No, this is one to watch." Our mission was ethics in self-publishing. And that's on both sides. We have an ethical author campaign as well as an ethical partner campaign - ethics and excellence in self-publishing. That's the other big concern that everybody always has about self-publishing, being caught up at this, "tsunami of crap," as somebody called it once upon a time - and it stuck.

Our members are encouraged to go through the seven stages of publishing editorial, with a serious emphasis on editorial, to learn and to educate themselves about how to publish well.

That's a big part of our remit, is that education - what we were talking about earlier, the unlearning you need to do in order to choose yourself. Go out there, be creative. And look at different business models, different kinds of writing that suit you, to publish widely across a range of formats, to meet the reader, or the listener now, because audio books are so popular. Really, indies are very well placed within audio as well - to meet the consumer wherever they are, and however they want to consume your content.

So yes, using words like "consume" and "content" even, is a bit of a learning curve. And we can have resistance to these kinds of things. Of course, a lot of authors don't realize that the second you sell a book on Amazon, the day you sell your first book on Amazon or Kobo or Ingram Spark or Apple - or wherever it is, or through your own website - you've got into business; you have, whether you like it or not, become a business person. You become a publisher. And then you can be in a bad one, or you can be a good one - that's the challenge.

Len: It's interesting. When I was researching for this interview, I came across some great references you have to how the creativity side of what you're doing applies to the business as well, not just to the writing. You can actually take that creative spirit that you have, and you can use it to help manage and grow your business.

Orna: Absolutely.

Len: How do you help nudge people in that direction when you're interacting with them, and they're saying, "Oh you know, I just want to write, I don't want to have to do any marketing, I don't want to do any of that." Which, by the way, I'm totally sympathetic to. But that feeling - how do you get people excited about the business side?

Orna: I am also very sympathetic to that. Because it was on my own, that's where I started off. How do we get them excited? We don't really have to do a lot. We just have to let them go through the process. Once you realize that this is what you're doing, then you begin to see the opportunities. You begin to kind of tweak it. I think it's an important moment when people realize -

I talked about the three hats that you wear - the creator or the creative director, the manager, and the entrepreneur who maximizes and grows the business. Those three hats are worn across the range of activities that you have to do. While we have been quite polarized and had quite a dualistic idea of it, that's the writing and that's the business, and that's the marketing, and never the twain shall meet.

Actually, if you look at writing a book - there are aspects of writing books that are not creative at all, and require your managerial mind and your entrepreneurial mind to come in. There are aspects of business that are highly creative as well as. And creatives do business differently. Digital micro business is actually a very simple business model. It's a very nice business model, and the tools and technology that we have now, make the managing and the entrepreneur side almost fun - but if not fun, certainly not a big deal.

You can actually, with relatively minimal amounts of time and effort, incorporate the sorts of management tasks that were once, in conventional business, extremely time-consuming and extremely labor-consuming.

Let's just take money management. The kinds of programs that you have now, where you just feed in your numbers from the expenses, and it kind of just pumps it out for you if you - that kind of thing, it's just so much easier to manage than it was before.

So how do we get them excited? It's not really us that gets them excited, it's the opportunities, it's the potential - it's connecting, when the penny drops. That my words are not just the book. My words are also the tweet. They're also the Facebook update. They're also in my blog. They're in my explainer video. And if I connect to the heart and soul motivation that I had in the first place, and bring that into the wider stuff - it stops being that awful marketing thing, and becomes part of the message, the mission that you had in the first place when you sat down to write the book. That's the moment when everything changes, when people realize that.

Len: I've got some questions to ask you about technology and this moment we're in, and the potential future for micro transactions and things like that.

But before I do that, y brought up something - one of the activities that the Alliance of Independent Authors engages in is protecting authors from being exploited by bad services, and people listening might be familiar with the - I think it's it's becoming a bit of an outdated term now, but the "vanity press." This was conventionally something that preyed upon people's sense that being a published author elevated you in the social hierarchy.

And so if you felt like you couldn't get in through a conventional publishing business, then you would pay a business to package up what you've written, and then put the name of what looked like a publishing company on it. And then voilà, you could represent yourself as a published author.

The thing that's always struck me about that, is that what the vanity press was offering you was pretty much the same thing that the genuine publishing company was offering you, which was a sense that they can elevate you, that there is a social hierarchy, and that what they're really offering is the opportunity to elevate you in that in that hierarchy.

And so the specter of the evil vanity press is actually a projection of a person's own submission to that idea in the first place - that becoming a published author makes you higher in the social hierarchy. The reason the vanity press is seen as bad, is because only the queen can make you a knight. You can't just knight yourself.

Has this dynamic changed in the last few years. with the rise of self-publishing? One of the things that I've noticed, is that it's more likely that you can make a living if you're a self-published author now than it was in the past. I mean, you talk about the tsunami of crap and things like that. I've read classics professors complaining about the corruption of the stream because everything isn't Homer, which also brings with it a strange, to me, fiction - that somehow there was a past in which there was no tsunami of crap, which is just not true.

And a lot of crap is great in its own way. Things that are seen as crap at one time - or seen as not crap later, and things like that.

Going back to my question - have things changed? Are people who are thinking about becoming authors now, more aware of the fact that actually it's not undignified to pursue your own path and be an independent author?

Orna: Without a doubt, we have thousands of proud indie authors who wear that with great pride. There is still a wide band of authors who say, "No, I don't want to self-publish," and for all the reasons you're talking about. They want the validation more than they want the money, and more than they want the autonomy. And also, I would argue, because of buying into what you're talking about there, which is that mindset and the elevation thing. So you either buy into that or you don't.

Maybe it's easy for somebody like me who had it - maybe it's easier once you have been given that tick, to not care about it.

We're seeing a lot of a fluidity that's happening, whereby some of our members, they use a trade publisher for maybe one title, or they self-publish for a while, they get approached. They go into trade publishing, but they come back out again. Or, some of their titles are trade published, and some of them are self-published. And all of that to us is - you are still an independent author, if you see yourself as the creative director of the book.

I think the vanity term came up also, because the seven processes of publishing that I was talking about, weren't always that well done. Certainly the vanity publisher did not market your book for you in any meaningful way, because the channels of distribution were closed off to them. They didn't get into bookstores, generally speaking. They might get into a local store, but they weren't going to get into Barnes & Noble - that kind of thing.

That aspect of vanity remains, where the author - vanity's not the right word, but where the author is just wants to be published at all costs, and doesn't think enough about the reader and what the reader wants to know. Because really, we're all in service to the reader. The authors, the publishers - everybody, that's who we exist for. And so vanity in that sense, it still can be alive and well in the self-publishing community - as well as in these big services.

Now, the worst of the big vanity publishers - and there's one very notable name in that sector - their revenues are falling as people discover the better services. So, as more information is available on the internet about who's good and who isn't, and so on - there are fewer people falling prey to them now than before.

Len: I'm not going to put words in your mouth, but there's one particular organization that I read about sometimes that's called Author Services. I'm not making any particular claims about it, other than what I've read on the blogs - but there are companies that, when they start getting a bad name - and this is not unique to the publishing industry or vanity press world - they start setting up companies in other names under their own umbrella. It's something to be aware of.

You may have heard about one organization that maybe doesn't necessarily have your best interests at heart. And then you come across something with a different name, and think you're safe. But really, before you get involved - especially if you're going to do all the work of writing a book - maybe you have some dreams that are hanging on what you're doing? Take the time not only to read the contract, but also to look into who you're dealing with. Because while scams aren't as widespread as some people like to set them out to be, they are out there and you want to protect yourself.

Orna: Yes. If I might just say two very practical things on that. You're absolutely right, and there are scams out there for sure. We have a rating, where people can just look up - this is freely available to everybody, you don't have to be a member to have access to it - it's on our blog site. That just rates companies.

If you do come across it, you're absolutely right - they keep changing their names. So if you do come across a company, you can just check and see if it's there. If a company that you're potentially dealing with is not on the list, then you can write to us and ask us, "Do you know anything about them?" And if we don't, we'll research them. Because we like to be on top of everybody - and there are just so many companies, we can't stay on top without people informing us.

Secondly, we do have a guide book called "choosing a self-publishing service". That gives you what you need to know in order to evaluate any service and see - is this doing what a good service does? And the warning signs to look out for.

Len: You brought up changing technologies, and how they're helping people be more independent and run run businesses, because we have tools that can do things now that would've taken a a team of people to do in the past.

This leads me to the next part of the interview, where I wanted to talk to you about Self-Publishing 3.0, which is - I don't know exactly what to call it? A project that the Alliance for Independent Authors is undertaking now. You've released a white paper about blockchain technology and how this might encourage micro payments, that could change the landscape for people and for creatives going forward. That's a lot to talk about. I wonder if you could maybe just set it up. What is the Self-Publishing 3.0 initiative?

Orna: Self-Publishing 1.0, as we define it, was desktop publishing and print-on-demand. That was the first wave, if you like, where authors were able to move away - essentially printing presses were hugely expensive, that's why you had vanity presses to do it. And that's why you had corporate publishers. Only companies could afford printing presses, the average author couldn't. Desktop publishing changed that and print-on-demand was the first wave, if you like.

And then the second wave came about 10 years ago, when Amazon combined three things, which were, a good e-reader, and the biggest retail store in the world, and a very innovative publishing model, compared to what was there before. Those three things together created, as we have said, the possibility of earning an income and building a business as an author.

And now, Self-Publishing 3.0, as we see it, is also setting up sustainable businesses, and understanding that they are in business, and what that means, and how they go about it.

So, the Kindle gold rush mentality, which was about, "I put my book up on Amazon, bang, I have a living." That isn't how it has worked out for most authors. And of course it isn't, because it isn't a business either. It's another kind of literary lottery to put all your eggs in that publishing basket.

So Self-Publishing 3.0 is about - guys, there are incredible opportunities for you. You can build a business, you can make a living doing what you love. Want to get your craft up? And by craft - I mean the writing craft, but also the business craft. Once you know what you're doing on those two fronts - that's what the Self-Publishing 3.0 initiative is. It is completely and utterly facilitated by technology. It could not happen without digital tech, and the next wave of tech. which include things like voice-first. But also, as you mentioned, the blockchain.

There's potential embedded here. There are opportunities here. And it very much depends on author confidence, as to whether we will actually avail ourselves of those opportunities. If we were to actually stand up and recognize what's possible here - we could, for the very first time in history - have a creator-led model here, whereby the author gets paid first. Which just doesn't happen anywhere else.

The author gets paid last at the moment in the publishing stream - aside from the advance of course, but advances are dwindling. There's a huge amount on this topic, and I can really only touch on it, all of it's important - very, very important. Again, it's all about that mindset change.

Len: You mentioned authors get paid last, which brought to mind to me that there have been a few - there are always scandals, but there have been a few pretty high profile scandals in the last few months, where very legitimate and well-known agencies and agents have been discovered to have been not necessarily passing along everything to authors.

I interviewed Kris Rusch for this podcast a little while ago, and she obviously has a lot to say about that.

As I understand it, the idea of using the blockchain to help give authors more priority - and it's just a very straightforward, well, what ought to be a very straightforward world of, the money going from one place to another. The role the blockchain can play is that with things like Ethereum, you can actually have smart contracts, where all kinds of complicated things can happen at the very moment that a transaction happens.

One thing that you can do, is you can actually write into the code for the transaction that, "This proportion of the money will go to this account. This proportion of the money will go to this account. And this proportion of the money will go to this account."

So instead of someone at a bookstore selling your book and then getting that money, and then maybe passing some of it along to the publisher - and then that publisher maybe passing some of it along, perhaps even to your agent first, and then maybe your agent passing it along to you - at the point of sale, I guess they don't use registers anymore so much, but when the bell goes off on the register, with blockchain technology - the idea is that actually the money could instantly go into the wallet where it's supposed to go. Is that is that more or less what you're saying the opportunity is for blockchain and authors?

Orna: Yes. Everything that happens can be written into the smart contract, and that t's visible to everybody. What have been called "trust agents" can be removed. The technology becomes the trust agent. So you don't need lawyers, you don't need agents, you just need the fact that this is transparent and out there, and features of the blockchain make it possible for these things to happen in a way that they couldn't before.

Of course, publishers are thinking about this, and publishing services are thinking about this. So we wanted to make sure all authors were thinking about it.

I think we underestimate our power. I think we very much underestimate the fact that without us, none of this would happen. Everybody really needs us.

Okay, they haven't needed us so much when you had only a tiny bit of shelf space - and far more authors wanting that space.

But we're in a different place now. We've moved from a situation of scarcity into a situation of abundance. And it's different rules. And authors - we just want to make sure that people understand what's possible.

Len: It's interesting. For anyone listening who might be skeptical about the impact that technology can have on a writer's life - if it's true that it can get rid of the lawyers, maybe that'll help convert some people to the tech side of things and the potential there. Sorry, that was that was an easy lawyer joke.

Moving on to the last part of the interview, I wanted to talk about some of the things that are happening in the book publishing world nowadays.

I had an experience about five years ago - I went to the BEA, or Book Expo America in New York in 2013. I think it's called just "Book Expo" now. As I recall, there was one rather random panel on self-publishing. And at this panel, Guy Kawasaki spoke about how he approached a publisher about his latest book, and the publisher and said, "How many Twitter followers do you have?" An he said, "Well over a million, I'm pretty well known." And they said, "Great, that's going to be fantastic for you to use that to help sell your book." And he said, "Well, what are you going to do for me?" Anyway, I think I read something that you wrote recently that there's still a kind of "mere self-publishing ghetto" at these conferences, and that Book Expo in particular is actually still keeping out independent authors. Is that true?

Orna: Oh totally. Book Expo had an independent author stream called, "You Publish You," which they got rid of two years ago. They have absolutely zilch interest in self-publishing beyond. They have a rather sad area where authors can buy a table for - I think it's five or six hundred dollars or more maybe? You never get an author buying it in the second year round, shall we say, because it is pretty much useless. A nice networking with other authors in the group that have also paid that amount of money, just to be there.

But there is no facility. There is nothing there that is of interest to the self-publishing author anymore. So we don't go to BEA now at all. We don't attend. And unless you are a celebrity author, brought along by your publisher - there really isn't any any point in an author attending BEA.

Some of the fairs are better than others, London is actually good. But authors are really - because they are trade fairs, and publishers pay for the space, and because of the business model that is around them, they're just not very friendly spaces for authors, no.

Len: For people who follow the publishing sections of the newspapers, they might have heard, particularly in the UK, reports of an author earnings crisis. In your opinion, is there an author earnings crisis happening in the UK?

Orna: This is exactly what our all-party committee was on this morning. It was an enquiry into author earnings, and based on that research - that was a piece of research that didn't interview a lot of writers.

I would say there is always an author earnings crisis in the sense that authors, for their level of education and commitment and work, don't get paid well enough in the main. So you've got a few celebrity authors who make a lot of money, and then you've got the vast bulk of authors who are lucky if they make a living. And then you've got a big long tail to make almost nothing.

I don't think there was ever a golden age where that wasn't true. But I do think that there was more of a mid-list. You could make a living as a fiction writer, and advances were [better] - particularly in North America, I think, because of economies of scale and so on.

But now, I think it's all about authors in business. Authors realizing they they are the rights holder. They own their own intellectual property.

And so there is a crisis for people in the trade publishing sector, I think. Advances are shrinking, discounts are fierce on the high street. Nobody in trade publishing's making a lot of money. Sometimes authors feel [it's about publishers and they're teaming off at the author's expense] [?]. It isn't really like that. We've got a business model that's very - it's tough to make money. Now they do, and it's thriving - the sector is thriving. We've got a self-publishing sector that is also thriving.

We have a number of authors - it excites me how many authors are now able to make a living from their writing. You can be earning six figures, without ever appearing on a bestseller list, just by having enough books.

Some research, I forget the company that do the research, not long ago, and they found that there was a significant sector of authors like that. And then of course you have the fact that one-third of authors now on bestseller on the digital retail platforms are self-published, and so on.

So from where I'm looking, and this is what I was talking about today - it's looking optimistic. With the growth in audio books, with new territories coming on stream, with new platforms. The platforms are getting better and better. And the ways in which we can reach our readers are getting more interesting, and with voice-first coming as well. There is a lot for authors to be very optimistic about.

Len: Speaking of how hard it can sometimes be to make money, what do you think is going on at Barnes & Noble?

Orna: Poor Barnes & Noble. I wouldn't hazard a guess of what's going on there. In the sense that I made a guess before, it was wrong - so I don't know what's going on in there. I really, really would love to see Barnes & Noble get it’s act together. Obviously I'm passionate about independent publishing and so on. But I also want to see books physically in our space. I want us to have bookstores in our communities.

The way I'd like to address your question really is, I think the key for physical bookstores is to harness the writer and writing, and the huge growth in the interest in writing, both as the published word, but also writing itself. Among the best products that sell in the bookstore are notebooks, which always kind of intrigued me slightly. And I think there is real room for writing events and the bookstore to become part of a much wider literary sort -

We see that to some to some degree, bookstores are doing really well with author events. But I'm talking about taking it another step, and thinking about self-publishing and, rather than seeing authors who self-publish as a threat - because a lot of people in the traditional publishing sector and the bookselling sector do see that, and sometimes independent authors have to take the brunt of their feelings about Amazon in particular - but their fears around what is happening at the moment, rather than giving in to that, I think if we could actually get readers and writers together, and make the bookstore the locust for that connection, I think that's a way forward for the physical bookstore.

Len: My last question would be about your way forward. You've got something called the Go Creative! series that you're working on. I was just wondering if you could give us a little bit of information about what that is, and where people can go to find out more.

Orna: Thank you very much. The Go Creative! series is for creative entrepreneurs like authors, but also other creatives who are fired up in a similar way by passion - who are running passion-powered businesses of all kinds. They might be educators or healers or activists or - as independent authors, we have much more in common with such creative entrepreneurs than we actually have with authors who go through the traditional system. But a lot of us find we are in business by default, and we're not business minded, and we don't understand what it is to be creative in business.

So this series is taking nine books to explain that, because there is a mindset transition that needs to happen. The books are very hands-on. They're books that you do as well as read, and are full of exercises.

It is essentially about the idea that we discussed earlier - about bringing your full creative capacity to the business of making a living doing what you love, and hopefully showing a way that people can do that.

Len: Thank you very much for that great description, and thank you for agreeing to do this interview. I really enjoyed it, and I really love it when people are up for covering a lot of ground, and don't hesitate at all to answer the questions that can be difficult on a number of levels, including politically. So I very much wanted to say, I thank you for that.

And thank you very much for all of your work. I'll make sure to link to the [Go Creative!] series and to the Alliance of Independent Authors in the transcription for this interview.

Orna: That's fantastic Len. Thank you, I really enjoyed it as well. Nothing like a good chat.

Len: Thanks.

Orna: Thanks.

Podcast info & credits
  • Published on December 7th, 2018
  • Interview by Len Epp on October 30th, 2018
  • Transcribed by Alys McDonough