BY SOPHIE MASSON
'Indie' is the current buzzword for 'self-publishing'. ((Relax, I'm not about to launch into Indiana Jones fan-fic (at which, admittedly, I'd be even more of a N00b than the actual subject of my piece!).)) Borrowed from music, the term sprinkles the stardust of rebel cool over what used to be regarded as second-rate—preferable to the 'vanity' publishers but only marginally so. Real authors went to real publishers. Even the example of famous self-published authors, ranging from Matthew Reilly to Fyodor Dostoyevsky (whose wife Anna wrote a fascinating account of their 'indie' venture), and the efforts of pioneering self-publishing service specialists like Wild and Wooley didn't shift the whiff of failure that arose when you mentioned the phrase 'self-published', at least in the twentieth century and into the twenty-first (the nineteenth century being rather more free-wheeling in this respect). Established authors might well have wistfully dreamed of indie freedom and experimentation, but everyone knew you couldn't go through with it—that is, not unless you were washed-up and on the ropes and no other publisher, not even a teeny-tiny one, would take you on any more. Besides, it was a severe strain on the wallet: printing was prohibitively expensive, economies of scale meant you had to go for larger print runs than you needed, leaving all too many hopefuls with boxes of unsold books gathering dust in their garage. And even when it became possible to 'publish' on the Web, until the advent of easily-produced e-books, electronic publishing was simply seen as an inferior and impractical medium for book-length works. How things have changed! Not only have attitudes changed spectacularly, but options have grown. And it's not just about e-publishing either; the revolution in printing has meant that costs for short-run print books have come down massively too, leading not only to more indie authors, but also to a proliferation of small and tiny presses, often run by partnerships of creators themselves.
Very strictly speaking, I'm not a total n00b at indie publishing. Like many authors, I'd experienced an embryonic version of self-publishing as a child, creating illustrated books into which I laboriously and proudly inserted 'publication' details. Most of these books I produced on my own, but occasionally jointly with one of my sisters, who was better at drawing than me, just as I was better at writing stories. My readership was family and friends and, especially in the family market, I didn't always get good reviews, with kid sisters and brothers delighting in picking holes in my work—sometimes literally—and parents scoffing at narrative inconsistencies (this in the days before uncritical self-esteem became every kid's birthright). You can say it functioned as a kind of rough and ready editing and market research for the next time.
Very strictly speaking, I'm not a total n00b at indie publishing. Like many authors, I'd experienced an embryonic version of self-publishing as a child, creating illustrated books into which I laboriously and proudly inserted 'publication' details.
Time moved on. I became a 'real' published author, and then a much-published established author, with many books to my name and an international readership. The idea of self-publishing had been left behind as a memory of childhood: fun to remember, but impossible to go back to. I'd been aware for some time that quite a few established authors had been experimenting with the indie way, but it wasn't until about eighteen months ago that I started seriously investigating the possibilities of it for myself. Not because I'd run out of puff with the companies referred to these days by some as 'legacy publishers'; quite the opposite, in fact, I've never been so busy with new book contracts. And it wasn't because I did not like working with 'legacy publishers'—again, quite the opposite; I've always very much appreciated my publishers. It was for two reasons.
First, I had a wealth of individually previously-published short pieces for adults which could work as collections but which were unlikely to interest a 'legacy' publisher and would not compete with my main genre of children's/YA novels. Publishing them wasn't just about finding a home for texts I thought were worthwhile, it was about experimenting with audience and testing my understanding about readers. It was also about having fun and rediscovering that heady childhood thrill of inventing your own publishing company!
The second reason was more mundane: it was possible to do this now, simply and cheaply. And doing it hands-on would greatly improve my own skill range and so make it even easier for me to adapt to changing conditions in the book industry. I've never been a 'techie', but I'm insatiably curious and always been willing to have a go, enjoying experimenting with new media that paradoxically give us tools to rediscover old joys, such as the fun of making your own books.
My first indie adventure was Sixteen Press, born eighteen months ago out of my desire to publish collections of those aforementioned short pieces as ebooks, and facilitated by attendance at an excellent ASA/if:book workshop on creating your own ebooks. My brief for Sixteen Press was simple: ebook collections of previously-published (in magazines, anthologies, and online) short pieces only, whether fiction or non-fiction, arranged around a theme. The first book I published under the Sixteen Press name was The Great Deep and Other Tales of the Uncanny, whose stories had appeared in anthologies and magazines; the second a non-fiction book on authorship, By the Book: Tips of the Trade for Writers, whose constituent pieces had mostly been individually published on a specialist international authorship blog, Writer Unboxed, thus allowing me to monetise pieces I hadn't been paid for. The Great Deep and Tales of the Uncanny had been released first on Amazon and Kobo; but for By the Book I used the ASA's brand new e-tailing platform for its members, Authors Unlimited—in fact it was the first book released on the platform. It started selling there on the very first day it was released (unlike my experience with Amazon, where sales had been very slow, despite a strong social media campaign). Now both titles are available on all three platforms (not on iBooks thanks to the much more convoluted process in listing on the iBookstore). And I'm planning a third Sixteen Press collection for the end of the year, themed around food and memoir, from pieces I've published on my food blog, A la mode frangourou.
Judging by the experience of the first two—By the Book sold substantially more than The Great Deep and there was a good deal more interest in the topic from blogs and reviewers—I plan that non-fiction will constitute the bulk of Sixteen Press publications from now on.
The other thing I've done with Sixteen Press is create a separate side of free publications, available from the website. To date these consist of a previously-published long essay on being bilingual, and a previously unpublished experiment: a hybrid novella/play about Shakespeare's last days. Both of these texts, pleasingly, have recently been acquired for the National Library's permanent web archiving program as a direct result of Sixteen Press publication.
My second and most recent indie adventure is Christmas Press Picture Books, a print venture and a joint partnership between myself and two local creator friends: illustrator David Allan and artist/designer/writer Fiona McDonald. We had toyed with the idea of Christmas Press for a while, knowing that print costs for short print runs and full-colour productions had dropped substantially and knowing also that publishers' picture-book lists, once flourishing, had contracted dramatically. But we didn't act on it until a project we'd presented to several publishers—my retelling of the lively but little-known Russian folk-tale Masha and the Bear, with David's gorgeous pictures, inspired by classic Russian illustration—was knocked back for the third time with a regretful note along the lines of: 'Really love this, but it's too classic and European—not commercial enough in Australia, can't make the figures work.' That was the spur. Quirky was the flavour of the day according to their marketing people—but we knew there was a market for classic beauty, rich colours, traditional tales. 'Where have the classic picture books gone?' was something I'd heard several times over the last few years from readers and buyers of picture books. Why just take the rejection and slink sadly away, or go against instinct by trying to turn our book into something it wasn't, or attempt to batter down the doors of European publishers? We could do it ourselves and have a lot more fun too!
We're deeply in the process now of producing our launch title—Two Trickster Tales from Russia, which includes both Masha and the Bear and another Russian tale I retold, The Rooster with the Golden Crest. I'd proved the appeal of both stories to the readership, by the way, by successfully selling the texts to children's magazines on one-time non-exclusive licence.
Non-fiction will constitute the bulk of Sixteen Press publications from now on.
We plan to release the book in October, in an initial softcover edition of 500, and have started a flexible Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, for printing and associated expenses (we welcome contributions, of course!). Incidentally, the book will be printed in Australia, as we are keen to support the innovative local industry.
As with Sixteen Press, Christmas Press is very tightly focused (catering to a niche is I think the best way to go for an indie publisher). In this case, we're focusing on limited-edition classic picture books, either of retold folk stories or original material, with only one title published a year at first, to go to two and up, depending on how the first one goes. Later, we also plan to produce digital audio books of our publications; between us we can call on the skills of several professionals in sound engineering, music composing and production, and voice acting.
The big difference between these two indie adventures is not just that one's digital and one's print, or that one's cheap as chips to get up and the other requires rather more financial commitment (though not a big one, divided between three people!). The real difference is that Sixteen Press is a solitary thing; Christmas Press a collective. Both are in their early stages—Christmas Press at a much earlier stage than Sixteen Press—and later down the track, I might know which fits best for me and, importantly, which goes down best with readers too (though if I have to make a prediction, I suspect that Christmas Press will press more feel-good and financial buttons!).
And both have this in common: they are the best kind of indie adventure, with learning, discovery, thrills and challenges all wrapped into one stimulating package.
Sophie Masson is the award-winning author of more than fifty novels and many short pieces. Most recent is Scarlet in the Snow and Black Wings. For years, Sophie has used digital media as part of her creative work, with some novels featuring interactive Internet elements: characters' blogs, band pages, websites. Sixteen Press is a natural extension of her interest in digital media. On Twitter, she's @SophieMasson1, her website is at sophiemasson.org, and she's also on Facebook.