Shaping A Satisfying Writing Life

If there was one statement that summarised last weekend's Writing In the Digital Age conference, the annual event produced at Farringdon's Free Word Centre by the Literary Consultancy, it was that voiced by Orna Ross, founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors, during a self-publishing panel called "The Writer In the Machine". "Nowadays, every writer should be an indie, whether they are traditionally published or self-published," Ross declared. "They have to take control of their writing careers."

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Cory Doctorow

This rallying cry for individual responsibility, and its concomitant positioning of the publishing industry as a set of complementary tools rather than a feudal bestower of success, echoed throughout #TLC14's three intense days, uniting agent and editor, author and publisher, print fetishist and digital innovator alike. The message was as challenging as it was inspiring, but always underpinned by one basic acknowledgment: the ivory tower has been bombed. The garrets are dust. So if you want to stay around you'd better stop cowering under shaky lintels, pick up some rubble, and start thinking like an architect.

However, the ivory tower in question is not "trade publishing", "print book production" or "pre-Amazon retailing". It is our tenacious yet spurious illusion that making a living as a writer was ever anything other than frustrating, confusing, expensive and exhausting; full of things you don't want to do; and inextricably linked to the grubby, fleshy, non-fictional world of other people and commerce.

In an early session exploring the relationship between authors and traditional publishers, writer Rebecca Abrams admitted that she was a "thwarted monogamist", having had a different publisher for every book and four editors for her latest novel alone; in other words, she reminded us that a deal with a big-name house does not insulate a writer from insecurity and flux.

Alexandra Pringle, Group Editor-in-Chief of Bloomsbury, described her own struggle to balance the needs of her writers with the commercial imperatives of the company, and the agony of having to "abandon" previous clients for her own dream job. These challenges may have been intensified by the new digital landscape, but they have always been inherent in publishing.

When Robert McCrum's article "From bestseller to bust" appeared in the Guardian this March, profiling once-prestigious authors who are struggling to make ends meet, I was amazed by the storm of comment it provoked. Was this really news? Wouldn't it be rather more extraordinary if literary awards proved to be some sort of credit crunch kryptonite? I'd certainly have been more shocked by "From bestseller to sustainable career: how authors other than JK Rowling have managed to feed their kids without taking shit part-time jobs or netting a high-earning spouse."

Yes, it's damn hard to build a writing career nowadays; but hasn't it always been thus?

Just as the old ways of publishing were never as solid as we like to imagine, the new ways are less disruptive than we might assume. Take Unbound, the crowdfunding-for-books site launched in 2010 that gives readers the chance directly to fund the books they want to read and writers the chance to publish work that would otherwise slip through the commercial cracks. As co-founder John Mitchinson pointed out in a panel dubbed "The Age of Possibility", Unbound is at heart a hybrid of the patronage and subscription publishing models that have been writers' main route to market for centuries, only with transparency, creative playfulness and equitable profits thrown in.

Another good example of this was provided by Mitchinson's co-panelist, transmedia writer David Varela. By applying his word skills to everything from interactive digital games (Sherlock: The Network) and fitness apps (Zombies, Run!) to public improvisation (the Live Writing series), Varela looks to have developed an unprecedented and uncategorisable portfolio career. But his cocktail of freelance storytelling is as reminiscent of roving Shakespearean poet-singer-actor-playwrights as it is typical of Gen Y.

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Jon Slack, Max Porter, David Varela, John Mitchinson

In short, digital disruption has done us a huge favour, by both exposing the insecurity inherent in the act of publishing and surfacing a host of anciently innovative models that can help drive an author-centric writing life. But what exactly does that life look like?

Well, whether your idea of being a writer is getting arts funding to pen epic poetry in a remote Scottish cottage or using your weekends to crowdsource a real-time thriller on Twitter, it needs one thing in common: a business plan. As the conference transitioned from reflective debate to practical advice, Ross begged writers to be honest about why and for whom they write.

In the self-publishing panel, indie author Rachel Abbot described how she really became happy with her writing life only when she applied what she had learned from her previous career as an MD, creating a timeline and a marketing strategy complete with KPIs. In a later session on book reviewing, the popular review blogger Lynne Hatwell (Dovegreyreader) declared that she would never monetise her blog, accept advertising or write for a newspaper, as her creative freedom was priceless. Their paths are very different, but defined by a similar sense of self-awareness and educated choice.

Writers must also be painfully honest with themselves about the skills, time, money and services required to achieve their chosen vision of success. Speaking alongside Abbott and Ross, the effervescent self-published marketing guru Joanna Penn outlined the multiple streams of income she pursued as "an entrepreneurial author". From fiction to non-fiction, audiobooks to ebooks, speaking gigs to podcasts, Penn made it clear that "becoming a money-making machine" required both full-time commitment and a willingness to turn yourself into a personal brand.

And writers can no longer abdicate responsibility for their rights. In his opening keynote, the journalist and science fiction author Cory Doctorow delivered a brilliant polemic about the evils of DRM (Digital Rights Management) and the companies that promote it, declaring that he would rather give up his right to tell stories than publish using a system that threatens freedom of speech.

Later, Ross sounded a warning note about unscrupulous agent-assisted self-publishing services, and when Polly Courtney talked about her defection from HarperCollins for insisting on branding her novels as chick-lit, the point was reiterated: whether operating in print or digital, trade or indie, authors need to educate themselves about the credentials of their collaborators and develop their own ethical codes. In the words of Granta's Senior Editor, Max Porter: "Read the way you want to read, write the way you want to write, and weatherproof your value system."

Finally, Gemma Seltzer from Arts Council England emphasised that writers need to remain focused on their core creative mission. If your novel is an unconventional genre piece, are you really doing it justice by submitting to traditional publishers, rather than considering multimedia content marketing online? If it's a quiet literary novel, might you have to accept that you'll need to keep the day job for the next couple of years while the trade publishing process plays out?

In her opening comments, conference organiser Rebecca Swift explained that she had founded TLC because she "hated to see creative energy wasted". The subsequent three days were, in their way, a plea for writers to stop wasting energy - on maintaining unhelpful illusions around both trade and indie publishing, and on mismatching their creative aims and approaches.

It's all too easy to blame publishers for being slow to innovate, social media for being crowded, and readers for reaching for the lowest hanging fruit. Instead, more writers need to take responsibility for shaping the nature of the book-world in which they want to take part.

This article originally appeared in Bookbrunch.