Self-Publishing at ‘Traditional’ Conferences: Does It Belong?

Last weekend at the York Festival of WritingDavid Gaughran and I ran a four-hour workshop on how to successfully self-publish. Attendees were sharp, interested, and not afraid to ask questions – the perfect audience, really – and David and I hoped we’d helped them on their way.

But even before the workshop started, a minor victory had been won: the very fact that the festival programme had included a workshop on self-publishing, as well as a slot for me to speak the following day on my own experiences with both traditional and indie publishing.

Although most attendees were there seeking the traditional route – and most presenters were agents, editors, and bestselling authors – the very fact the organizers acknowledged the growing trend of self-publishing amidst all of this showed an acceptance of it as a viable route.

As I spoke with workshop attendees and fielded questions during my presentation, it became clear to me that there really is a need for rhetoric-free, unbiased input to allow writers to make informed, sensible decisions. Harping on that self-publishing is only for the desperate and that it’ll only ruin your writing career is about as helpful as screaming that traditional publishing holds no value whatsoever for anyone.

In my opinion, self-publishing isn’t for everyone – the same way traditional  publishing may not be the right option for many of us. It comes down to the individual to make that choice, based on their unique scenario. Sidelining self-publishing away from big writing conferences like last weekend’s isn’t helpful for writers struggling to become educated, and I was pleased the organizers recognized that.

Do writing conferences in your area include sessions on self-publishing? Do you think they should be part of such conferences that have typically focused on the traditional route?

And what’s the best piece of advice you’ve received prior to self-publishing?

PS – Many thanks to everyone who chipped in a few weeks ago with why you decided to self-publish, and what some of the biggest challenges are. Your comments were invaluable!

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  1. D.J.Kirkby says:

    I definitely think self publishing should be part of writing conferences! The best piece of advice I have received in relation to self publishing is to pay for professional editing and covers.

  2. Lois Lavrisa says:

    I believe that many writing organizations are including at least one workshop on independent publishing. How can they not recognize the huge impact it has on authors and readers? Great post:)

    • Talli Roland says:

      Lois, it certainly makes sense. I’m not sure other large conferences in the UK yet include sessions ons elf-publishing, so it was heartening to see York did. I hope others will soon!

      • Here’s to the rise of elf-publishing! I think all our elvish friends should get on the literary success train. (Sorry, couldn’t resist, Talli, though I know the above finger slip was introduced in order to demonstrate the need for professional editing!)

        But seriously… thanks for sharing your experience at the conference. I’ve talked about creating a conference solely for indies, and I think it’s only a matter of time before every writing conference of any sort will take self-publishing into account because of the new reality.

        • Talli Roland says:

          Oh my, I’m now very paranoid every time I write self-publishing! The thought of elf-publishing makes me snigger.

          I think you’re right, and it’s likely only a matter of time!

  3. Well done, YOU! ;) It takes guts to be at an event like that and to actually walk on the wild side. But you know what – the arrogance of the established sector in publishing is diminishing fast in the face of Amazon KDP. They’re on the defensive, defending the cause that to be conventionally published is best, that their authors are the crème de la crème of the literary sphere. Well shucks, *readers* don’t really care who the author is so long as the book is to their taste and it passes muster as a damn good read and isn’t too peppered with grammatical and spelling hiccups! Though even conventionally published books are not immune to grammatical and spelling errors, plus word padding to up page count! ;)


    • Talli Roland says:

      Thanks, Francine. I couldn’t agree more that readers just want quality novels that are good reads! It was nice to see a conference recognising there is more than one route to reach readers.

  4. Dale Amidei says:

    Three maxims come to mind: 1) “This is a marathon, not a sprint” 2) “Manage your expectations” and 3) “Take the time needed to produce a quality result.”

    Stories of serendipity or accident resulting in fame and riches exist, but such hopes are no substitute for an extended program of deliberate effort. Authors who think otherwise will not last long enough to become a success. If you write in order to apply passion to your vision, stay grounded, and hold off on each new release until it is ready, the results will be gratifying.

    If not, there is a whole lot of room at the bottom for the mediocre to share with the lazy.

    • Talli Roland says:

      All very good points, Dale – thank you. It’s very easy (and tempting) to rush things through in hopes of maximising sales. Keeping hold of the big picture is critical.

  5. Steve Vernon says:

    Way to go, D.D.

    Back in January I was asked to speak on e-publishing at a local Podcamp – a huge assembly of technologically-minded people – programmers, bloggers, computer gurus – folks who had a whole lot more savvy on the digital world than I did.

    There was a great interest in the subject of self-publishing. I met a lot of really cool people and learned a fair bit myself.

    Our local Writers Federation have begun to acknowledge e-books and self-publishing. I see e-books being reviewed in our local newspaper’s book section. People have begun to get curious about this surging phenomenon. The old biases are being forgotten. An entire community of eight-track people are waking up to the wonder of the i-pod.

    Folks like you and David Gaughran – not to mention Konrath and the rest of the gang – (haven’t had my coffee yet, don’t ask me to remember names so early in the morning) – are the heralds of changing times.

    The world has begun to wake up and smell the coffee.

    Speaking of which…

  6. I was the chap who arranged the conference and it didn’t occur to us for a moment not to include a good old stream of self-pub material. (And not just e-pub: Jeremy Thompson of Matador was there.) We also arranged a terrific debate in which David Gaughran delivered a wonderfully informed and rounded view on e-books, despite having to hold up his end of things against three feisty and long-established agents.

    Truth is, there just isn’t any one size fits all solution. I’m a traditionally published author for all of my 10+ books, but there are at least two of those which I wish I had self-published and several more which I may self-publish when rights revert. Most big names on both sides of the Atlantic still favour the traditional route and they do so, I think, because that’s still the right course of action for those wanting to sup at the very top table. But, my golly gosh, that still leaves plenty of room for indie publishing. Our clients do still want agents/trad publishers, but they’re increasingly aware other plausible avenues exist.

    • Talli Roland says:

      Harry, thank for popping by. I’m so pleased you included self-publishing in the programme — so many writers, both traditionally published and aspiring, are looking at it now that it really does make sense. As you say, there isn’t a one size fits all, and it’s great to have information available from both perspectives.

  7. Our local SCBWI conference hasn’t outright had a workshop on how to how self publish. But there was a class for creating an ebook. But I don’t think it will be long before there is a self publishing track.

  8. Laura Howard says:

    Great post Talli! What a great conference that must have been! I would have liked
    To see your presentation. The world is changing, and I’m glad to be experiencing it
    Through you and some of my other faves!

  9. D.D. Scott says:

    This is fabulous, Talli! And congrats to you and David as I bet u rocked the house!!!

    I do think it’s sooo very important for all writing conferences to now have a self-publishing track. In fact, I just recently pulled my sponsorship and participation in one that never came through on that in a meaningful and supportive way.

    The best piece of advice I received prior to self-publishing was from Joe Konrath at RT10 in Ohio, who said to our workshop group “Every day you wait is another day you haven’t made money.”

    • Talli Roland says:

      That is fantastic advice, DeeDee, and so true! I was really pleased to be included in the programme — well, not just me, but the self-publishing track! I hope we rocked it!

  10. I think the shift to acceptance of self-publishing is underway. The statewide writing organization where I live is now offering self-publishing programs, which is a radical shift for the group.

  11. Tamara Ward says:

    Thanks for the post, Talli! Some traditionally published authors I meet with are very interested in self publishing, and some have dabbled in it. Most have met with success – so, yes, I think having indie publishing at traditional conferences would be a good thing. I think writers are interested in it and in how to do better in it.

    Best advice? Make sure the book is the best it can be before publishing it – do not rush or cut corners to put it on the market before it’s ready. Publishing a novel before it’s ready is like serving a half-cooked pancake – elgh!

    • Talli Roland says:

      Tamara, you make a good point that many traditionally published authors are successfully doing both, and would like more information on how to do it better. And that’s great advice – love the pancake analogy!

  12. carol hedges says:

    I notice that The Guardian now runs, among its other writer courses, a couple on self-publishing. It IS entering mainstream, more so now traditional publishers are becoming too profit focused and reluctant to ‘grow’ new writers. The best advice I ever received: ‘Go for it!’

    • Talli Roland says:

      I saw that, Carol! Rather ironic given the slew of rather negative articles that seem to come out of there recently. Still, at least they’re recognising the demand for it.

  13. Monica Davis says:

    Talli, thanks for raising this topic…hopefully many more conference organizers are reading these posts and will embrace the new wave of hopeful authors by including presentations on self-publishing. Rather than wait for the conferences to play catch up, I speak to writers’ groups on the “pros and cons” (or “challenges and opportunities”) of both traditional and self-publishing. You’re absolutely correct…It’s not a “one size fits all” world. The key is to understand the options and make the informed choice that works for each individual author.

    • Talli Roland says:

      That’s exactly the approach I took, too: the pros and cons of each. Neither is an easy option, despite what some may say about self-pubbing! How clever of you to address the topic with writers’ groups.

  14. Judi says:

    Oh yes it has a place. When I started writing seriously in 2003 I watched another new author’s career. She spoke at conferences and had such confidence in her path to publishing. Everything she said came to pass. EVERYTHING. It was amazing to behold. She went all the way to becoming a New York Times bestseller of multiple books. Not too long ago, she started a new path. She’s decided to publish all of her backlist that is available to her and anything new as a self-published work.

  15. Judi says:

    I forgot the best piece of advice. I’m going to follow Cheyenne’s example again. I have three of my backlist, and three covers ready. I’m afraid to pull the trigger because of formatting. I have the product, I just don’t have the level of confidence that I can load them without causing a formatting nightmare.

    • Talli Roland says:

      Oh, formatting – it can be a headache, can’t it!? I hope you get it all sorted out!

    • Christina says:

      Judi, formatting is not difficult at all. Even if you don’t plan to use Smashwords, if you want to do it yourself, read their guide and follow along. Or hire someone to do it for you if you can. Formatting is really the easiest part of the whole thing once you understand what’s needed.

  16. Mitzi Flyte says:

    I’m finding my writers’ groups are more and more interested in self-publishing. When there is an interest, there’s a need and that must be recognized. I’ve attended several DIY-type conferences immediately prior to Book Expo America that were very helpful.
    Thanks for asking (and answering) the question.

  17. I like what you said here: “Harping on that self-publishing is only for the desperate and that it’ll only ruin your writing career is about as helpful as screaming that traditional publishing holds no value whatsoever for anyone.”

    The two forms of publishing can co-exist, and authors should explore each option to determine which is best for them. Key word: OPTIONS.

    I’m speaking at the Moonlight & Magnolias Conference in Georgia taking place October 5-7 ( I and another author will discuss treating self-publishing as a business and what we consider to be the keys to success. This conference is traditional, but it has a digital track, offering interested writers a chance to learn more about self-publishing as a path to establishing a writing career.

    That’s the way it should be.

    • Talli Roland says:

      Options is indeed the key word – I couldn’t agree more! I tried very hard to present a balanced opinion about the routes available for writers now and yes, that self-pubbing does need to be a business!

  18. Nice post! I’ll be attending the Georgia Romance Writers (GRW) conference in October 2012 and there will be one or two workshops on self-publishing.

    As for the best piece of advice I received prior to self-publishing…I’d have to say it was – get a professional editor before publishing your work.

  19. Stacy Green says:

    Great post. I haven’t gone to any conferences (I should join RWA, but the nearest chapter is 2 hours away), but I have heard some horror stories about how self published writers were treated. It’s nice to hear about the tide changing:)

  20. Ranae Rose says:

    There were lots of self-publishing panels at the RT Booklovers Convention I attended this past spring. I really enjoyed them.

  21. Hi Talli.
    I know from your tweets that your had a wonderful time at York! It’s one of the best (Thank you, Harry, and the Writers’ Workshop!)

    As everybody has already said, it’s about options, or if you want a more academic word, plurality. But the other side of choice is responsibility, in this case to our readers. This means the product, i.e. our books, must be fit for purpose. So my forwarded pieces of advice are to get a good editor and a professional cover. But my own is to do your research, network with others and be a well-mannered, professional adult.

    Oh, the Historical Novel Society Conference in London at the end of this month has the following session:
    “21. Success the Indie Way (workshop) The advantages of being self-published in HF and how best to go that route with Richard Denning, Helen Hart, Cathy Helms & Helen Hollick”

    • Talli Roland says:

      Very well said, Alison. I couldn’t agree more about the responsibility of choice. I tried to impress upon people at the conference how important that was.

      Nice to hear the HNS conference is including a session on SPing. I’ve heard Helen speak on the topic and she has a great story to tell.

  22. Seeley James says:

    “Writing Conferences” that want to be relevant need to disengage from the ‘path to market’ any given author might choose. A writer’s conference should be about writing. I can see a publishing conference having two different venues because there are now two entirely different forms of publishing. But a conference of/about/for writers should offer expertise on all paths to market. I’m glad to hear you were there!

    Peace, Seeley

  23. I’m self-publishing for the first time in January 2013 and the dominant themes I’ve discovered are:
    1) Make sure you’ve written the best book you possibly can
    2) Be willing to pay for good covers and editing
    and (most importantly)
    3) Keep writing! The next book is the best marketer for current works

    I really appreciate this forum and all the great information here. Thanks much!

  24. Great topic Talli. How fantastic for those conference-goers to be able to hear you and David speak together. Wish I could have been there. The UK is a little behind the US in this because the ereader hasn’t been available over there as long. I first heard about self-publishing as a viable option from Nathan Bransford at a conference here in CA two years ago. I’ll be teaching at that same conference next week and I’m going to be careful to give a balanced overview of what each option offers. Many authors have some trad-pubbed titles and some self-pubbed–and I think that number will increase. The important thing is to help people get over this either/or mentality.

    • Talli Roland says:

      I think you’re right about the UK being behind. We only just got Kindle Fire, for goodness’ sake! How wonderful that you’ll be speaking at the same conference where you first heard of self-publishing! And I couldn’t agree more about getting over the us/ them mentality. I hope I was successful in employing that viewpoint when delivering my presentation.

  25. Sibel Hodge says:

    Super congrats on this, Talli, and to David, too! I’m sure it was a fantastic presentation! And it’s amazing to think that a few years ago, you would never have been asked to talk about self-pubbing so it’s a testament to how far things have come already. :)

  26. deniz says:

    “Sidelining self-publishing away from big writing conferences like last weekend’s isn’t helpful for writers struggling to become educated”
    Yes! A very good point. Self-publishing seems to be a very good option for many people.
    Four hour workshop, wow! Sounds fun :-)

  27. David Slegg says:

    Hi, Talli!

    It’s nice to see the traditional powers at least acknowledging non-traditional authors. Then again, they really don’t have much of a choice at this point. That horse has already left the barn.

    Thanks for another great post!

  28. Deborah Jay says:

    Hi Talli,
    It never occured to me pre-York (my first writer’s conference) that they might not include self-pub on the agenda: it is so much a part of the current writing/reading scene that it would seem to me to be ridiculous to leave it out.
    Apart from attending your terrific workshop with David, I also went to the session with Jeremy Thomson of Matador and heard about the bespoke services they offer for self-publishers, no matter how large or small the input you want. So from one end of the spectrum to the other, I found the options clearly laid out for each individual to tailor their own publishing needs.
    I came away from York (thanks Harry) with all the information I wanted to be able to make my own choice. As it is, I’m going to stick with my original plan and while trying to get my latest novel traditionally published (I came home with an invite from an agent to send it to her – yay!) I am going to self-pub the one that failed to sell (despite being agented in the US) and hopefully I’ll be able to compare the two models for my own work.
    Thanks to FoW I feel more confident in my ability to approach self-publishing in a professional manner and I sincerely hope that other conferences will offer the same comprehensive information that I, clearly erroneously, assumed would be available anywhere.

  29. Hi there Talli.
    You have so many comments that I very nearly didn’t add one, but I thought to myself ‘if everyone thought that, then your number of comments would not increase and that’s not fair’.
    I think you are an inspiration and, even though I am in the fortunate position where one of the agents at that very festival has requested to see more of my manuscript, I am not averse to self-publishing if need be. I think it takes a lot of time and effort to self-promote so much and admire anyone with the energy to do it. I think the fact that you already had a readership through traditional publishing has set you in good stead for self-publishing and I take my hat off to you. It was a risk and it’s paying off.
    You got a mention in my Festival of Writers’ 2012 blog, and Debi Alper is stealing it (with permission) and adding it to the festival book. You can have a read here if you like.
    It was ace to see you at the Festival. You are a such a lovely person and I am in awe of the amount of support you offer to others. Go Talli! x

  30. Glynis Smy says:

    It is such a refreshing change to read about a positive outcome for self publishing and all who sale ;) in her/him. :)

    Watching you become a spokesperson for SP is wonderful. Recently I was asked to give a talk at a writing group about the subject. They practically wore me out with their enthusiastic questions. Authors want the blessing of readers to become Indies, and I think the time has arrived.

  31. I direct a writing conference in Atlanta each year, and we offered a workshop on the various types of publishing this year. I’m very impressed by the new technologies out there. Writers need to know all their options.

  32. Lynn Kelley says:

    Yes, I think conferences should offer sessions on self-publishing. The children’s writers conferences in my area are ignoring the issue, for the most part. I’m self-pubbing from now on and as much as I love attending the conferences, they don’t offer what I’m focusing on, so why should I waste my time and money, except to schmooze and kick it with writer friends, which is always fun!