Writer's Resources

Writing Conference Notes: Part 3 – Non-Traditional Publishing

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We end my Newcastle Writing Conference notes with the afternoon sessions. After lunch there were more workshop choices: meet another agent with Jo Unwin, developing your online presence, postgraduate writing courses, and non-traditional publishing routes. I went for the latter because I thought it might be interesting and I wasn’t disappointed.

Who needs a publisher anyway?

The Non-Traditional Publishing session was with Jim Hinks of Comma Press and MacGuffin, Rachael Kerr who is Editor-at-Large at Unbound, and self-published author Debbie Young of ALLi.

Jim Hinks: MacGuffin is a new self-publishing app where you can upload your work in text and audio form. It’s good for samples, rather than a whole novel, and would work well for short stories and poetry. You can link your samples to a point of sale, and there are stats that show you exactly when people stop reading your work. Brutal, but useful information. Comma Press does a new writer themed anthology.

Debbie Young: ALLi is the Alliance of Independent Authors and is a membership organisation that can provide advice on how to market and self-publish your work. There’s a Facebook group where you can ask advice from other authors. You can get special deals on services, find the best self-publishing model for you, and beta readers for your book. It provides lots of advice, such as how to get your books into libraries, etc.

Rachael Kerr: Unbound is crowd-funded, or subscription publishing – the return of an old way of publishing: it’s how Dickens published (without the flashy internet bit!) You pitch the idea in a short video which goes on the site and people pledge money to fund the writing and publishing of the book. It’s open to all submissions but they don’t publish everything – it is curated. It’s heavily non-fiction based at the moment, but they’re trying to get more fiction on the site.

People can pledge money for an ebook or hardback, etc. or for more, such as an invite to the book launch, or anything else the author comes up with to promote the book. It’s a lot of work for a writer – not for shrinking violets! But they do courses and workshops for writers to learn the skills they’ll need to sell the book. They also help you make the video. Once the book is published you get 50% of the royalties.

The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth is a good example: a novel written in his own invented dialect, set three years after the Battle of Hastings. Watch the video and see what you can pledge for here.

General notes from the discussion: When you’re ready to publish, decide what you want to get out of your book. If you want to sell a lot of books, you’ll have to do publicity. Even if you get a publishing contract, you’ll have to do it. But it’s not just about making money. It depends what the book is, who the audience is, why you’re writing it, etc. Do what feels right to you. Don’t measure yourself against other writers. But it does help to sell books if you’re prepared to put yourself about and do publicity. Whatever you do, it’s important to make sure you enjoy it. If a book is published, it can take years, so you have to enjoy writing it.

Sometimes publishers aren’t prepared to do any marketing. They track book sales using Nielsen BookScan and often only seem interested in the numbers growing in one direction – up. That means a lot of books don’t get the attention they deserve. If you rely on traditional publishing then you’re leaving it up to the market to dictate what people read. There should be alternative ways of publishing or certain voices won’t be heard.

ALLi has a lot of novelists who had traditional publishing contracts, but their publishers stopped publishing their backlists because they weren’t selling enough. So the writers took back their books and self-published them, then went on to make more money than they would have through traditional publishing.

Some people think that getting published in the traditional way gives them ‘prestige’, and that others don’t understand if you’re ‘only’ self-published – like self-publishing isn’t real publishing. But the landscape is changing fast. Publishing yourself doesn’t mean you’re a failure, and self-publishing can give you more control and freedom.

You can promote your work online, but if you feel uncomfortable on social media don’t do it because you’ll just do it badly, and that would be worse than not being on there at all.

Finally, find a community that loves what you’re writing.

NWC What's Hot
Fun with books!

What’s Hot and What’s Not

The final panel event explored current trends in the publishing industry with agent Jo Unwin, Rachael Kerr of Unbound, Francesca Main who is Editorial Director at Picador, and Bookseller Media Editor Anna James who also blogs at A Case For Books. This was an interesting and passionate discussion in which the panel shared their huge enthusiasm for books and writing. They’re always looking for the next thing to excite and inspire:

We come into publishing because we love books.”

Here’s a taste of some of the discussion:

Jo Unwin: you can’t predict what will be hot in publishing because it takes years for a book to be published. You need to be aware of the world around you, not just what’s going on in publishing because publishing is a bit inward looking. Consider what’s important to people – that’s what will work.

Rachael Kerr: publishing is a notoriously copycat industry. Beware of people telling you what’s hot – they’re just trying to put you in a box.

Francesca Main: readers are hot! They know what they want. Publishers are looking for something they love and that they can’t wait to sell to others. Books driven by a good plot are always hot. Picador look for literary novels with a large appeal. “Big juicy things to talk about”, plus great plot.

Anna James: what’s hot is a good book and a strong voice. The focus should be on the writing. People are talking about why books with female characters are less likely to win literary prizes, so now we’re aware of that, it might begin to change.

(There was a lot of talk from the panel about literary prizes – they give authors traction and coverage – but I didn’t find it helpful. I know I’m never going to win a literary prize, so focusing on them doesn’t help me much as a writer.)

FM: publishers are realising that they need to get more in touch with readers and what they want. Publishers are looking for something specific but universal. For diversity, and ultimately, for quality writing.

RK: readers are more adventurous than publishers give them credit for.

AJ: it’s impossible to read everything she’s sent, so to decide which books she’ll feature she has to go on instinct after reading just one page of a book. She tends to rely on the relationships she has with editors and trusts their judgement about what’s good.

FM: she mentioned H is for Hawk and how it was hard to see that the book would be huge, but when it sold well, it was obvious.

Question from the audience: how do you know if your book is good?

Answers from panel:

  • Read widely
  • Use the Writer’s Workshop to get feedback
  • Get a mentor
  • Be a good reader and sharpen up your critical faculties
  • Enter competitions
  • Use Wattpad for peer review
  • Look at what’s on the literary prizes shortlists and compare your work to those*

FM: she receives two or three manuscripts a day, but only publishes 8 books a year. You can usually tell very early in the book whether it’s working. The more self-assured the writing is, the better the book will be.

JU: have your work looked at professionally before you send it out to agents, and listen to what they say. Send your work out in its best possible form. Trust your instincts and then push yourself even further.


I’m glad I attended this conference – I felt inspired and encouraged, and connected with a couple of writers working on similar stuff to me. And the main message? Be yourself, be passionate, be fierce. Don’t worry about social media, and when you do go on there, don’t try to sell – just be yourself, be passionate, and be fierce!

If you’d like to read more about the Newcastle Writing Conference from other writers, you can find links to their posts on twitter at #NclWritingConf

Read the rest of my conference notes here

Image: @NewWritingNorth

*Personally, I would advise against comparing your work to the literary greats – guaranteed to make you feel bad about your work. Yes, you can learn about craft and structure, etc. but comparing one book with another is impossible. You may disagree as you see fit in the comments below! BTW, I love reading all kinds of books – literary and otherwise – I’m not attacking literary novels, I just don’t/can’t aspire to write like that!

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