Last weekend I spent a lot of time around aspiring authors. On Friday, I ran a 'trade secrets' workshop for writers at Chipping Norton Literary Festival. The day after I headed to Leicester University to deliver a plenary talk to the audience at the sixth national Self-Publishing Conference. And my overwhelming impression - both within the official sessions and while chatting at lunches and coffee breaks - was an uplifting sense of energy, optimism and experimentation.
Yes, there's more noise out there than ever. Yes, publishers are inundated with submissions, and the Amazon marketplace seems to become more opaque and complex by the day. Yes, review space in the mainstream press is being squeezed yet again, social media can be a scary sandpit, and frenzied discounting makes it seriously hard to turn a buck.
But amongst the writers I met there was also a real sense of opportunity. In a, ahem, troubled world, telling your unique truth feels more important than ever, and there's a tangible public hunger for diverse stories that have historically slipped through publishing's cracks. Our early 'web 2.0' utopianism may have faded, but innovation fresh routes to market continue to open up for entrepreneurial storytellers unafraid to seek them out.
So armed with feedback on my sessions, and fresh from conversations that subsequently clarified my thinking, here are five questions that I think every aspiring author should ask themselves right now.
1. How do you want your story to change the world?
Publishing as activism is having a prolonged and powerful moment, highlighted by crowdfunding plaforms and fuelled by the anger and creativity of disenfranchised voices. So it's worth thinking about the greater poltical or social resonance that your story - fictional, non-fictional, poetic, dramatic, interactive, mobile, whatever - might have with the world. In my session at Chip Lit Fest, this ranged from 'making late-middle-aged women visible' to 'helping people understand what it feels like to have a non-normative neural profile'. Even if you don't want to directly channel this sense of mission into the production or marketing of your book, having it clear in your head will help you articulate your personal passion more compellingly.
2. What does success look like for me?
Nowadays, every writer has to be an entrepreneur, whether they’re self-published or traditionally published, whether they write porn fan fiction or literary prose poems. We're notoriously wary of looking at our 'art' as anything so grubby as a 'career', but that often means we'll follow any old path to publication without ever questioning what we really want. So how do you want writing to fit into your family life or day job? Do you actually want to write full time - would you get demotivated or bored? What’s more important to you: pushing your boundaries as an artist or being a commercial success? (I’m not suggesting they’re mutually exclusive, but it’s helpful to know your priorities). Do you want to break even or make a profit, or is a loss fine as long as you’re reaching readers? Precisely how many people would you be happy to reach? This can help determine what exact hybrid of storytelling forms and publication routes would be best to pursue.
3. Could I partner with a tech innovator?
As Shib Hussain pointed out in his article for us this month, publishing startups have lots of exciting tech - what they need now are great stories. There is a real opportunity here for writers willing to challenge their own craft and partner with developers to fit storytelling into new forms. Whether that involves creating murder mysteries via text message for the likes of Hussain's company unrd, writing audio dramas where the listener is a main character for Scottish startup The Owl Field, or creating an interactive thriller as an Alexa Skill, you don't need to code to innovate.
4. What can I do with podcasts?
Talking of audio, there's little doubt that podcasts are currently huge. Edison Research has showed 75% growth in US podcast listening since 2013, and smash hits like Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History and Sarah Koenig’s Serial have helped turn the form into a bone-fide literary medium. On the lowest level of engagement, writers would be mad not to subscribe to some of the best book-chat 'casts out there, such as Mostly Lit or Banging Book Club. You might even try to get on one as a guest; The Riff Raff is a lovely little show dedicated to debut authors. But if you're really smart, you could serialise your story (not hard to do with a smartphone, a pair of decent earphones and some free online software) and translate your listener base into a book deal. From JC Hutchins’ 7th Son to My Dad Wrote a Porno, it's defintiely a thing - not to mention the perfect way to test your writing skills on listeners pelted with all the surrounding distractions of everyday life.
5. How can I create a new sort of event?
As I mentioned a couple of months ago, author events are ripe for reinvention. OWN IT!'s recent celebration of working-class DJ Shauna O'Briain's memoir was a high-energy, accessible, multi-media mashup, and a brilliant example of how book launches might become a revenue stream, as well as a riotous night out. For my own novel, I'm working with Pan Macmillan to do something a bit different too. Starting in London on 5th June, we're touring an event called The Success Monologues across five independent bookshops across the UK, from Margate to Orkney. In this three-hour evening pop-up, five brilliant and diverse local women will each talk for five minutes about their limiting self-beliefs, the memories that made them, and how they've redefined what it means to ‘be a success’ - alongside live music from upcoming local talent and provocative little activities to get people socialising and thinking about their own self-beliefs and formative memories. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a hell of a lot of fun, but I also hope it takes the idea of the book launch beyond the book, using it as a jumping-off point to get diverse people together talking about the issues and provocations at the heart of the story.
So, aspiring authors. Excited? You should be. Scared? You should be that, too. But if the energy at last weekend's events were anything to go by, you're already grasping these kind of opportunities with both (inky, key-calloused) hands.