This year’s ALCS AGM in Manchester was preceded by a panel discussion, held in association with Byte the Book to examine “New Ways Writers Are Monetising Their Work”.

The panellists (as pictured above), introduced by ALCS Chair, Tony Bradman as “three people at the forefront of using new ways of promoting their work in the digital world” were:

Mark Dawson (@selfpubform), the self-published author of the John Milton and Beatrix Rose thriller series which have had over 2 million downloads worldwide, and also the founder of The Self-Publishing Formula for writers interested in publishing themselves.

Helen McGinn (@knackeredmutha), a drinks expert and international wine judge, an award-winning wine blogger, and the author of “The Knackered Mother’s Wine Club” and “Teetotal Tipples”.

Xander Cansell (@quitexander), a former bookseller, BBC Radio 4 researcher and web developer who is now Head of Digital for Unbound, a crowdfunding publisher which offers “a new way for authors and readers to connect”.

Chairing the debate, Tony Bradman invited all three authors to introduce themselves and outline their credentials in terms of writing – and monetising writing – in the digital age.

Mark Dawson explained that he had formerly been traditionally published, and though he found this exciting at the outset, it was disappointing in practice. The fact that his publisher took 90% of the cover price was, he said “not my kind of deal”. While describing himself as a late adopter of Kindle, he embraced self-publishing and is now a million-selling author who has just signed a film deal with a well-known director. He also now teaches other authors how to self-publish. It had been a whirlwind last 5 years he said, but he is “having the time of his life right now”.

Helen McGinn worked as a supermarket wine buyer for ten years before having her three children. Whilst they were small she worked part-time in marketing, but found she missed writing about wine, and decided to start a blog called The Knackered Mother’s Wine Club on the strength of the fact that family and friends were always asking for her wine recommendations. Amid a hectic family life, she initially reserved herself an hour a week to blog and post wine reviews. Her following quickly grew, and before long she received an offer from a publisher to write a book based on her blog. She is now working on her third book.

Xander Cansell explained that he had always worked with books, and joined Unbound at the time of its launch in 2010. Providing a new take for the digital age on the old idea of subscription publishing, Unbound’s crowdfunding model was launched on the principle of finding readers before publishing a book rather than afterwards. This model allows a 50/50 split of royalties with authors, and allows Unbound to have a very eclectic list, said Cansell, because “we can take more risks than a traditional publisher”. It also allows Unbound to build up a ready-made core fanbase for its publishing.

McGinn was asked if she had any idea when she started her blog that she might make money from it? “I didn’t even know you could make money from a blog”, she responded. Once successful, she had been approached to carry advertisements on her blog, but decided not to do so. “Instead my blog is my platform: it has got me all my writing and TV work. And it meant that when I wrote my first book, I already had an engaged audience for it. I could try out ideas on them too which fed into my writing”.

Tony Bradman – an author who is “traditionally” published only – then asked Mark Dawson about the often-perceived divide between authors who are self-published and those who have publishers. “I’m agnostic about how one gets published”, he said. “Publishing is just the delivery mechanism: it’s all about the story. Having said that, I wouldn’t be buying any shares in publishing right now”. Traditional publishing was retrenching he said. “With 100,00 loyal readers I could probably sell my next book to a traditional publisher tomorrow – I never rule anything out – but there are so many other opportunities now for writers to reach readers. The landscape is radically different”.

Bradman told the audience that he was celebrating 30 years as a freelance writer. He said that he had always realised that he would have to be a self-promoter and marketer of his own work to an extent but felt that it was so much more the case for self-published writers, and that he personally would rather spend his time writing. Dawson admitted that whilst he knew one very savvy businesswoman in the US who was making 7 figure sums every month from her romance writing, not everyone loved being a marketer of their work. In that case he said, traditional publishing or a crowdfunding model like Unbound might make more sense. But in his opinion, the sweet spot of greatest opportunity lies in the intersection between writing and marketing.

Helen McGinn agreed that as a writer, you get out what you put in. “It’s a two-way conversation”, she said. “You need to talk to your readers but also listen and respond to what they want”. In her case, she said, most of her audience didn’t want to know about the different soils grapes were grown in, they just wanted to know whether the wine was any good.

Asked if Unbound authors had to be self-promoters, Xander Cansell replied that the conversation could happened through a variety of media. Whilst social media was helpful, the most powerful tool for authors was the medium of personal emails, or in the case of Unbound author Francis Pryor, personal letters written whilst in hospital for a routine operation!

Tony Bradman then suggested that connecting readers directly with authors as, for example, literary festivals do was increasingly at the heart of the publishing process. Cansell commented that the first thing Unbound subscribers do when they receive their copy of books they have supported is to turn to the back and look for their name in the list.  “Connecting readers and authors is our slogan”, he said.

Mark Dawson had a slightly different take. “There are lots of ways you can find out what readers want, but writing to market is always a dismal failure”, he said. He told the audience that he also sends the manuscript of his new books out to 700 advance readers with interesting professional backgrounds and that they often pick up errors, whether it’s a mention of the wrong type of gun, or making a real one-way street into one that is two-way.

Helen McGinn said that her next book was about homemade cocktails for which many of the recipes had come from readers. She loved doing festivals she said, where she often did ticketed mass wine-tastings, but without doing a hard sell on her books, feeling that such events were much more about making a connection with her readers.

Bradman then asked the panel to dispense some advice to any ALCS member thinking of trying new ways to monetise their work. “Know your audience, get their details, and keep them with you”, was Xander Cansell’s advice. “The big lesson for me was putting a value on my own writing”, said Helen McGinn. “I’ve learned to say: yes, I can do that, but you do need to pay me for it”. She has run competitions on her blog in association with wine brands, but charges them for access to her readers. “I also spend three hours a week answering personal emails, including the ones which ask such questions as “which wine shall I buy my husband for his birthday?”.

Mark Dawson felt that garnering a mailing list was “crucially important”. If you can connect directly with your readers all around the world, you don’t need a gatekeeper such as a publisher or an agent anymore, he argued, adding, “Don’t be scared. It’s a golden age to be writing right now”.

For pictures of the event, see our facebook page.