Writing in the Digital Age: an ALCS panel debate

The 2016 ALCS AGM was followed by a panel discussion, held in association with Byte the Book, which looked at the new ways in which writers are monetising their content in the digital age.

The panellists were Rebecca Fenton from Audible Books, Tom Chatfield, author and digital commentator; and author and self-publishing expert, Joanna Penn.

Chaired by the ‘traditionally published’ ALCS Chair, Tony Bradman, the focus of the discussion was centred around the new versus the traditional world of publishing; whether writers need to be ‘let in’ to the digital world; or indeed if the preconceived digital world exists at all!

Tom Chatfield said that his interest lay in a diversity of fields, and in helping people understand each other more and get past their preconceptions about the digital world. His view about the changing landscape was that there is no ‘one way’ to be successful in the digital arena: “There is no digital world, there is no digital recipe, there is no secret, magical answer that some people seem to have and some people don’t.”

He reminded members that we live in a ‘network world’ where there is less and less we can do on our own and more and more that we can do together. Nobody has all the answers, he said, but there is always someone who has trodden a particular path before and would be willing to help. He emphasised that online communities such as Facebook and Twitter, were in reality just small communities of people, and they hold no ‘magic formula’ for use. Writers should be attentive however to what works with different types of content for particular audiences.

Joanna described her work as a mission to empower authors to make as much money as they can from their own books. Her view of the digital landscape was that you don’t need ‘permission’ to access this knowledge, or to self-publish, or to be whatever you want to be. The direction writers want to take was entirely up to them:

“What’s wonderful in this new space is that authors are helping authors. You can log on to a myriad of different websites to find the information and the people you need to help you get your books out there. So, this is what’s exciting to me, that you have permission to do whatever you like. You can publish whatever book you want, you can write whatever book you want, you can sell it wherever you want in the world and that is what the technology, the digital world allows us to do.”

Rebecca described her role at Audible as encouraging and helping writers grow in whichever way possible – exploiting rights that they often might not have considered, and bringing a voice to those who might not think ‘with a business hat on’.

She also touched on the perceived need for self-promotion in the self-publishing landscape, and whether or not authors needed to be extroverts in order to succeed: “I do think that a large part of my role at Audible is to identify the people who don’t necessarily shout the loudest, but who write the best and who write for an audience that I’m looking for.”

All agreed that it was important that authors are familiar with the details of their contracts and therefore which rights they could or couldn’t exploit. Joanna suggested that if a contract was over ten years old, it was very unlikely that an author had sold their digital rights, so would still have their ebook rights, for example. Rebecca encouraged the audience to investigate or separate out their audio rights.

Tony concluded the debate by asking the panel whether they believed that the digital world was going to replace the traditional world of publishing.

The answer from all the panellists was very similar – that the two different worlds will live together, and that traditional publishing cannot be completely replaced.

“There is no one way. You choose what is best for your project.” concluded Joanna Penn.

Have you seen the campaign for fair contracts?

The Society of Authors (SoA), The International Authors Forum (IAF) and a number of other organisations around the world have been campaigning for fair contracts through 2016, much of which asks publishers to allow writers to retain their subsidiary rights which was raised, among other things, during the panel debate.

Read about the Society of Authors campaign.
Read about the IAF’s campaign.

In January 2017 Joanna Penn will be sharing more in ALCS News on how writers can monetise their work. Watch this space!