‘Creative writing, creative publishing, creative living’
That’s Orna Ross’s byline, and it sums up her empowered approach to life as an independent author. Having ‘won the literary lottery’ and secured a deal with a major publisher, she didn’t expect to get involved in self-publishing. But when she became frustrated with the way things were going, she decided to experiment with self-publishing.
‘I loved self-publishing from the start. I love creative freedom, and the control that you get. Yes, there is responsibility that goes with that. Yes, it is not for those who don’t like good, hard work, but if you do like good, hard work, and if you have a clear vision of who you are as an author, then I think it really is the most creative possible way you can publish.’
And from her own experience, and wanting to create a community to support others on the same journey, she founded ALLi, the Alliance of Independent Authors.
In this interview she talks about her experiences with both traditional and self-publishing, the power of writing for personal development, and the need to embrace the commercial along with the creative.
Oh, and yoga.
Orna’s site: https://www.ornaross.com/
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
Alison Jones: Hello, and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club, and I am absolutely thrilled to be here today with Orna Ross, who is the head of ALLi, the Alliance of Independent Authors. Orna describes herself as both a creative and a creativist, which I love, applying creative principles to the whole of life.
She was a traditionally published author, and she took her rights back from her publisher to self-publish in 2011, and now, through ALLi, she supports the community of independent authors around the world. So welcome to the show, Orna.
Orna Ross: Thanks so much, Alison. Delighted to be here.
Alison Jones: It’s really good to have you here. Tell me a little bit about yourself, and about ALLi. How did it come about, and why was it necessary?
Orna Ross: Yeah, well you kind of touched on it there in your introduction. In 2011, I had kind of come to a hiatus with my publisher. We had creative differences, let’s put it that way. My vision for my books, I’m a novelist, and I write some poetry as well. But this particular publisher was publishing my fiction. I had been super excited to get the deal with them originally. It was kind of the golden ticket, and a very nice two book deal.
But it hadn’t really turned out the way I had hoped, so they were very much steering the books in a certain direction, that I felt was not the direction I wanted to go as an author. I’d come to a point where I didn’t know what I was going to do, and then everybody, all my old friends, were talking about self-publishing, and particularly my US friends. I just said, “I’m going to give this a go.”
I tried a poetry pamphlet, because I thought, “Well, nobody reads poetry, so it won’t matter if I make mess of this,” which I thought was pretty likely, because I’m not very technical. Nobody was going to notice, and the poetry audience is very forgiving, and blah blah blah.
So, I did a little poetry pamphlet, just 10 poems, because I actually think most poetry books are too long, and because it was self-publishing I could do whatever I liked. I think 10 poems is enough, actually, to put out there at any one time. So I did that, and somebody bought it. And then somebody else bought it, and I couldn’t believe that actually poetry was selling. Then I thought, “Wow, what might fiction do?”
So I had nothing to lose. I asked my publisher for my rights back, and we had a bit of toing and froing, it took a little while, but I had worked with a literary agent in the past, and I had negotiated my own contract, because I had, prior to being published, gone through what most authors go through, the 54 rejections before the 55th one comes in. I’m not exaggerating. It was 54, I counted.
Alison Jones: Wow.
Orna Ross: Yes. So I had done my own… I had had two agents prior to that, neither of whom had managed to sell this big … My first novel was a very big, chunky, kind of three-generational family murder mystery thing. I did kind of cross-genre, and it wasn’t the easiest sell at that time. So yeah, they hadn’t managed to do it, but I did manage to do it, and I had a good contract, and I knew how important reversion clauses were, so I was able to get my rights back.
So I took the rights back, and to be honest, I never looked back from there. I loved self-publishing from the start. I love creative freedom, and the control that you get. Yes, there is responsibility that goes with that. Yes, it is not for those who don’t like good, hard work, but if you do like good, hard work, and if you have a clear vision of who you are as an author, then I think it really is the most creative possible way you can publish.
Very soon after that, I started to look for an association I could join. I’m a bit of a joiner. I love people, as well as being a loner. There wasn’t one that I wanted to join. Now, I had folded my business, when I had moved to London from Ireland, and I had worked as a literary agent and run a writing school, in Dublin. I had kind of closed that off, so I began to think … I was finding that full-time writing didn’t suit me. I had got so used to it, I had two children, and ran a business, and I had got so used to fitting writing in, that once I had all day, it wasn’t happening at all, ironically.
Alison Jones: No constraints. That is interesting, isn’t it?
Orna Ross: It’s so interesting. It was the last thing I expected, because when I moved to London, it was all about I was going to write full time, and blah blah blah, but it just didn’t happen, Procrastination Station. So I thought, “Do I want to actually do this?” and then I had a kind of a dark night, of will I/won’t I, and what does it mean, and I realised I hadn’t a clue what it meant, or how it would turn out, but that in this brave revolution that was happening, in my world, I wanted to be there, right in the middle of it, on the side of authors. So I started ALLi, very small was the intention, but it took off pretty quickly.
Alison Jones: There’s so much in there, I want to sort of go back and unpick, we could be here all night, sorry. Firstly, 55th publisher? Wow.
Orna Ross: Yep.
Alison Jones: That’s a kind of good wake-up call to people, isn’t it? Also, an encouragement not to be too depressed after the second or third. And also, it really strikes me that, on that 55th occasion, you must have been dancing around the kitchen, and cracking out the champagne, and it must have felt like the end of something.
Orna Ross: Oh, you’ve no idea. I mean, I’d really had a very long and torturous journey, and I had a method, which was to expect rejection, and I had the next submission, I started submitting when you posted submissions. You know? It’ll be prior to email. I had two or three of the next people that I was going to contact lined up, so when I got the inevitable rejection, as soon as it came in the door, I just put it in the drawer where I was collecting the rejection slips, and sent off the next one. I didn’t think about it. I didn’t let it depress me. I just sent it off.
Every Monday afternoon, for two hours, I would work on … I used to call it Marketing Monday. I would look at who might be interested in a book like that, doing all the research myself. I was just determined. I was going to find somebody. I was reasonably confident that the book was getting better with these rejections as well, because sometimes, I would get feedback from somebody, and they would say something, and at the beginning, I was changing in response to that.
As time went on, I was feeling more and more confident that the book actually stood fairly solidly as it was, and wasn’t changing it, and yeah, then suddenly I got a call from, as I said, a fabulous publisher, and a very nice offer, and I really felt I’d won the literary lottery. But it was a bad omen, because on my launch night, the night when this book was launched, three years, I might add, after it was purchased…
Alison Jones: Wow.
Orna Ross: Oh yeah, another kind of … We didn’t get the-
Alison Jones: Another win for independent publishing, this, isn’t-
Orna Ross: Well, absolutely. You know, it just, one thing after another, it just kept falling off the schedule for various reasons. It was a string of different reasons. It was nothing. It was just one of those things, changes of personnel, and various other things, so it was almost three years after I had originally sold the book, that it was finally coming out. And on the night of the launch, in Waterstones, in Dublin, for some reason, nobody knows as yet why, the lights went out and everybody had to leave.
Alison Jones: Oh no.
Orna Ross: For health and safety reasons. That was my launch night, so the omen was there from the start… The book did very well. It was a best seller, and I was very happy, and Penguin was very happy, with the sales I should say, but I wasn’t happy with the cover. I wasn’t happy with the way it was sold, and I was very unhappy with the way the second book was being sort of rammed into what felt like a square, when this was a book that was not a square book.
They were trying to do the thing of, if you publish one kind of book, the next one has to be the same. And it wasn’t the same, and two books were brought together in a way that didn’t work for me, creatively, at all. Yeah, our conversations were kind of moving further and further apart, so yeah, that’s just kind of what happened.
Alison Jones: I think that’s interesting. Many people listening to this will be where you were, sending off those proposals, getting those rejection letters, and some of them might be in negotiations with publishers. I think it’s just interesting to keep that in mind, that you have options these days, and if you can’t get a deal that works for you, or if you get the deal and, actually, it doesn’t work out the way you’d hoped, it isn’t the end of the road for you. You don’t have to just suck it up these days.
Orna Ross: Well that’s what’s so amazing to me. I think because it did take such a long time for me to get published, and also because I’d worked with so many writers, now, over the years, and because I am old enough to remember when you didn’t have choices, and that was the only thing you could do was keep on trying. That’s why I value self-publishing so very much, and why I feel that really, today, I would go further, even, than what you said there, which I completely agree with, and say really, there’s no excuse today, sitting around, kind of saying, “Oh, I can’t get a publisher,” or, “Oh, you know, the deal is this,” or whatever. You must do the most creative thing that’s possible for you for that book, so you can keep moving.
Because one of the things that happened to me was, even though I did have this kind of method of dealing with it, and I was moving on and writing the next book, and I would have gone on to write the third book, there is no doubt that your energy, your enthusiasm, is leaking away, no matter what you do to try and keep yourself bolstered, and stay resilient, and all of those kinds of things. It does have an effect.
I can’t think of how many wonderful books we’ve lost, because people just became disheartened. Most people, when I tell them that I submitted that many times before I was published, are really surprised, but not the published authors that I know. Not people who got deals, because very often you find a very similar story.
So really, if your dream, if your goal is publication by a trade publisher, then you really need to be, especially these days, when there are just more and more and more writers, you really need to be that resilient. You need to, you know … Of course there are exceptions. You could be the lucky one, someone wins the lottery every week, but that’s not a business plan, or a career plan, or a creative plan.
Alison Jones: Very good way of putting it. Let’s just talk about the writing itself for a minute, because one of the things that you and I have talked about before is the value of writing, and the role of writing in life in general, which is something that I talk about a lot, to the people that I work with. Why do you think it’s important, and how can it help, in business and for entrepreneurs in particular, do you think?
Orna Ross: I think writing is one of the most under-valued things that we have in our armoury as people. So getting completely away from writing fiction, writing poetry, or writing to be a Writer with a capital “W,” I’m a huge believer in I do a practise, daily, called free writing, and yes, it helps my work, but I really do it as a personal development tool, as something that keeps me grounded, and keeps me aware of what I’m really thinking about things. So I’m very interested in the process of writing for self.
Alison Jones: Let’s just talk about free writing a bit, actually, because I love this too, and I was chatting to Mark Levy a little while back. I know his Accidental Genius really kind of introduced me to the idea of free writing. I use it quite a lot now, with clients and myself of course as well, but there will be people listening who don’t know what that even means. So just tell us, what is free writing, and how do you use it?
Orna Ross: The way I teach it is FREE stands for Fast, Raw, Exact, Easy, F-R-E-E. The most important thing there is fast, so essentially when I teach it in a workshop situation, I will say, “Go,” and they all write as fast as they possibly can until I say “Stop,” and raw means that when you’re writing like that, you don’t pay any attention to what your English teacher taught you about grammar, punctuation, spelling, any of that. You just kind of keep on writing as fast as you can, and raw too, in the sense that when you write that fast, sometimes you’ll find you’re writing something you’d rather not write. So it’s about revealing that kind of thought beneath the thought, that you might not be aware of happens when you’re writing at speed.
Then exact and easy, exact is about using the specific detail of your own life, and taking a second or two to write the extra words that really describe something, so rather than saying, say, “A fruit bowl,” you would say, “Green grapes,” or, “Green grapes going off,” or something that would just give the essential detail, but easy accompanies fast, so it’s a flow kind of thing that happens.
And it’s a very natural process, except we’ve been taught to think, and second thought, and third thoughts. The way in which we are taught English is very … It deconstructs it hugely, both in terms of writing, and in terms of reading. Free writing, to me, is healing. It brings them all back together, again. It’s holistic, and it’s really, really valuable. I find it incredibly useful, and I’ve taught it to my children, to my friends, and I ended up teaching it in workshops and things like that, because really I pass it on whenever I can, too, and I’ve taught it to people of all ages, and situations. Even people with very poor literacy skills. I’ve taught in prisons, and to people recovering from drug abuse, so it works universally, once people have basic literacy, and it’s very, very powerful.
Alison Jones: I think it’s so underrated, as you say, and it’s one of those things that you think, “Why don’t they teach this in school?” Because it’s such a valuable thinking tool, and almost what we’re taught about writing is actually how to present, it’s how to make things shiny, and easily consumed by other people, and impressive, whereas what free writing does is get under that, and it’s that sort of bridge, isn’t it, between the thought, and … The thought is just gone in a second, but the writing holds it, and develops it, and allows you to take it somewhere else, which is the power of it, but it’s just for you.
Orna Ross: Yeah, it’s wonderful, and it also makes you, I think, a much more … You know, you know what you think about things, after a while, once you’ve been free writing for a while, you get to know yourself a lot better, and you get to accept yourself, because very often, once you find yourself writing, you can shock yourself, you can disgust yourself. So I have a very petty, whiny little person in there, that I had thought I’d really rather didn’t exist, but you come to accept all the different voices, and you know that the writing keeps changing. It gives you that sense, that is the most true thing about life, I think, that it is constantly in flow, in change, in flux.
And once you’ve been free writing for a while, you just see that in your notebooks. It’s just there, so nothing quite … You’re more stable. I think things don’t shake you as much, if you free write regularly.
Alison Jones: Ah, I love that connecting back to yourself. I hadn’t thought of that. I also am intrigued … Well, intrigued, it strikes me anew, that exact is such a useful thing to have in your mnemonic there, because when you’re reading non-fiction, just as much as fiction, it is those details, those little things that you can suddenly immediately see a picture, clearly in your mind, when somebody’s telling a story. Those are the things that really engage you, and hook you into the writing, and make it sing for you, aren’t they? It’s so easy to just disappear into abstracts and platitudes, but those details really anchor you as a writer, and pull in the reader.
Orna Ross: Absolutely. They are essential, and when you’re writing for yourself, you are the reader, and you get in that exactness, in that specific detail is the heart and soul of your life, in a way. It is caught up in those details, your unique experience of what’s being perceived by your senses, so not just what you’re seeing, but also what you’re hearing, and tasting, and feeling, and touching, and all of that. That captures your life, in a way, that as you say, gosh, we’re so abstract aren’t we?
Again, the training is to think … And we can be lazy, because it can be hard work. If you’re trying to do that in a conscious way, that’s hard work, but if you write fast enough, actually, that’s what… And you give yourself the instruction to be exact, and to tell the truth, and not to shy away, and not to skip over, then yeah, that’s where the vein of gold is, I think.
Alison Jones: Yeah, fantastic. In addition to, obviously you need to be able to write to be able to write a book, but you also need to have a whole other suite of skills, don’t you, to be a successful, independent author. What sorts of skills, and practices, and characteristics mark out a successful indie author, do you think?
Orna Ross: I think curiosity, so the ability to sort of find out what needs to be done is number one, and knowing where to go to get good information. I think that’s really key. Hard work, you know? Not being afraid of hard work, and not being afraid of … Writing can be an art, and publishing can be an art, too, but publishing is also a business, so while you can write purely for yourself, when you start to think about publishing, you’re thinking about other people, at some level. It’s the ability to step back a little bit, from your own work, to locate yourself within the marketplace, to know where you’d sit in a bookstore, to know what it is you offer.
What is your value proposition, in a sense? What are you bringing to the interchange, the connection, the imaginative connection? What is it that you sell, and do you inspire, do you amuse, do you inform? What is it that you’re bringing?
Then the ability to find a sustainable way, and that’s important, I think, because we see a number of people coming in, self-publishing reasonably well, but blowing out, burning out, or just exploding with overwhelm, too many things to do. I think it’s about being able to find a sustainable way in which the publishing nurtures the writing, and the writing nourishes the publishing.
So the kind of writer who says, “Oh, I like to write, but I don’t like to market.” We hear that a lot, and that’s the first thing you have to kind of deconstruct. You have to understand that the same mission and motivation that you bring to your books must also come to reaching your reader. Otherwise, if you’ve got a disconnect between those two, then you’re not going to be able to self-publish well.
Alison Jones: Yes, it’s interesting isn’t it? Marketing is a loaded term for many people. I think a lot of people shrink away from it, but it’s just as essential as the writing, because if you don’t get the attention, then you can’t convey the message.
Orna Ross: Exactly, and I do understand that. I do understand it’s that dichotomy that’s set up in our minds, between the creative and the commercial, and to be a successful self-publisher, I think you have to break that down in a way that’s meaningful for you, and it varies hugely across writers. You know, I mean by definition writers are imaginative people, so we are seeing different people manage that, in all sorts of different ways, but it is essential that those two sides of you make friends, and they really can.
The more creative you can be in your marketing, actually, the better, so there are always kind of trends, of the indie author finding the new way to reach readers, that everybody is talking about. A while ago, it was Facebook advertising. At the moment, it’s Amazon ads, but actually, if I look now, ALLi is five years old this year, and when I look at the people who are consistently putting out work, and growing their author business, and deepening that connexion, they’re actually not tending to follow … They may try, and see, and test, and see does something work for them, but they tend to find their own way, and they’re in the business of creating relationships with their readers, as much as they are in the business of making books.
Alison Jones: Yes. That’s a really nice way of putting it, and I have to say, for me, that’s one of the reasons I’ve always loved publishing as an industry, is because of that fusion between the commercial and the creative. You know, the commercial is the creative. It’s just as important, and I love that balance.
Orna Ross: Me too.
Alison Jones: Yeah. So if there’s people listening to this, who are ploughing through their book, and maybe feeling a bit despondent, or losing their mojo, what one tip would you give to somebody, particularly who’s writing a non-fiction book, or a business book particularly?
Orna Ross: I think it’s about two things. At one level, it’s always returning to the original passion and mission that kind of started you off, so what’s your motivation? If you can touch that, I think that gives you the reason to keep on going.
I also think, on the other side, you and I were talking about yoga before we actually came on air.
Alison Jones: We were.
Orna Ross: Yeah. For me, yoga, meditation, free writing, those kinds of things, I think of them as creative practices. They are actually things that I know nurture my creativity, so I think you need to find something like that, that actually stops your thinking, and you know where you go to that silent place, where words rise, but you need to be able to kind of do that for yourself, regularly.
So if you’re too busy, especially if you’re writing a business book, and you’re running a business, and maybe you’ve got a family thing, and all of that, you’re going to have to find a place where I think of it as the font. You go, and you dip in the well, and you replenish. It can be, again, such a variety and ways that people do this. For one person, it might be mopping the floor, or for somebody else, it’s a long walk. It doesn’t matter what it is, but you need to know what it is for you, and you need to give yourself that, because if you don’t …
It’s when you don’t that you begin to lose your mojo. It’s when you don’t stay in touch with that side of yourself, and you’re depleted, and it’s very, very easy, these days, especially with phones, and we’re always on, you know? With the internet and everything, you have to really understand how you nurture your creative self.
Alison Jones: Yes, and I think actually, that there’s a good point around the physical side as well, because we do spend an awful lot of time sitting in front of a screen these days. You know, for me, the font is going for a run. You know, we were talking about yoga as well. I think there is something really important about that physicality. It’s very renewing, and I think if you don’t have any aspect of that, it’s quite easy to deaden your physical self, which doesn’t help your mental self at all.
Orna Ross: I completely agree. You’re only half alive if you’re not moving. You know, we have a body. Hello. Bodies are there to move-
Alison Jones: It’s designed to move. That’s right.
Orna Ross: And moving your mind is very connected to moving your body. If you look at all the great artists and writers, they all walked like crazy, or ran, or played tennis, or fenced. They always had something, and yeah. It’s-
Alison Jones: Was it Joanna Penn, I know she’s a friend of yours, she was on the podcast recently, and she was experimenting with dictating while walking, which I think worked quite well for her as well, didn’t it?
Orna Ross: Yeah. I do a bit of that, and also listening while walking, but also the silence. I am a huge believer in silence and its replenishing powers. We don’t need a lot of it, but a little bit of silence, a little bit of solitude goes a long way for a creative.
Alison Jones: Yeah, and it’s so hard to find these days, isn’t it? That’s an awesome tip, thank you. And you know, I don’t think many people have come up with that side of things, so really good to hear. Thank you. I always ask guests, as well, to recommend another guest for the podcast, so someone with something interesting to say about the business of business books, where it’s all going. Who do you think I should invite onto the show next?
Orna Ross: Well, somebody that I’ve been thinking about in the last little while is Michael Tamblyn at Kobo I’m sure you know Mike.
Alison Jones: I know Michael, yeah yeah.
Orna Ross: Yeah, and the reason why I think he’d make a great guest for you is because I think he’s really got something interesting to say about … He calls it the fifth wave of publishing, and I’m not sure that I’m going to remember all the waves, but essentially of book selling. Essentially, the first one was selling through a bookstore, then the next one was selling books online, when that became possible. Then, it was selling ebooks online, and now the fifth wave, as he sees it, is the challenge of being heard, of actually getting your book to be noticed, and getting it attention.
I really think that is the challenge of the moment, so there are so many books. There always were too many books, and now there are more and more, and books are very high order, books of very good quality. Also, all the other things that are competing with people’s attention. How do we actually put books at the heart of our culture, and remind people of what only books can do, and make reading a book a choice that people want to continue to make.
I think Michael has a lot of very interesting things to say about that, and I think your listeners would like to hear him on it.
Alison Jones: That sounds a very, very good idea, and yes, he’d be a superb guest. Thank you for that recommendation. Now, if people want to find out more about you, Orna, as a writer and also about ALLi, where should they go?
Orna Ross: It’s ornaross.com, so everything, my kind of strap-line on my website is “Creative writing, creative publishing, and creative living,” so it’s all there, in different formats, and people come for all sorts of different reasons, and everybody’s very welcome.
Alison Jones: I will put that link up on the show notes. It was such a pleasure talking to you, Orna, and I feel very calm listening to your voice as well. Everybody is probably just breathing that little bit more slowly, and feeling a little bit more creative and grounded…
Orna Ross: Always a pleasure, Alison. Thanks so much.
Alison Jones: Thank you so much for your insights. Goodbye.
Orna Ross: Take care. Bye bye, now.