Arts Books Muse

In conversation with Jo Henry, organiser of the Selfies Book Award

Emily Warner speaks to Jo Henry about diversity in literature, the perks of self-publishing, and the need for the Selfie Book Awards.

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Image Credit: BookBrunch, Selfies Book Awards logo

The Selfies Book Awards is a relatively new prize for authors, with them being established in 2018 by BookBrunch to acknowledge and reward self-publishing authors.  In my conversation with Jo Henry, the organiser of the Awards, I asked about her experience in the publishing industry. Her career began at the literary agency A. M. Heath before she joined the research agency Book Marketing Ltd. in 1994. She also worked as Vice President of Insight and Analytics for BML before acquiring her current position, “managing an online trade journal called BookBrunch” and organising the Selfies Book Award. This long, successful career has allowed Jo Henry to witness changes in publishing and granted her the ability to speculate about the trajectory of the industry in coming years.

Why have an Award for self-publishing?

Prior to establishing the Selfies at the end of 2018, Jo Henry explained that it was an area that was often overlooked in traditional publishing, despite the increased demand amongst self-published authors to access the London Book Fair (who BookBrunch were working in association with). She said that one day they realised, “goodness, there are no awards for self-published authors” – and so emerged the Selfies.

“What the Selfies was set up specifically to do was to look not just at the quality of the writing but also at the professionalism of the whole publishing process – have they thought about the way their book is laid out? Have they thought about the font they’ve used? Have they put some thinking into the cover design? What about marketing and promotion, how successful has that been? Has it translated into sales?”.

This barrage of considerations prompted me to wonder whether Jo felt that the focus on marketing and publicity, ever overshadowed the quality of the writing. Self-publishing has garnered an arguably erroneous reputation for publishing ‘trashy’ fiction, and she was quick to assure me that, “the quality of writing is our first criteria”. One thing which was clear however, was the time and effort required for self-publishing; this was, “a full-time job.” Therefore, the Selfies necessarily acknowledge self-published authors and fill a blatant gap in the industry.

Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing

Our conversation then led to the merits of self-publishing over traditional publishing. Jo immediately recalled that, “the self-publishers I have talked to value hugely the ability to make their own decisions”, from cover design to the way in which their book is marketed – aspects which are not guaranteed in traditional publishing. However, the downside of self-publishing is that the whole process is executed by the author themselves and by extension they, ‘miss out on quite a lot of professional expertise, help and advice’, which traditional publishers would automatically offer. Increasingly however, there are services available for self-published authors to assist with marketing, both informal (such as the groups and support offered by Sam Missingham) and through more formal networks (such as the Alliance of Independent Authors).

Jo offered three pieces of advice for those wanting to self-publish. “Make sure that you are committed to spending a lot of time doing this, you can’t just do it in your spare time”; “make sure you can write first” – test your book on lots of people (who don’t feel compelled to be polite) ; and “be very sure who your audience is. Just putting a book onto the market and saying this is a book for everyone doesn’t work”.

Diversity in Self-Published books.

Considering the advantages of self-publishing prompted me to ask whether this was more conducive to increasing diversity in books. Jo was hesitant to provide a definite answer, saying, “it shouldn’t be so, but it may be that that is the case”. However, she did note that in the first year of the Awards, many entries were LGBTQ+ books or featured disabled protagonists, indicating perhaps that people were finding a market for books that a traditional publisher wouldn’t accept. She admitted not having noticed this as much in recent years, so it may be that publishers now feel a more inclusive book market is needed.

An area which has attracted numerous studies is children’s fiction, one of the categories for the Selfies Book Award. It is to this topic that Jo steered our discussion regarding diversity, recalling research showing that there are more animals as main characters in children’s books than there are children from black or ethnic minority backgrounds, a fact which Jo decried as, “appalling”. The children’s book category of the Award was partly intended to remedy this issue, as Jo “was hoping that self-publishing might be a route people were finding more diverse” but interestingly this hasn’t proved to be the case in the UK. However, in the US the Selfies, “get a hugely diverse entrance into the children’s category”. This disparity is reflected in last year's winners for each country; in the UK it was Kate Claxton’s My Mum’s a Tiger, featuring a white protagonist and an animal as the main characters whereas in the US it was Naibe Reynoso’s How to Fold a Taco, which came in a dual Spanish-English edition and narrated the history of the taco.

The future of publishing

Diversity in children’s books is not the only thing that is changing. Jo Henry described how the research company she used to work for monitored the book market year on year, and a longitudinal study into children’s reading revealed increasingly fewer children reading. This concerning decrease could have huge implications for the future of the industry, in that, “we are turning out children who aren’t really book readers anymore”. That means a potentially less creative future generation – an essential trait we derive from books. I felt this insight was particularly striking and although Jo reassured me that, “it hasn’t shown up in the figures yet”, the word “yet” could not help but resound ominously.

Following this conversation, I asked about how publishing was changing more widely and whether it was in fact a dying industry. The response was emphatic; “there is absolutely no sign of traditional publishing dying out”. 2020 was the best year in book sales for a long time (perhaps because reading was all we could do with no taste, no smell, and no prospect of leaving the house!). Publishing continued to be an encompassing, supportive network with a retinue of employees who were ‘in the industry because they love books’, not just to pay the bills.

There were, however, several changes which Jo pointed out. Firstly, the increasing speed to market books – “you can turn a book around in nine days if you want to”. Supply chain issues make this unfeasible much of the time but in theory, the digital environment we now live in means that, “you can do things very, very quickly”. The second area she identified was the environmental impact of the book market, as shipping books from distant parts of the world is not conducive to reducing our carbon emissions. I perhaps naively asked whether e-books were the solution, only to be informed that, “e-books have a very dodgy environmental footprint as well” due to the power consuming means of their production and storage.

Our interview finished with Jo discussing her hopes for the future of publishing. She said, “I would like to think that we, as an industry, could publish fewer books and just do a better job promoting each book to the best of its ability” as opposed to continually releasing more. “To someone who hasn’t read a book, it’s new even if it was published fifty years ago”, theoretically giving you a new audiences continuously. The publishing industry has an inescapable obsession with newness, yet as Jo pointed out “you could just publish all your old books again and it would be new.” That is a debate which requires an entirely different article to unpack.

I was left with the overriding impression that publishing is an incredible and fascinating industry to be part of; “what a joy to be selling something that you can absolutely fundamentally believe in. I’ve loved it, absolutely loved it”. Her passion was inspiring but when she asked if I had ever written a book, I simply laughed and shook my head; I wouldn’t know where to begin with such an endeavour. Jo Henry’s reply, I feel, provides a fitting summary of this article, and is perhaps the only definite conclusion that can be drawn during such a tumultuous and shifting time for our world: “It is a confusing industry, I do agree”.

The 2022 Selfie Book Awards

The 2022 Selfie Book Awards winners were announced at the London Book Fair on 5th April.  The winner of the adult fiction category was The Other Times of Caroline Tangent by Ivan D. Wainewright, with Breathe by Elena Kravchenko coming as runner-up.  In a diverse children’s book category, the winner was Conker the Chameleon by Hannah Peckham, which featured illustrations by Stephanie Jayne, with the runner-up being Frederick the Fox by Kim Ansell, illustrated by Lisa Read.  The winner of the inaugural memoir/autobiography award was The Cactus Surgeon: Using Nature to Fix A Faulty Brain by Hannah Powell.  About the winners, Jo stated ‘We have been thoroughly impressed by the wide range of topics covered and the professionalism of the publishing expertise shown by the 25 authors on this year’s shortlists… Yet again these books demonstrate that self-publishing has come of age.’

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