Orna Ross: Renaissance Woman


Orna Ross has a dedicated belief in the transformative power of writing and publishing and is greatly excited by how author-publishing is democratizing the business of books. She writes novels and poems and the Go Creative! series, in which she is adapting her university teaching of creative process and practice for the general reader. 

Born and raised in Ireland, Orna now writes, teaches and publishes around the globe, but is always pleased to come back to North London, the place she now calls home, where she lives with her family. In addition to her books, she writes regularly on her Author Blog, on ALLi’s Self-Publishing Advice blog and for many other websites and publications. When not writing, you’ll probably find her reading. IndieReader talks ALLi, poetry and what it means to be indie.

Loren Kleinman (LK): You’re the founder of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), which is a nonprofit, professional association for self-publishing writers. What was the idea behind starting your organization? How do you help independent authors? What do you offer them?

Orna Ross (OR): Essentially we offer companionship, encouragement and support while providing services that make it easier to do the things that are hardest for indies to do for themselves—like selling foreign rights.

We provide contacts, connection and collaboration through member forums and industry events. We give expert guidance & advice through blogs, webinars and newsletters. We help our members sell their translation and subsidiary rights. We have a legal service, a campaigning team and a Watchdog service that publishes a guide and tracks down rogue author-services. We showcase our members’ achievements and books and we also widely champion the interests of independent authors more generally.

ALLi arose out of my own journey into author publishing. I was one of those many writers who hadn’t liked the treatment my fiction publisher gave my books (where I saw page-turning women’s fiction that educated and inspired, they saw chick-lit). When I took my rights back from my publisher and reissued my novels myself, with the titles and treatment I had originally envisaged, it was one of the most joyous moments of my life. Heady.

And, as someone who had worked in media and publishing for 20 years, I instantly saw the radical implications of these new technologies for writers and readers.

I looked around for a professional association to join for a bit of support and when I couldn’t find one that wasn’t doing it the way I thought it should be done, I had a long night of soul-searching. Did I really want to take on this mammoth task?  Wasn’t learning to self-publish successfully going to be enough of a job in itself? But it turned out I did want to do it. When my grandchildren would ask me where I was during this revolutionary time in my industry, I wanted to be able to say: right at its heart of it, beating the drum writers.

LK: Talk about the success of ALLi. What has been your biggest achievement? Any low points/learning curves?

OR: We launched at London Book Fair (LBF) in 2012, thanks to the openness of Orna O’Brien, the enterprising Irishwoman who runs the show there. At that time—is it really only two years ago?—self-publishers were still personae non grata and LBF is to be congratulated on being the first major UK publishing institution to open its doors to author-publishers.

We had a fabulous launch where we brought together the most progressive people in the industry, like Sam Missingham from the trade magazine, The Bookseller, with the author-services we felt, were each in their way, doing a good job for indies, like KDP, Kobo, Createspace and Blurb. And of course indies who were doing great things for themselves, like Dan Holloway, Joni Rodgers (who flew in from Texas for the event), Linda Gillard and Joanna Penn.

Buoyed by that success, and an initial flood of membership, we followed up with an online launch that took us global.

Our biggest achievement, I think, is the professionalism of our members—and I don’t mean that in any sort of corporate, soulless way. Our members really care about their readers and their writing and publishing, and make endless effort to get it right. They also really care for, and support each other, every step of the way. Community is an overused word on the web but every day I’m blown away by the generosity and community spirit of this bunch of hard-working writers.

Another achievement, I think, is bringing authors and author-services together in partnership. In our members’ zone, we have a database where authors can find the services they need, all Partner Members themselves who cared enough to submit themselves to being vetted and to commit to our Code of Standards.

A low point was approaching the Society of Authors, thinking they might like to collaborate with us. (I’m a big believer in partnership). They rejected the reach-out with a very patronizing letter from The Chair, which showed she was clueless about the indie scene. And shortly afterwards, we got an email threatening legal action if we didn’t change our name “within 14 days”—originally we were The Society of Independent Authors—and change the color on our meet-up page, because it was like the green on their website! 

We had expected, and received, antagonism and resistance from publishers and agents but were saddened at this response from an authors’ association.

LK: What does the term indie mean to you? To ALLi? What is your vision for the indie community?

OR: For me, indie is simple. Creative independence is not about thinking you can do everything yourself—no indie is an island—but about being true to your unique and essential way of seeing and being.

Indie authors are the creative directors of their own books, from concept to completion. They will work with others wherever that makes good creative or commercial sense (that’s why I prefer the term author-publisher to self-publisher or independent), and they will be good at collaborating, but the buck stops with them and final creative call is theirs.

For me, indie is a state of mind, a spirit, difficult to capture in words but unmistakable when you see it. It has nothing to do with how many copies you sell or whether you’re willing to work with a trade publisher or not, or which author-service you choose. Hugh Howey has it; Amanda Hocking, wonderful and heartwarming as her self-publishing story is, does not, as I’m sure she’d be the first to agree. All indies self-publish but not all self-publishers are indie.

As far as ALLi goes, we are a broad and inclusive church and wouldn’t dream of dictating to anybody about how they should, or shouldn’t, write or publish. We accept any writer who self-defines as an independent author and wants to approach their publishing tasks with care and professionalism—while recognizing that creativity is always a process and we will all make mistakes when starting out. We’ll fail, then try again and “fail better,” as Beckett put it, the next time.  Learning to publish your own work well takes time.

My vision for the indie community is that any fledgling author-publisher, of any class or color, will be able to easily find a nurturing, supportive and well-informed space within which to grow and find their voice. I think we’re getting there for the more privileged members of our societies but we’re a long way off this being a universal possibility.        

LK: Where do you see indies in five years? Where do you see you ALLi in five years?

OR: There will be far more of us and we’ll be a more integrated part of the publishing scene. ALLi will be pretty much doing what it does now, helping indies to write and publish well, bringing the community together, campaigning and speaking out on the issues of concern.  It would be great if we had reached a point where we had real clout in negotiations with the bigger providers. The more members we have, the more realistic that possibility.

I’d also like the organization to be able to afford an outreach program, to actively bring writing and publishing to people who would otherwise miss out, those without money or other empowerments. I believe passionately in the healing and transformative power of writing but also of publishing, of the public utterance. Of being heard.      

LK: You’re also a writer. Are you strictly independent? If so, why did you choose to publish the independent route?

OR: Oh yes. Indie is who I am, loud and proud. I am only interested in working with an author service (and I include trade publishers in that category) if they can do something for me that I can’t do for myself, which now seems to be down to one thing: taking the books into bookstores. And no matter how lucrative the contract, I’m only interested if I also get creative input into the publishing and marketing.

I adore bookstores, libraries, print books, literary biographies, the whole culture around books, the coffee and conversations, the drowsy browsing that only happens in a bookstore or library.  And so I would like my books to be part of all that again some day but it would have to be on terms that made sense to me and what’s non-negotiable is creative freedom and input. I’ve had offers but nothing that took more than an hour’s consideration to reject.

LK: Your genre is literary fiction. I also saw that you write poetry. What school do you feel you belong to? Why? What poets are you reading? Who are the poets you admire?

OR: I don’t like genre and I don’t like the idea of poetry schools either — these are shopkeepers’ and critics’ categories. No writer thinks of their work in this way while they’re writing, though as publishers we must.

Neither have I any interest in the great debate as to whether poems are “better” if they formally rhyme into articulated stanzas or fall into the open, modernist Poundian mode, content to be fluid and fragmented. I write and read both sorts and whether or not I love a poem has very little to do with all that.

I read poetry every day (keep a poetry book in the bathroom, another in the bedroom and a third in the kitchen is my advice, and imbibe regularly.) I love anthologies and read very eclectically across centuries and cultures. What I don’t like to read are poems of alienation or confusion unless there is also in them the resolution and consolation that, to me, come closer to the truth of life. When I turn to a poem, I want it to transport me to that open space that doesn’t seek to deny doubt but does succeed in going beyond it.

I write and teach haiku as a way of developing creative presence and so I also love Japanese poets like Basho and Shiki, who strip all down to a single image, or two in juxtaposition, to give us a jolt into the here-and-now, the sort of poetry that nobody in the Western traditions seem to have written between Chaucer and William Carlos Williams.

There are always influences. The two traditions I know best are those that formed me: the Irish and the female. In Ireland, when I was being educated there in the 1970s and 80s, the classic canon of British poetry was what we were mostly taught in English lit: the civilized pronouncement, the meditative or witty poem with clear closure, augmented by a separate tradition called “Anglo-Irish”, that claimed our Nobel winners, Shaw and Yeats and Beckett, back from the perfidious, plundering Brits and celebrated rural poets like Patrick Kavanagh and Austin Clarke.

This was what the greatest of those rural poets, Seamus Heaney, has called “a kind of force-feeding”. It offered none of the delights of surprised recognition that I now see as so important when teaching people to love poetry. It didn’t echo the way words are used on an Irish tongue and offer it back to us in formal and experimental arrangements that made us see or think more clearly—the job of poetry, to my mind.

Still I found enough nutriment in it to make me want to be a teacher of English literature. The idea that I could be vested for the calling of writer, let alone poet, was many years away.

It was the struggle for reproductive rights for Irish women—a struggle that goes on to this day, as yet another Irish government is led, lily-livered, to enacting poor legislation—that brought me to my own thought, to the creative effort of claiming life through my own body, and mind, and imagination. Heaney again has a beautiful image for it; he calls it breaking “the skin on the pool of yourself.” Two great essayist-poets, Adrienne Rich and Eavan Boland, have my undying gratitude for their wise articulation of what it takes to express your own experience through your own touch and texture within the dominion of craft and technique and form.       

As a writer, as a poet, you do what it takes to break that skin, firstly for yourself, in response to some impossible-to-explain, unnamable need to watermark life with your own pattern of experience and perception. 

But in the doing, it somehow turns out that you’re doing it for everyone. For me, a poet is exemplary in that regard, giving over her or his entire life to what each individual who self-actualizes must also do.

That’s why poetry continues to be relevant, even more so in a highly commercialized, secular society. We help each person discover the poet within and the better we are at our craft and technique, the more people we will move towards their own self-expression, in their own particular way. “Those… that are most wise,” said Years, “own nothing but their blind, stupefied hearts.”

Which, in the end, is all we can, all we need, to own.

That belief is the locus of my Go Creative! project and my own writing, and ALLi too, connecting my outer work-in-the-world to the inner whetstone of my own writing.    

LK: Let’s discuss the mission of ALLi, which is “the democratisation of writing and publishing through community, partnership and author empowerment.” What is your vision of “author empowerment” as it relates to your own writing? How do you empower writers? How do you empower yourself as an author?

OR: Knowledge is empowering, as is good guidance and having somebody to clearly articulate needs and challenges. Respect is empowering, and respect is too often absent in trade publishing, with words like “slush pile” used to describe our work and the author being the very last person the marketing department would have in at a meeting about how their own book should be presented and treated.

And daily dipping into creative waters is empowering. I sustain myself through the three practices I have gone on to teach and am currently putting into the Go Creative! series of books: a meditation method I devised called Inspiration Meditation; F-R-E-E-Writing and Expressive Exercise, a breath-and-body movement sequence that centers and supports creative endeavor.

LK: Can you recommend writers from the UK that readers should be looking out for? Reading? If so, what qualities suggest that people should be reading them?

OR: I have a policy of not reviewing or promoting a book or author I know personally; it’s my response to the sock puppet controversy. And I feel it would be invidious of me to pick out any one of our member’s over another’s.

But we make it easy at ALLi to find great indie authors in any country. Our membership can be searched by country (as well as genre) through our searchable database on the front page of our website. Every Wednesday on our blog, we showcase our members’ launches and achievements. And soon we’re going to be drawing on the input of the best curatorial sites on the web—including Amy at IndieReader—to run an award program that will be reader-judged. 

LK: How important is networking to indie author success?

OR: Utterly important. It’s impossible to overstate how we help each other on both fronts: the emotional support, when you’re flagging or feeling blocked, and all the practical stuff that can be so overwhelming at times. We could not do it without each other. So many indies are so very clever, hardworking, savvy and so very, very smart. And at the same time, so generous with their information, knowledge and wisdoms.

LK: Respond to this quote: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” How does this relate to being indie and your journey as an independent author?

OR: Being independent always means coming away from the past, not being too attached to any particular outcome in the future, but returning to the reality of the moment we are actually in, accepting things as they are, and bearing witness. Reporting the truth as we see it.

Yes, they do things differently in the past, and in foreign countries, but they also do much the same. Human nature doesn’t change. What we have now is an outstanding creative opportunity, the ability to reach a global audience directly, for the first time ever. That is so radical that it still makes my head spin with a sense of possibility but what it allows us to do is as old as time. The role of the writer is always to write what, as Isabel Allende put it, “should not be forgotten.”

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