In September,  I went for the second time to the annual Matera Women’s Fiction Festival, in the beautiful southern Italian town of Matera.

The festival brings together many women –and a few men –  writers of women’s fiction, including mainstream, romance, mystery, fantasy, thrillers, historical and young adult.

There are so many changes going on in the publishing industry that it’s hard to keep track of it all and I enjoyed the expert panels where I learned a tremendous amount about a rapidly changing industry.

I’ll try to cover some of the highlights of our discussions and interactive workshops:

Publishing is a button away – There was a lot of agreement that publishing today is moving far away from the model in which the American “Big Six” publishing houses serve as the arbiters of taste. Many in the industry feel this is an exciting time for authors, with more options open to them and potentially more control over their careers.

With Terianne and Amanda, from my Rome Writer’s Group

With the growth of self-publishing – or indie publishing as it’s more commonly known now – publishing is literally only a button away, and authors can market their own work and find audiences. Many of the American panelists pointed to the fact that e-books have now surpassed traditional book sales, particularly in genres such as romance, erotica and thrillers.

But European panelists on hand pointed out that this analysis does not hold for all markets. French publisher Stéphane Marsan noted that e-books in France last year accounted for only 0.3% of book sales. It is expecting more growth this year, perhaps up to 2% of the market. As Marsan noted, “With diffusion like that, you can push the publish  button as many times as you want. No one’s reading.” The German market has slightly stronger diffusion, but Italy is more similar to France, with digital publishing accounting for only a tiny share of the market.

“Discoverability” – This is a relatively new term in the publishing industry. With so much more content out there due to self-publishing/indie publishing, how does a new author get discovered? Yes, we all know that authors today have to take on more responsibilities for marketing themselves and their product, keeping on top of social media, and promoting their work, but how exactly to you build up that loyal reading public in today’s crowded publishing environment?

A terrace with a view! Where I wrote while I was in Matera. Heaven!

Social media, book give-aways to boost Amazon ratings, and constant marketing are all strategies to get your book before potential readers.

Panellists suggested that writers band together to cross-promote books. And the big advice seemed to be to keep getting more books out there to keep your name known. Today’s authors are under much more pressure to produce more – particularly in the genres of romance, mysteries and thrillers.

The role of agents today – Agents at  the conference agreed that a lot has changed in recent years, although the Italian agents on hand felt that fewer changes affected them, particularly as the Italian digital market is currently such a small, niche market. Therefore, Italian agents are mostly continuing to act as an intermediary between the author and the traditional publishing houses.

Italian conferences are hell – discussion continues over dinner on the piazza. A tough job, but somebody has to do it.

American agents felt that much changed with the breakdown of the traditional model of advance payments. Payments from traditional publishers are now often split into three payments: at signing, at delivery and at publishing. Traditional publishers sometimes tend to insert difficult clauses into their contracts, prohibiting an author from self-publishing  other works under her name.  And, as recent cases show, publishing houses are not shying away from suing authors whom they feel have breached these clauses. For prolific writers who produce a lot and face long publishing lead-times, this can be a serious issue.

It emerged from the talks that agents must do a lot more experimentation today – sometimes e-books can offer higher royalties. Although, agents did caution that this favorable environment for authors producing e-books might not remain as generous in the long-term.

Not just digesting information, but also dinner. An amazing local specialty: a bay leaf ‘digestivo’.

Overall, what seemed to emerge most often from this discussion was the need for flexibility and experimentation on the part of agents. Authors should also be extremely careful about their contracts, and ensure that their agents are looking out for them and negotiating a deal that leaves them maximum flexibility to write and grow their audiences through different channels.

Clearly, a lot for today’s authors to digest. I’ll continue my lessons learned post next week. But, in the meantime, I’d love to hear the experiences and views by other authors out there…