Bookshelf: GAYA reverses decision on self-published authors

Policy change reflects sign of the times, spirit of inclusivity.

Self-published authors across Georgia must be rejoicing. Nominations are open for the 2023 Georgia Author of the Year Awards (GAYA), and for the first time in five years, competition is open to authors who pay to publish their own books.

In 2019, the decision was made to exclude self-published authors from the awards program, which is presented by the nonprofit organization Georgia Writers. The move was seen as a way to elevate the quality and prestige of the awards.

“The award can already be self-nominated,” former Executive Director Jenny Sadre-Orafai told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2019. “When you have a self-nominated, self-published book, one may wonder, where is the vetting?”

But that didn’t sit right with Garrard Conley, the new executive director, who reversed the decision.

“While I totally understand the reasons for it, I had so many members … they were saying that they felt excluded, and it just didn’t make sense to me to not at least include them as a possibility,” he said.

Conley has a couple of well-considered reasons for his decision. One is to keep up with changing times. According to multiple reports, self-publishing is a growing industry, while the market for traditional publishing remains flat. Not only has it become increasingly difficult for authors to get published through traditional avenues, even those lucky enough to get published can’t make a living at it.

“Most of my writer friends, people who are very established, are considering self-publishing,” said Conley, author of the memoir “Boy Erased.” “You really can’t make a living even as a New York Times bestselling author if that’s your primary source of income. My first book’s advance was $75,000, which, if you tallied up the number of years it took to write it, that’s probably $20,000 a year. And then good luck ever finding any royalties. The only reason I got any was because of the movie.”

He points to Substack as an example of how established authors are exploring self-publishing outlets online. The platform allows authors to publish whatever and whenever they want without an intermediary. Some of the content is free to readers, some it’s paid, and some of it’s a hybrid of both.

“A lot of established authors, including myself, are starting Substacks as a way to have loyalty to our fans and speak to them directly without the apparatus of a gatekeeping network,” he said.

That’s not to say he’s done with traditional publishing. In fact, he’s working on two novels, one of which comes out in spring 2023.

The other reason Conley reversed GAYA’s stance on self-published authors is because he’d rather operate in the realm of inclusivity than exclusivity.

“I come from a background where exclusion was the name of the game,” he said. “Even when I got a book deal, there were people in the industry that said, ‘Oh, it’s a gay book, it won’t do well.’ … And, of course, what we found out was there was a huge appetite for gay literature contrary to what the industry’s gatekeepers believed was true.

“A lot of the most interesting, cutting-edge stuff comes from places that have been excluded from their venues, and I think that’s kind of where my mind is on this.”

Besides, he said, “an award ceremony should be a place where we can do something unexpected. That’s the fun about an award. I always hate awards where every book that wins, you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I knew that was going to win.’ So, I guess it was in that spirit that I approached this decision and did not take it lightly.”

GAYA nominations are open until Feb. 15. Submission fee is $60. Go to authoroftheyear.org for details.

In other Georgia Writers news, the organization has launched a scholarship to send a Georgia Writers’ member to a week-long workshop at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. The scholarship will cover room, board and tuition. The deadline to apply is March 17. For information, go to georgiawriters.org.

And details have been announced for the Red Clay Writers Conference. The two-day event will take place at Kennesaw State University on April 15 and online April 16. Tayari Jones is keynote speaker, and participating authors include Anjali Enjeti, poet Mario Chard, YA author Mayra Cuevas, Anthony Grooms and Conley, among others. For details go to redclayconference.org.

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Contact her at svanatten@ajc.com.