The new SOMW

I don’t normally write a report after an SOMW conference, but this latest one was different:  a whole new world has suddenly opened up in front of us.

But first, a bit of history, to put it all into context.

The SOMW started in the 1980s, as the GPWA — the General Practitioner Writers’ Association. The impetus came from several examiners at the RCGP who collectively were worried about the standard of GP writing in the MRCGP exams and wanted to do something about it.

In the 1980s everything was paper-based, and there was also a lot of support from the pharma companies. Now we are in a different age and a different climate. GP life is IT- and internet-based; the GPWA morphed into the SOMW; and slowly there was less of an emphasis on academic writing. Why? Was it that GPs were getting better at it? Or instead was it a subtle indication of the level of stress on primary care, with so many GPs retiring (often early), burned out — and wanting to do creative writing as a way of clearing out the cobwebs from their stressed minds?

And then along came Dr Euan Lawson, GP and and Director of Primary Care Academic Teaching at Lancaster Medical School, our opening speaker at the 2018 Autumn conference. We were enthralled, as a completely new world opened up in front of us. Writing is changing. Publication is changing. The whole scene is up in the air. You’re a writer? You want an agent? Actually, you don’t need one. Nor do you necessarily need a publisher because that’s changing too. In the past (even the recent past), getting a publisher was everything — unless you were content to go down the self-publishing route. In the past, they called it ‘vanity publishing’ — which told you all you needed to know about it: self-publishing by rejects (with a few glorious exceptions).

Except that it isn’t like that at all now. Because of the rise of Amazon, on-line publishing and self-created publishing — and in some ways, best of all, the way royalties are allocated — it’s now proving much more financially rewarding to publish yourself. The retail price of the books may be lower, but the royalty percentage for the writer is about seven times higher, meaning that writers earn vastly more through self-publishing than ever they did through normal deals with publishers of printed books — and they don’t even have to run the morale-sapping gauntlet of finding a suitable publisher, an activity that was semi-random at best and at worst, entirely in the lap of the gods.

So writers now don’t necessarily need a publisher.

But here’s the rub — if you don’t need a publisher, why do you need an agent? Not simply to get a publishing deal, certainly. No publisher; no agent: not only do you get a higher percentage of the sale price, but you don’t have to share it with anyone else, and — perhaps the most important of the lot — you don’t have to worry that you won’t be able to find a publisher for your magnum opus, a situation which in the past has inevitably put people off devoting a significant amount of their life to that single venture.

This is the point where medical writers truly become free and are paid what they are really worth, as opposed to the peanuts that previously came their way, especially in academic writing. Not only are the financial rewards greater and less dependent upon chance, but the whole business of writing, refining and publishing a book has become that much more predictable and stable.

Indeed, the whole of the print industry has been turned upside down: it’s a very disruptive time (in the nicest sense of the word). As a result there are now opportunities galore for the individual writer.

Where does this all leave the SOMW? In a really good place, that’s where: it’s as if the curtain has been raised on a new era.

For the past few years the Society has slowly been moving towards reintroducing some of the original  aspects of its work — academic writing, formal medical writing, and teaching about technical matters, as well as forging ahead with new areas such as poetry, and  screenplays. Now we’ll be adding in teaching on yet another set of techniques — that of self-publishing in the new era, where producing a book is no longer a vanity project but simply the best and most satisfying way to get your work out there.

Indeed, immediately following Dr Lawson’s lecture, Neil (the editor of The Writer) and I had a speedy confab during which we planned a series of articles on the art and craft of self-publication, together with advice on replacing publishers, editors and proofreaders, the latter two of whom provide talents that most definitely should not be thrown out with the bathwater.

With unanimous encouragement from the entire SOMW committee, at the conference we all decided that we would revamp the direction in which the SOMW is headed, recognising the increasing time pressures on modern doctors, the reduction in  formal sponsorship, and the rise of the internet. Although a lack of time to attend face-to-face meetings may at first seem like a curse (because most people enjoy physical meetings), the ubiquitous and distance-shrinking nature of the internet gives participants the ability to hold online meetings of various sorts — discussions, teaching, lectures. This will have two amazing benefits, allowing members in the most far-flung parts of the UK to join in, rather than having a two-level state of membership, with some more easily able to come to meetings, but the rest much less able to get involved. From now on, everyone will be as near to the hub of the SOMW as everyone else! But the inverse also applies: we’ll be able to run teaching sessions using prominent speakers from all over the country — and indeed, from all over the world.  Alongside our conferences (which will still be taking place) we will be adding a huge range of features to our output, including making the internet the centrepoint of a much SOMW activity, thus allowing members ubiquitous access from wherever they are working at the time.

And finally… what about the needs of students and recently-qualified healthcare workers? Part of the SOMW’s work will specifically be dedicated to the needs of this group, providing resources relevant to those at this early point in their careers, together with writing competitions limited to entries from 18-25yr olds.

It’s all starting to get very exciting. Watch this space!

Dr John Lockley
Chair, SOMW
Nov 2018