This is the second of two posts in response to the topic raised by Melody Stiles for discussion here at Indies Unlimited, to wit:
“Why is there still such a stigma, even among writers, about self-publishing?”
Last week I opined about the manner in which the self/vanity publishing scams of olden tymes (a few years ago) have left a legacy of sleaziness that is still applied today to “Indie” publishing, even by some writers. The term “Vanity” publishing brings a lot of baggage, and while it was (and is) different from contemporary Indie publishing in a number of ways, the shadow remains.
It must be acknowledged however, that much of the stigma some now feel Indie publishing possesses has nothing to do with the past, and everything to do with Indies themselves. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the e-book revolution has removed any meaningful bar to a writer putting their work in front of the reading public. All that is really required for readers and writers to find each other is internet access on both sides, and that can be had for free in any number of places. Yes, there is undoubtedly a socio-economic component meaning most e-writers are well off enough to have computers in their homes, and most people reading digitally are going to have e-reading devices, tablets, or cell phones. It can’t really be said that the digital revolution is felt equally at all levels of society. But the ability of a writer to put their book “out there” for readers, at what could theoretically be absolutely no cost to the writer at all, is game changing. If you can access a computer long enough to write something down, you can put it in a virtual bookstore next to Harry Potter and Herman Melville without having to pay anybody a nickel. Not a vanity publisher, not a press. Not even editors or proofreaders or cover artists.
While that is all wonderful and democratic, it is also starkly terrifying in its way. Let’s face it. Without any filters, a lot of swill is going to sluice into the stew. Yes, once people can upload any sloppy, amateurish bunch of gibberish they just tapped out into a virtual bookstore, some people are going to do exactly that. While they and their works may have little in common with other authors producing books written and edited to as fine a standard as anything from a trad publisher (even if it means paying the very same proofreaders, editors, cover artists etc., who work for the trads), all alike are dropped into the “Indie” category. As any category tends to get defined by its most dramatic and even egregious exemplifiers, little wonder the existence of some utter detritus under the rubric of “Indie” starts to soil the whole brand. After that, it is self-fulfilling prophecy. Find a typo in a trad book, it is a typo. The same typo in an Indie book is taken as confirmation that Indies as a group either can’t or won’t edit, if that is what the reader is inclined to think in the first place.
With any trad book, the reader is fairly safe to assume a certain baseline competence in technical matters. Any book put out by a serious publishing outfit has been formatted, proofread, and edited to a fairly consistent level. While that may be equally true of any given Indie book, there really is no guarantee. It doesn’t take much looking around to find things that the enthusiastic author uploaded on their own without even running spell-check. The assertion that Indie books are, on average, far more sloppily put together is necessarily true, but only because the “basement” is so much lower for Indies than it is for anything coming out of traditional publishing.
In addition, the phenomenon of Authors Behaving Badly tends to get ascribed more heavily to Indie writers, simply because there are more Indie writers. Just for the sake of argument, let’s say that 1 out of every 10 writers in the world is a dirt-bag. The kind of people who pay for fake reviews, attack book bloggers, one-star the competition, and otherwise engage in all the various and sundry malfeasance that has been the topic of discussion lately. To further make up another couple numbers, let’s say there are one hundred thousand trad-pubbed authors in the world, and a million Indies. At a 1 out of 10 ratio, that means there are 10,000 “trad” and 100,000 “Indie” dirt-bags out there making asses of themselves, and any reader is around ten times as likely to first encounter an Indie being a jerk. Once again, the worst behavior of any group member gets ascribed to the whole.
The word “Indie” does carry a stigma with some readers who have encountered lndie writers who are crooked jerks, and Indie books that are poorly edited. Neither may be mathematically “typical” of all Indiedom, but it’s pointless to deny that there are plenty of examples of both out there. There is one more aspect of what seems to be the Indie stigma, however, for which I personally don’t see much basis.
Once judgments move from anything quantitative to qualitative, they are of course subject to individual tastes and preferences. There are readers who feel Indie books are simply not as “good” as those put out by the big publishers, by which they seem to mean the storytelling and the undefinable craft of writing is somehow lacking in Indie books, as opposed to trad counterparts. To which I have to respond, “What are you smoking, and do you have any more?”
When a book arrives at a publishing house, the one overwhelming factor in determining if it will be published is whether or not some group of business people thinks it will make them a buck. And what makes bucks? Books with the widest possible audience, meaning books that appeal to the lowest common denominator among the segment of the population that still reads. Celebrity bios sell. Political yammering sells. Simple, unchallenging, predictable stories that fit neatly into the norms of pre-existing genre, those sell. And it is assumed that things exactly like whatever is selling at the moment will continue to sell tomorrow.
Once in a while, something different makes it through the gatekeepers of traditional publishing and blows up huge, much to everyone’s surprise. At that point, Book X becomes a new template, so that for a while books have a better chance of getting picked up by a publisher to the degree they are similar to whatever blew up most recently, totally ignoring the fact that Book X may have succeeded precisely because it was different than anything else available at the time. Yes, a reader can be confident of a certain baseline quality to trad books in terms of editing and presentation. But those books are also susceptible to a certain uniformity and, for lack of a better word, a sameness. If you look at the top of a genre bestseller list, I’d be surprised if more than half of them don’t look like multiple versions of the same book. And that’s fine, and it’s undeniable that it is exactly what a lot of readers want.
While some Indie books may be available only because their authors believed they could make a buck (and all authors of course hoped they would), I would assert that far more often an Indie book represents a story that somebody simply felt that they had to write down, and then thought was good enough that others might like to read it, too. Some of those writers are delusional. But after almost two years now of reading a preponderance of Indie books in my free time, I have no problem saying that a lot of Indie writers have stories worth the telling, and the reading. Every reader is different, and not every reader is looking for the same thing from a book. If you want nothing more than a few hours of simple escapism (and who doesn’t sometimes?), you are going to be able to find a book to suit your needs from an Indie, from a small press, or from a Big 6 publisher.
But if you want something a little different, more original, and dare I say it, more substantive, your search may actually be shorter the farther away you get from New York. Yes, there will be some tall weeds to poke through. But if you are looking for a book that is something more than an assembly line commodity, you are probably the sort of person who doesn’t mind a few scratches and the nettles along the way. There is wheat among the Indie chaff. Among a lot of trad publishing Happy Meals, there are still more Happy Meals.
So I ask you, of which stigma would you rather be a part?
In closing, another real one-star review of a real book, by a real reader.
“I would like this but I don’t.”
– The Once and Future King by T. H. White
11 thoughts on “You Asked For It: Melody Stiles (part 2)”
Well put, Ed.
Excellent, Ed, thank you. It puzzles me that if you put “indie” in front of “music” or “film”, it is perceived as a good thing. An act of bravery, creativity, and defiance.
I hadn’t thought about this until you said it, but this is so
@ Laurie. Sorry I still can’t seem to comment directly. Anyway, perhaps indie music and film have had longer to gain acceptance? Art house movies have been around for donkey’s years and I’m pretty sure indie music has been around for a while as well. Or perhaps indie books are seen as more subversive somehow – as if we are the ones killing off the publishing industry and bookshops. Hopefully in 10 years time being an indie writer will be seen as a badge of courage as well. 🙂
Great post Ed. 🙂
Well said, Ed. Though, I have to say I do enjoy a Happy Meal every now and again(in the literal, not metaphorical sense). There are still a couple big publisher authors I feel push the envelope creatively, but they write fantasy, a genre that I feel still requires doing something a little different to get noticed.
Having been a Top Reviewer on webook.com, and given reviews on thousands of projects ranging from poetry to short stories to full length novels, I can attest to what you say here about wheat among the chaff, as well as the dirt bags who sabotage other authors words, especially in the early days of the Page-to-Fame, but not just there but all over the site; and those authors who were worth their salt found such immature action contemptible and took it to forum, but soon found the pettiness of the whole thing so repugnant many would pull up root and leave it to the teeny-boppers baby clicks; but others would stand their ground…because the site does have some things going for it; and you can make some lasting friends who do take pride in their work.
I have self published and have 5 EBooks, at the moment; I do the editing, the book-covers, and all the rest; I have a partner who co-writes with me, JD Couch, and we also write songs that he sets to music and then we post on YouTube. Everything there is also self-published.
We take pride in doing our best that no mistakes be found in our books or in the music.I’ve gone back and uploaded a new copy if i noticed or was told there was anything wrong.
We have published on Amazon kindle and on smashwords; and yes, it’s hard to self market. Being an Indy author is a challenging effort; much harder to achieve in spite of the fact you can get published without it costing anything; that is a blessing to persons who are not wealthy and are struggling day to day to pay bills and so on. Hopefully, there will be money eventually; when readers find what’s been published meet the requirements of a book published by a Big6 publisher. And that is when an Indy author can hold up the chin and grin; success is all the sweeter when it’s earned by blood, sweat and tears. Thank you.
Jerriann Wayahowl Law
Thanks all, and just to offer a couple of my own thoughts on the Indie music/film sort of thing (which I was going to do in the article, but it was already running long) – I think when it comes to Indie bands or filmakers there is a certain base level of competence that can be expected, which again might not always be present with every Indie writer. The worst garage band in the world is going to practice before booking a show, and if they are awful they are going to get booed off the stage. And by the time an Indie film gets into theatres, it’s generally found a distributor, or else it died an unlamented death as a youtube clip nobody watched. Also, there is at least some financial bar to clear producing a film that really doesn;t exist for producing a book.
Indie books may be as rough as any band playing together for the first time, they don’t *neccessarily* cost any money for a single author to produce, and while they may never get to a physical shelf in a chain bookstore somewhere, they do start the game in on-line stores having at least a theoretical equivalency with every other book offered there, from Twain to King. My thought is that while a truly awful Indie band or movie may be hard to find, just because of obscurity, it wouldn’t take any of us long to find a terrible (sloppy, unedited, etc) book on the Zon with just a couple keystrokes. Ergo, “Indie” means something totally different in the context.
As a reader, I’ve been excited to sort through indie books looking for the gems among the grit. There are many gifted storytellers now available to me. But I have to admit that I hate un-perfect editing as much in traditionally published books as I do when I read an indie e-book. I’ve really been surprised at how badly some big name traditionally published books are edited lately, especially the last third of the book. But editing is in the eye of the beholder, too, and like you said, “Every reader is different, and not every reader is looking for the same thing from a book.” The same way personal taste dictates which books we think are fun, personal peeves dictate what kind of editing or lack thereof throws us off.
Excellent post. Will share this.
Thank you, Ed. You completely answered my question and I am sharing this on my FB page. Your answer was perfect:)
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