I’m going to commit the blogging equivalent of suicide: I’m taking on the indie book publishing industry. I have seen the future of books, of reading, writing and publishing as championed by this industry, and it is not a nice one. In fact, it’s one that I would like to run away from — very far, and very fast.
As a disclaimer, I would like to say that I believe in the future of indie publishing as an abstract concept, but I do not support it at this moment. That is, I support indie publishing, the idea, the possibility, and I support indie authors, but I am not in support of a few of what I see as the core principles of the indie book industry as it stands right now.
This is not a post about business acumen, or marketing, or the legitimisation of indie vs. traditional. I have no business schooling, and no real understanding of marketing; this is merely a collection of some of the issues that I have with the indie publishing world as I see it — as a writer, a reader, and social activist.
That said, I hope that everyone — indie, traditional, whatever — can stay civil. I have a small readership, but this is the Internet — it’s gotten ugly before with only three people (me included), so let’s just toss that out there.
There will be three posts in this series: essentially, three things I think the indie book industry needs to examine about itself before it can be a real contender in the world of books.
First, the indie book industry needs to stop calling itself the David to traditional publishing’s Goliath, and — more importantly — needs to stop extolling the death of the traditional publishing industry.
Indie book pundits love to bandy around this image of the great “dinosaurs” of publishing — brick-and-mortar publishers, bookstores, even libraries — falling to their knees and crumbling to death, while indie publishing — the future, the next stage in evolution, Charles — stands triumphant. This image drives me crazy.
There is no reason to create a dichotomy between traditional and indie publishing; both are two sides of the same coin, with benefits and detriments on both sides, depending on what people (authors, publishers, readers) want. Traditional publishing does not “need to die” or “make way” for digital publishing. Many things — including the way authors get paid, particularly for electronic rights of their books — need a serious revamp, but the answer is not for it to disappear.
The good thing about traditional publishing, from an author standpoint, is that authors get paid to write, they don’t pay to write. Money flows toward the author, not away. With indie publishing, an author must fund everything themselves — sure, you could just plunk your un-edited, bad photoshop-cover novel into Amazon and go for it, bang, no overhead, but you’re not going to sell anything because your book will be terrible. Indie publishing takes money, and it takes work — to make your book up to standards, and to promote it once you’ve written it.
People in low income brackets, who don’t have $300 to shell out on an editor, on a copywriter, on a cover artist, who work several jobs to feed their families and can’t afford to spend all their time marketing their books, who may not be able to afford the Internet at all… In traditional publishing, these people have the chance — not the guarantee, mind, but the chance — to spend no more than time and postage and get a book and solid advance out of the deal. In the indie industry, these people “just aren’t willing to put the work in” and don’t deserve success.
However, my main point is about the industry’s effect on readers. Frankly speaking, indie publishing cannot meet the needs that traditional publishing fills, because it is not about readers at all. Readers don’t benefit either way from traditional or indie published books — they buy, they read, they move on. Indie publishing is all about the author; the reader is a means to an end — a way to pay the bills, to get well-known — but indie publishing does not care about the reader.
I’m not saying that indie authors don’t — I’m saying the industry does not. If indie book publishing cared about the readers, it would not be calling for the death of brick-and-mortar publishing. It would not be celebrating smugly when Borders goes bankrupt, when libraries close, when new authors have trouble getting agents and book deals. Because indie publishing can only reach — and is only interested in reaching — the smallest, most infinitessimal fraction of possible readers. Until that changes, indie publishing should not — and does not deserve to be — the top dog, and definitely not the only dog. Especially when indie publishing actually hurts many, many potential readers.
No industry that ignores millions of readers and dismisses an entire economic class — that is, in fact, so steeped in its own privilege that it refuses to acknowledge these people exist, or are important — should be allowed to set itself up as “the little guy” up against evil corporations.
Indie publishing is a rich person’s enterprise. Every person who argues that indie publishing is the future has essentially spat on the face of anyone with a low income. Whenever I hear someone say “Traditional publishing should die — digital is the way of the future!”, all I hear is, “Poor kids don’t deserve to read.”
Because here’s the thing: you can’t read most indie books without an expensive ereader — whether it’s a Kindle, a nook, an iPad, or even just a laptop. You can’t buy indie books without the Internet and a credit card. Even most physical-copy indie books (a rarity) aren’t found in stores — you need to use Amazon or something similar. You can’t find most indie books in a library or second-hand store.
I asked someone, once, how indie YA hopes to reach teens when most don’t have access to credit cards. The response was a baffled, ‘I can’t believe you’re asking such a stupid question’, “They can borrow their parents’.” I had to leave before I started strangling things.
The indie book industry apparently has no idea how many people in the first world live without reliable Internet (or any Internet at all), without credit cards, without the luxury of “impulse buys”. How many people have to choose whether they want to live without electricity, heat, water, or food this month. How many kids live in homes where “borrow your parents’ credit card” could be in an alien language, for how relevant it is to them.
The indie book industry does not realise how many kids cannot afford to buy ebooks because they’d have nothing to read them on — even if they bought an ereader, they’d be afraid to use it because someone would steal it. It does not realise how many kids cannot buy books, period — how many parents cannot afford to buy books new from anywhere, even at what the indie community calls a “steal” ($3.99 plus shipping on Amazon).
The indie book industry has forgotten how many children live for libraries. I did not come from a poor family, but we were not well off — if my parents had credit cards I didn’t know about it, because they never used them to buy things for us. We had dial-up Internet because high speed was not available in that area — and still isn’t, in 2011. Yet our house was filled with books — books we got at Christmas, birthdays, and once a year, when our local library had its 10c sale.
The rest of the year, we went to the library and devoured the books there. My town was extremely small and had no malls, department stores, or clothing stores, but we expanded our library when I was 10 because the town understood its kids needed it. If our library had closed, we would have had nothing to read. There were no bookstores available for almost an hour’s drive in any direction.
I am not an isolated case. Millions of people got their start at libraries, which are populated by traditionally published, “dinosaur” methods. Without these books, without this industry, millions — literally millions, and I am not referring to the deeps of Africa here — of children would not have books to read.
The indie book industry, as it stands, would rather these children not read, because they can’t afford to buy indie books. It may protest, but if it honestly thinks that traditional publishing deserves to die, then this is what it’s really saying.
If the indie book industry actually does care about kids, then it needs to change its attitude, right now. When indie publishing can put book after book after book in the hands of kids who can’t afford to buy one, then we’ll talk about levelling the playing field. But right now, indie publishing has some very, very big shoes to fill, to match its too-small britches.