Part II in my series: Overcoming Stigma: Indie Publishing’s Biggest Mistakes.
The first looked at the problem of an industry that claims to be “the little guy”, while ignoring and discounting an economic class made of billions of people. You can read it here.
The second thing the indie industry needs to do if it really wants to take off is make a choice: either admit that it doesn’t care about telling stories, or actually mean it when it says it does.
Before I get flamed, this series is not pointing fingers at individuals. It’s not actually about individuals at all. It’s about trends I’ve noticed in indie publishing, which aren’t necessarily dominant, but which still need to be eradicated in order for the indie publishing world to be respected in its own right.
Here’s the thing. Something scary happens when writers become their own marketers and publicists: they often lose sight of the story.
In this post, Cat Valente makes an excellent argument about the current climate of indie publishing, and why this is a problem: discussions about indie books — particularly ebooks — are not about story, they’re about sales. Amanda Hocking is amazing not because she writes stories that work their way into people’s hearts and twist something inside them; she’s amazing because she’s made a million dollars. People freely admit that her writing is not that good, not that memorable, but they don’t care, because she stuck it to the big guys and made the world work for her, and THAT’S what’s important.
This is, I think, a byproduct of what happens when creation and publicity are under control of the same person; wires get crossed. I’ve scrolled through a few guides to being a success in the indie world, and they’re all about marketing, all about finding your brand, all about selling yourself — because then people won’t care what you write, they’ll want to buy you, buy your angle.
The emphasis is on quantity over quality — and anyone who speaks up against this is instantly branded an elitist. Well, call me elitist, because I think this is a problem. Writing should not be about churning out book after book so your name is constantly on everyone’s lips — not because you’re good, but because you’re constantly producing, and you wow them with your prolificness. “Wow, ANOTHER book? They must be really talented!”
Time and time again I have heard people say, “I could spend a year writing and editing one book, sure, but why do that when I could publish TWELVE?” Those twelve don’t have to be amazing — they just have to trick people into buying more. Write cliffhangers. Redefine “novel” to mean 40,000 words, so you can split your book in three, call it a trilogy, and sell more copies. The idea is that if you only publish one book a year, people will forget about you; you have to keep producing, constantly, so that they don’t.
Well, yes. If you only produce one mediocre book in a year, people will forget you — and they have every right to. But the idea that a good author, who writes good books, will be forgotten after twelve months is absolutely ridiculous. Fans are happy to wait a year, sometimes more, for the next book when they know the extra time guarantees extra quality — and in the meantime, they’re recruiting new people. “Her next book isn’t out for another eight months, but it will be worth it!”
Craft is important. Yes, output is, too — not everyone can be Harper Lee, set for life after writing To Kill a Mockingbird. But there’s a reason why indie publishing is still not taken seriously by many, many consumers, and it’s not because “legacy publishing” afficionados are elitist monsters who think the path to “author” should be gated, with a membership card signed in blood. It’s because indie publishing champions the notion of producing more over producing better — and openly derides those who think otherwise. A writer is often a failure in the indie world if he spends 10 years trying to write a book — even if it turns into The Lord of the Rings, he could have sold 100 not-bad, almost-amazing books in that time and made more money, made a name for himself.
People want lots of books, yes. But people also want good books. The indie idea is that writing one amazing book is fine, but if no one buys it, you’re a failure. I see the point. But the paragon of success in the indie world is a man who sold a million copies on Amazon of books he openly, freely, unashamedly admits are not good books. And this is what people are trying to emulate.
In a world this obsessed with sales and branding and constant production, there is no place for a new Tolkien, a new Tolstoy; no place for a new book that will tear its way into people’s hearts and minds. Only a desperate, scrabbling world where you have to produce, produce, produce or people will forget you — because you’ve given them nothing substantial to remember you by.
Traditional publishing, as everyone knows, is not the mecca of quality. I know this. Everyone knows this. Bad books get published every day, good ones get bypassed, and new authors feel pressure to start on their next novel in order to maintain buoancy in the publishing world. As the world of traditional publishing is much bigger, it’s terrifyingly easy for authors to get buried and sink into mediocrity, never earning back their advances. However, with traditional publishing, the idea still exists that an author can take time and write a long, substantial book.
The way the indie publishing industry is moving, it’s creating a world where books are the equivalent of a fast-food hamburger — satisfying enough for now, but ultimately forgettable, and leaving you craving something more within the hour. And because the 99c price tag of an indie book comes piggybacking on a $50/month Internet connection and $300-or-more ereader, they can’t even use fast food’s excuse of being cheap and accessible.
This may be the future of books, but I really, really hope it isn’t. I believe that the indie world has possibility, and a glorious one — but not like this.