Part III in my series: Overcoming Stigma: Indie Publishing’s Biggest Mistakes.
Part II talked about the quantity-over-quality focus, and how in many cases it undercuts books and story in order to sell small chunks to easily-distracted readers. You can read it here.
The third thing indies need to do is change the nature of the community, because right now, it’s a snake eating its own tail.
Let me first say this: I enjoy being on the periphery of the indie author community, even if I want to be published traditionally myself. I enjoy talking with authors on Twitter, reading their blogs, engaging with them in discussions about writing on various social networking sites. I love the friends I’ve made in this community, and hesitated to post this series not because I thought it would explode the Internet (ha!) but because I didn’t want to lose those friendships. I’ve been unfollowed a few times already, and this makes me sad.
The indie book community loves itself a little too much, and if it’s not careful, it’s going to go blind.
That’s not an off-colour joke, by the way (or, at least, not entirely). The indie book community, with its wonderful sense of inclusion and friendship and reciprocity, is doing something horrible every single day, and no one seems to see it:
Indie writers love their 5-star reviews, and indie writers love giving them to each other. If I peruse Goodreads, for example, a known haven for indie authors, I see a slough of indie books with ratings of 5 stars — checking the rating details will show a ratio of something like 35 5-star ratings, 15 4-stars, 2 3-stars, and no 2s or 1s. Checking the profiles of people who left those high ratings almost always reveals another indie author, complete with 5-star-rated books.
Indie authors love these reviews, and will post to their blogs or to twitter every time it happens. “I got a good review! Read it here!” And why shouldn’t they? 5-star-rated books have to mean the book is amazing, right? What a recommendation!
Not necessarily. Since I started noticing this phenomenon a few months ago, I started looking to see what indie authors rate other indie authors, and I have, not once, seen anything less than 5 stars. Not if they know each other.
The reviews and Twitter promotions are likewise gushing, even hyperbolic. I don’t know how many times I’ve been told a book will be THE BEST YOU READ ALL YEAR. THE BEST BOOK OF THE SUMMER. THE BEST BOOK OF 2011. THE MOST CHILLING HORROR YOU’LL EVER READ.
Now, when I see a book rated 5 stars on Goodreads, I think two things: 1) This book says nothing real, because otherwise it would attract negative opinions, or 2) This book was rated exclusively by the author’s friends and/or other indie authors. 5-star ratings are no longer an indicator of quality; they’re now expected, kind of like how even the most mediocre theatre performance will receive a standing ovation because audiences now feel like jerks if they don’t.
5-star ratings have become a devalued currency. Think of Syndrome from The Incredibles, and his plan to sell his superpowers to the public — “When everyone’s super? No one will be!” Or, if you want a more grown-up analogy, think of the photos of post-WWII Germany, where people lugged suitcases of money to the corner store to buy a loaf of bread.
Reviews aren’t much better. Where a good review delves deep into a book, talking honestly about its good points and its flaws and its impact on the reader, 5-star reviews often do nothing more than write a back-cover blurb of the book, with some marketing buzzwords — you get a summary, followed by some superlatives, and a promise that this book will BLOW YOUR MIND. It rarely does. In a climate where the quality of books is slowly decreasing — and is in fact encouraged to decrease, and to condition readers to expect that decrease — the praise of books is climbing dramatically to compensate.
The scary correlation to this relates specifically to indie YA, a huge, booming industry at the moment. Unfortunately, many indie YA books are being bought, read, and reviewed by other indie YA authors, not by actual young adults. This is partly to do with the issues in Part I (many teens not having access to ebooks or Amazon), but also because the indie book industry hasn’t figured out how to market outside its own circle yet. Some writers have begun to discuss how to reach readers as well as writers, but not as many about how to reach teens.
And because of the stigma, indie authors can sometimes be defensive and attack ‘outsiders’ who ‘just don’t understand’, despite the fact that no one will understand if the circle doesn’t open. Indie authors often argue that the world of traditional publishing is an exclusive, gated community, but so, too, is the indie world.
I do think that the future of indie publishing is an exciting place, and I would like to see a time when books published through non-traditional means do not carry a stigma. I’m excited for a future where I can buy digital copies of any book to go along with my print copies, when ereaders and internet are not the hallmark of the economically privileged, when libraries carry ebooks and ereaders for people to borrow free of charge, when all authors are paid freely and fairly for their work, and when the biggest, most influential, most life-changing book of the decade comes from someone who published on their own.
Unfortunately, at this point, I think that the stigma on the community — not necessarily individuals, be that people or books, but the overall machine that is indie publishing — is partly justified. With the denial of privilege inherent in insisting on digital-only books, the focus on marketing over content, and the devaluation of honest feedback, the current indie book world still has a way to go.
I want to see indie publishing thrive, but not the way it is now. In order for it to survive, it needs to take a step back from the numbers and look, really look, at what it’s doing to the world of books that it professes to love so much.