Independent Publishing: Book Killer or Inevitable Evolution?

Book cover full

A reader with whom I’ve had occasion to debate various issues in the past said to me recently, “self-publishing is killing books.” We were discussing the state of literature at the time and little did I know this arena of marketing was a bit of a trigger for him. As he carried on about amateur writers and “book covers that look like they were made by 6-year-olds with colored pencils and construction paper,” it was clear he’d taken umbrage at that fact that, “everyone and their brother thinks they can write, now anyone can publish, and that leaves the market flooded with crap.” (He’s always been an indelicate sort.)

He wanted to know how I felt about this and since I am now one of those writers who’s leapt into the self-publishing world (though we writers prefer the “independent publishing” world!), I decided to take him on, as he seemed to be unfairly painting all indie writers with the same cloth. But not only am I a self-published author, I am an avid, selective, and very judicious reader, so between those two points of view, I feel uniquely qualified to rebut his assertions.

Do I think self-publishing is killing books? In a word, NO. In fact, not only do I believe self-publishing isn’t killing books, I believe it’s actually enlivened the marketplace, bringing a fresh, less structured, less filtered, more open life to the entire literary industry. And how has it done that?

By resuscitating moribund, outdated paradigms of just who who gets to publish, who gets to sell, and how one gets to buy those books. Until this recent industry shift, one that mirrors a previous and similar plate-shifting in the music business, the traditional publishing industry ran a tight show: it had its gatekeepers review and select what was ultimately an elite group of authors, who would then, hopefully, be vaulted to success by large, well-financed promotional campaigns. These companies controlled every aspect of their authors’ books – their titles, their content, their marketing platforms; their rollout – and while this could be very advantageous for those select writers, it wasn’t always. And it didn’t include very many people.

Self-publishing, on the other hand, has pushed that literary paradigm aside and, instead, opened the doors to many talented writers who had, prior, been kept shuffling behind gates held tight by gatekeepers, who – by virtue of presumed supply and demand formulas, and, it seems, a somewhat limited perception of what should get published – refused them entrance. Sometimes kindly, sometimes not, and most times by simply ignoring them. Now, in the new world of independent publishing, those rejected writers, unbound from requiring “permission to proceed,” have put their creative asses on the line to take the risks, and do the work, to share their books with the wider world. And that has done for readers and writers what the digital revolution in music did for bands, singer/songwriters, and the fans who listen to them. It democratized the process and gave power to the artists to provide the product, and the consumer to decide what succeeded by virtue of their personal choices. What has followed is the discovery of some incredible work.

Don’t think it applies? Don’t think there’s that much undiscovered talent in the world of books? Wonder if the tsunami of self-published work has glutted the market with sub-par literature, as my friend asserts? Think the filters implemented by traditional publishers are necessary to pick the best and keep out the…. less best? Well, let’s address these very valid concerns:

1. Don’t think there’s that much undiscovered talent in the world of books?

If you’ve ever watched The Voice, American Idol, or any of the many singing talent shows that populate our airwaves, you have to have noticed how, year after year, an unlimited supply of astonishingly talented vocalists have stepped up to the stage to be discovered. This year alone The Voice has featured so many outstanding singers it’s impossible to honestly pick one over the other; a choice is made simply because those are the rules of the game. The point is, any of them are good enough to win; there is no shortage of talent out there in the great, undiscovered public. None. If it ever seemed there was, prior to the televised democratizing of the process, that’s because the formula for “being discovered” and making it big as a recording artist was difficult and exclusive. Record labels had A & R people who had to, first, find you amongst the millions, then hear you, get you signed, and hope the record company did right by you. And those A & R people could only cover so much ground; they were limited in who and what they could sign, and the kind of money needed to break a star pre-digital-age was mind-boggling. Hence, very few artists were chosen. Now? In the digital age there are no limits, which means any of the authentically talented artists who were previously ignored, dismissed, or rejected are being found. Or are simply taking matters into their own hands and recording and marketing their own work.

That same basic formula now applies to authors. They may not have a televised show (can you imagine…what would that be??), but they have self-publishing. They have Create Space, Kindle, Smashwords, and others, and following the same paradigm as the revolutionized music business, the degree of talent given rein is profound, and countless numbers of incredible, and heretofore unnoticed, writers have been given the chance to step up and be heard. Or read, as it were.

2. Wonder if the saturation of self-published work has glutted the market with sub-par literature?

It has, to some extent (though I’m not sure I’d go with “glutted”; supplied, perhaps). Certainly I’ve seen some ridiculously amateur book covers, read a few self-pubbed books that were clunky and uninspired. There are writers who haven’t learned the craft as well as they should have; didn’t access professional editors and formatters as needed, and lack a deeper understanding of how to fashion a compelling narrative. These are the writers who seem to prove my debater’s point; not good enough to sit on the virtual shelves amongst our very best (but then again…even velvet painters seem to find an audience).

But I have also read a number of traditionally published books, some bestsellers, that were not only clunky, but amateurish as well (don’t ask… I might be tempted to say!). I have found typos and bad formatting in books by some of our most famous writers. I’ve struggled to get past the first chapters of well-known books touted as “gems.” And some of what gets marketed as “stunning” and “shockingly original” in Big Company parlance simply isn’t. Subjective? Certainly. In both camps. And on both ends of the good/bad spectrum.

And while there is more “lesser literature” now than prior, even those writers have their readers (not every reader wants War and Peace), and certainly the more selective readers can easily suss out what meets their standards and what doesn’t. It seems worth it to me – a good trade – to have to, perhaps, take a bit more time to ferret through product, certainly if it means having access to stellar work previously kept from the marketplace.

Books

I have a personal stake in this question, based on my earlier disclaimer of being a self-published author myself. I just recently independently published my debut novel, After the Sucker Punch, and by way of that transformational experience, feel well-suited to address this issue.

I attempted the traditional publishing route with this book and couldn’t get arrested (well, I probably could’ve gotten arrested considering some of what went through my head after my very last rejection letter, but you get the point!). I say “my very last rejection letter” because after I got that letter, after years of waving my hands and trying to get the attention of a literary agent (necessary to breach the traditional publishing gate), I made the very conscious decision to shift gears and pursue self-publishing. I hadn’t wanted to, only because I’d self-produced a musical CD, I self-promote my journalistic and photographic work, and. frankly, I was hoping for a little marketing and promotional help this time around! But I’ve since learned that even with traditional publishing that is not always guaranteed anymore and, besides, with self-publishing I could control the elements of my book that were most important to me: my cover artwork, my title, particularly my content. Seldom so with traditional publishing.

But back to the question: As much as I love my book – and spent years of hard work molding and fine-tuning the story based on notes from editors, consultants and readers – getting continued yawns from agents (few of whom actually read the book) most assuredly pushes one toward self-doubt. “Maybe my book just isn’t ‘fall in love’ material. Maybe my writing isn’t ‘wow’ enough. Maybe I do need vampires.” But then I read the work of several authors who’d also attempted traditional publishing and, like me, had been unable to break through and so chose the indie route. And their work was fabulous. As good as any book I’d read put out by the Big 5. Which was a revelation. Because it made clear that being rejected by traditional publishing DOES NOT mean you’re not good enough. What it does mean is pointless to guess; the checklist of “why your book was rejected” is long and sometimes arbitrary. The main point is, it doesn’t mean it isn’t good enough. Period.

But here’s the most salient point for those debating the merits and quality of self-published authors… and I know this to be true: most independent authors hold themselves to the same impeccable standards of excellence that any traditionally published author does. It’s not about vanity, it’s not about just wanting to see their words in print, or having over-inflated creative egos. It’s that they’re writers, compelled to express themselves through words, and, like any bona fide writer, they want their work read by readers for whom those words resonate. Their standards are unrelentingly high and they expect their work to be on a par with any writer published by Simon and Shuster or Harper Collins. They work their asses off to hone their craft, find a brilliant plot, fashion sharp dialogue and create a compelling story arc. They get the best editors they can to shape their work, the best designers to create their covers; they hire top formatters to make sure what’s on the page works. And they don’t push those “publish” buttons until they’ve been through that book so many damn times it’s buffed and shined like no other. And they have no company contact to lean on, no PR mavens to hold their hands, or get them to the book reading on time; they do it all for themselves, with verve, vitality, and complete awareness that the buck stops with them. Now, that’s a standard to meet!

I know this because I know many writers. And I know how I prepared my book. There are so many incredible books out there now written by authors who “couldn’t get arrested” that any argument against the shifting tides of publishing is, essentially, moot. In fact, some phenomenally successful authors who’ve actively chosen the independent route, JA Konrath being one, assert that the pendulum has swung so hard to the self-publishing side that it will never again swing back. I know for many writers, heady at the creative freedom and exhilarating opportunity to finally get their work out, this is likely true.

I don’t know if my argument fully rebuts my debater’s assertions, but, ultimately, for independent authors, their books are their statements. My book, which I hope you’ll seek out, is my statement to the notion that self-published authors are less. They’re not less. They’re just independent.

ATSP book cover design by Grace Amandes
Cover photos by Lorraine Devon Wilke
Book Collections image @ Wikimedia Commons

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

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