Self-Publishing is Reactionary? How about Transformative?
At lunch I was checking Twitter and came across this tweet:
— Eliza James Writing (@EJsWriting) June 24, 2014
I read the article, and couldn’t disagree more. But simply disagreeing is something internet trolls do. I want to lay out why I disagree.
The Wrong Premise
My first disagreement with the article is the logical premises leading to the conclusion it makes: self-publishing is a reaction against stuffy publishers who won’t let writers just put their crap out there, but successful self-publishers (in this case, stereotypical mega-bestsellers like Hugh Howey) just put out more of what the publishers already do. No broadened horizons, no greater opportunity, just a bunch of self-interest and sameyness just like we’ve had for decades, just under the Big Five (Six). I ended up tweeting my primary bones to pick on this angle:
The flaw in the argument is presuming that every indie author is solely self-interested, solely writing for the payoff. (11:45 AM MDT, 24 Jun 2014)
Anyone who reads my blog knows that I’m not in it for self-interest. A couple of months ago, I wrote a guest post about how all of our self-interest as independent authors gets tied up in selfless help, which I think paints a better picture of the selfishness (of a sort) of the indie community. Sure, money is a factor in deciding to publish books, but most success on the indie scene (aside from massive breakout hits that are an acknowledged rarity) is driven by being helpful and kind. Any self-interest gets filtered through an immediate lens of helping others, leaving an impression that only deepens with time on the recipients of that help.
It also presumes that there is no such thing as an author, a creative artist, doing it for the art itself. I’m on record (and I will hold to this) saying that I will give away all of my books for free, with the option to buy it from a retailer if you want to. I write what I do because I believe in the power of writing and what it can do for not just me, but for other readers who read what I write. The only payoff I want is the joy of seeing a happy reader, not a bunch of USD sitting in my bank account.
It ignores how a lot of authors are also readers as well. And that a lot of authors market to each other. (11:46 AM MDT, 24 Jun 2014)
The piece presumes that authors believe readers to be simple consumers, unwashed masses with spare money. While I’m sure there are a lot of readers out there who don’t have a writing bone in their body, as my tweet says, authors are readers too, and some of the most critical and insightful ones out there. And beyond that, it’s insulting to think authors so shallow and uncaring as to think potential readers as nothing more than marks to fleece for all their extra dinero. Yes, I’m sure such people exist, but they are in no way representative of the indie community.
Every author I’ve met so far has had nothing but respect for both authors and readers. Anyone can be a reader, and anyone can be the insulted post-book consumer sinking the book to the bottom of Ocean Ebook with a 1-star review that points out every single thing the author did wrong. Or more likely, several 1-star reviews from several different people who didn’t like having their intelligence insulted by an extremely bad book. It is counterproductive to consider readers as one-dimensional people like so many Big Business marketing departments do.
Finally, it assumes mutual exclusivity. Because a reader bought my book, yours will not be bought. Not necessarily true. (11:47 AM MDT, 24 Jun 2014)
The final major flaw I saw was an assumption that authors need to “beat out” the next guy. While in a strict sense, this is true (only so much spare cash), it assumes that only one decision, or an extremely limited set of decisions will be made. With the price of most indie ebooks (and even print on demand copies for those who love to hold it in their hands), it’s a bad assumption to say that a reader will show up at Amazon, Kobo, Nook, iBooks, or wherever, and only buy one. Consider the cost of a new-release big-publisher hardback (or even ebook from them): $20+ ($10+). For the same money as a hardback, a reader can pick up 4-5 indie titles (assuming price points between $3.99 and $4.99). Or some cheaper print-on-demands, 2 for 1. And that ignores the deliberate crazy-cheap impulse-buy “gateway drug” anthologies and first-in-a-series residing all over ebook retailers.
But let’s set those economics aside. Just because a reader decided today, with this paycheck, to get Author A’s book, doesn’t mean that Author B’s book didn’t hit a wish list. Amazon makes bank (and I’m sure others do too) on the sheer convenience of being able to constantly tell its customers what they wanted when the money is available again. I personally have a stack of books I’ve been meaning to read, and yet another stack of books I’ve been meaning to buy. Indie publishing isn’t a zero-sum game wherein because one wins, another must necessarily lose.
Limited Definition of Success
Like so many articles comparing traditional and independent publishing, bestsellers are the only authors considered. Success is presumed to only be on the level of “instant millionaire.” This is a flawed definition in the extreme. No attention is paid to the mid-listers, much less the people making just enough extra money a month for some nice things they wouldn’t have otherwise, both for traditional and independently published authors. There’s indie authors in the mid-list who make more money per month than I do with a well-paying full-time job. It misses the entire point of independent publishing to only measure by the crazy-huge successes like Stephen King or Scott Sigler (buy this guy’s books anyway, he’s great).
Throwing out the Assumptions
Take away these assumptions and replace them with the correct ones (indies aren’t just in it for the money, authors treat readers with respect, book-buying is not a mutually exclusive market, and success isn’t just who makes a million bucks), and a different picture emerges:
Instead of independent publishing being solely the realm of authors too terrible to “make the cut”, it can have authors who wish to say something different from what is “in vogue” with the big publishers at present. Authors can seek out their own niches of interest and attract a small but faithful following that won’t make them a household name, but will pay the household bills. Publishing books isn’t just a way to make money, it’s a way to transform lives, making people think in a completely different way after reading it.
Everyone can be simultaneously in it for themselves (for their art, for their popularity, for their sales) and in it for everyone else too. There is no “me first, you never.” Instead, everything is framed in terms of “you first, me in return.” People give in the expectation of getting back, instead of just taking. Someone’s success can be celebrated and at the same time someone else’s success can be bolstered by the first person’s. There isn’t a zero-sum game in play.
Independent Publishing is Transformative
Unlike the contention of the Guardian article, independent publishing isn’t purely a reaction to traditional publishing. I’m sure the bad contracts, all-or-nothing, only-a-few-win aspects of traditional publishing spurred a search for a different option at first, but since those first steps people have taken independent publishing in a different direction entirely. The initial reaction is a thing of a past, now the indie community is transforming itself, the shape of the book market, and the ways that authors and readers interact.
Indie publishing is a different game this year than it was last year. Every long-time indie writer I’ve read says the same thing: it’s always changing. Far from the slow-sea-change of days past, indies are just as affected by the breakneck pace of technology and society these days as everything else is. To even stay relevant, the community as a whole has to constantly shift, constantly transform, just to meet the basic needs of the market.
The Shape of the Book Market
My quick book price economics above show the change in the book market. Hardbacks have been about $20 for a long time, with paperbacks being in the $7-10 range for just about as long. Now the dynamics have shifted, and continue to shift, as indie publishing continues to reinvent itself. Price points that used to not exist are a regular occurrence. There’s more options out there, and while some would contend that “cheap price = cheap quality”, that’s not necessarily true.
Moving past just price, the indie market relies not on tons of marketing on TV or in newspapers and magazines, but on word of mouth. There are tons of low-quality books out there, published on a whim just like the article tries to ascribe to independent publishing as a whole. To surface above that, well-considered reviews and evangelizing by people on social media (and among their circle of friends) is a requirement.
It’s a completely different dynamic than the old line of “THIS BOOK IS AWESOME BECAUSE THIS NAME YOU KNOW IS A #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR AND WE HAVE STUBQUOTES COMING OUT OF OUR EARS ABOUT HOW AWESOME IT IS.” That kind of marketing just doesn’t work like it used to. People want to know what they are buying beyond others simply saying “it’s good.”
The Ways Authors and Readers Interact
Consider this: you, reading this blog right now, can leave a comment, and I will most likely respond, even if we’re on opposite sides of the world. We could even get into a long conversation about life, the universe, and everything. As the internet has transformed our interactions worldwide, so also has it transformed authors and readers connecting. It’s no longer just short interviews, or maybe the rare book signing. It can be anywhere, anytime, in so many different ways that I’d be a fool to try to list them all. We’re at once more personal, and more connected. Whereas before, the author was a demigod-like entity out there beyond reach, now they are eminently available.
And this aspect is what excites me so much about independent publishing and the community around it. Unlike the article’s statements, it’s not a reaction to the Big Bad Publishing Scumbags Hoovering Up Our Money. It’s a completely different way to write, read, and connect, beyond anything we would have ever envisioned just a couple of decades ago. The name of the game may be the same, but the rules are different, transformed by the ability to connect with others, no matter where they are.