©2013 by Jack A. Urquhart 2177 words
“To me, it seems disrespectful … that a ‘wannabe’ assumes it’s all so easy s/he can put out a ‘published novel’ without bothering to read, study, or do the research … Self-publishing is a short cut and I don’t believe in short cuts when it comes to the arts.”—Sue Grafton, American author of detective novels (‘Alphabet Series’), LouisvilleKY.com, August 7, 2012
“Amazon wants a world in which books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself, with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books … The work of yakkers and tweeters and braggers, and of people with the money to pay somebody to churn out hundreds of five-star reviews for them, will flourish in that world.”—Jonathan Franzen, American author (The Corrections; Freedom) The Guardian, September 13, 2013
It has taken me a long time (and several failed drafts) to pursue this post on independently published authors. That is because, even though I am a longtime semi-professional writer (nearly 30 years and counting), the fact is I went Indie only twenty months ago—which means I still have much to learn.
Part of my education, one of the more troubling parts, has been making sense of the bad press aimed at independently published writers, much of it by A-List, traditionally published authors like the two gifted writers whose words introduce this post.
For nearly two years I’ve read the various allegations leveled against us—charges, it seems to me, that can be distilled into a single sentence:
Independently published writers are lazy, unprofessional, short-cut seeking opportunists whose sub-standard products and practices decimate literary culture.
I confess that I am of two minds about these criticisms, my ambivalence rooted in the fact that there is incontrovertible evidence to support some of them.
Indeed, who hasn’t made the mistake of purchasing an abysmally conceived, written, and copyedited Indie novel at least once, or been taken in by an egregiously misleading 5-star Goodreads/Amazon review of an independently published work? I refer to reviews that, according to several recent exposés (see here and here), have sometimes been bought and paid for, or posted by friends and relatives of the author.
Furthermore, what frequenter of social media—a primary marketing platform for Indies—hasn’t endured the clamor of authors begging Facebook ‘likes’ and/or auto-tweeting sales pitches?
And yet, I can’t help thinking that Indie critics, several of them at least, have overlooked something important, something to do with why some of us—writers who’ve worked at our craft for years, either professionally or as dedicated students of literature—choose to publish independently. And what’s more, I wonder if several detractors haven’t been disingenuous in their condemnations.
Exploring a few of the most famous Indie criticisms, as well as the suppositions I pose above, is the purpose of this post—I hope toward achieving a more balanced take on Indie writers and what motivates us.
I will pass quickly over charges of Indie product inferiority as there is ample printed evidence to show that traditionally published authors and their big-name publishers have, for centuries, been felling whole forests in the service of bringing ‘pulp’ to market. (At least in the Indie Universe, which exists mainly in cyberspace, there is less ecological damage, and taking out the ‘trash’ can be as easy as clicking [delete].)
Rather, I think it more useful to focus on what seems an obvious fallacy in an often-cited criticism of Indie authors—that we are lazy, short-cut seeking opportunists (see introductory Grafton quote). That charge, I believe, is anchored in the bogus notion that mainstream publishing, as practiced today, is a meritocracy—i.e., if you’re good enough, if you persist long enough, you’ll get published.
Nothing could be farther from the truth.
In the real world, it isn’t the most gifted, the most hard-working writer who gains representation, whose work is optioned and/or brought to market.
As top literary agent Wendy Keller (Wendy Keller/Keller Media, Inc. Literary Agency & Speakers Bureau) makes abundantly clear in this online interview, in the publishing trade, rejection is the rule, not the exception.
Her agency, for example, typically receives 500 +/- author queries a month, about 99.5% of which are rejected out of hand. Furthermore, out of every fifty proposals actually reviewed by Keller’s agency, only one or two makes it to publishers. Keller goes on to point out that top agents rarely sell more than 3 out of every 5 represented projects.
Statistics like this, which Keller implies apply industry-wide, lay waste the notion of a publishing meritocracy. Indeed, common sense, as well as the law of averages, would dictate that many talented, perhaps even gifted, writers never make it out of an agent’s slush pile, their efforts thus consigned to that 99.5% rejection heap.
These are discouraging realities, but this Indie author, for one, sees no point in bewailing them.
The fact is, there are only so many customers in the market place, and the number of writers, talented or not, hoping to accommodate their literary tastes (and/or whims) exceeds demand. Not every writer gets to be, or should be, a bestseller (I’ll leave unaddressed the question of whether some who are deserve to be). But does that mean that the rest of us should be denied space on bookshelves—in physical or cyber space?
What recourse beyond a possibly endless cycle of rejection letters do we ‘others,’ some of us talented, have? Are we to storm the bastions of traditional publishing indefinitely? Stand outside the door while a few hundred gatekeepers—those long-entrenched arbiters of taste, quality, and ‘tradition’—dither over whether to allow us admission?
Are we to ignore ever-evolving trends and options in publishing in order to maintain some holier-than-thou status quo?
I would argue that independent publishing offers a viable, even sensible, alternative to writers who have ‘traditionally’ been left out in the cold. Perhaps none more so than those serious writers whose fundamental motivation in taking to the keyboard, in taking up pen and paper, is not a matter of choice, but rather necessity—like breathing, eating, and sleeping. Writers driven by the impetus to communicate, to understand what it means to be alive, and to attempt the creation of something lasting, perhaps even something that approaches ‘art.’ And to have it noticed—even if that notice is limited to 10, or 20, or a few hundred readers.
That is why I decided to publish my short stories independently on my blog and via Amazon’s CreateSpace platform. From jump street, I knew that the effort was unlikely to make money (it hasn’t); but I believed that any reader feedback I received would be more useful to me as a writer than the form letter and e-mail rejections I’ve received over the years (and it has been).
Traditional publishing a meritocracy? I don’t think the facts support that notion.
But let’s move on to another criticism aimed at Indie authors, perhaps the most famous of the lot—one that casts us all into a slush pile of ‘Yakkers, Tweeters, and Braggers’. For this catchy phrase we can thank Jonathan Franzen, author of the National Book Award winning novel, The Corrections, 2001, and more recently, the bestseller, Freedom, 2010.
In his often-cited 5,500+ word Guardian essay, Franzen decries an Amazon-ian literary world order in which
“books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself, with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books, and with authors responsible for their own promotion…”
before going on to make his famous claim that only
“The work of yakkers and tweeters and braggers, and of people with the money to pay somebody to churn out hundreds of five-star reviews for them, will flourish in that world.”
There is truth in some of Franzen’s kvetching.
As previously noted in this post, the speciousness of many Indie reviews posted on Amazon and other online review sites is supported by hard evidence.
And yet, it’s worth mentioning that even mainstream book reviews—in publications no less esteemed than the New York Times—are not beyond suspicion. Author Zoë Heller (What was she thinking?: Notes on a Scandal), in a recent NYT Sunday Book Review piece, explores the risks of writers reviewing the work of other writers—a practice common in the NYT and most top-tier publications. It is a practice, which, Heller points out, can pose serious obstacles to objectivity. Writes Heller,
“When it comes to negative reviews, the disincentives for a novelist or a poet are … obvious. Write a bad review and you make an enemy for life; no writer ever forgets a pan. And these days, when so many writers work in the academy, an enemy can be a real threat to one’s career. Just wait until the victim of your bad review … turns up on your hiring committee or your prize jury.”
But to return to the subject of Indie reviews: in the absence of critical attention from the mainstream media, several online review sites have begun building reputations for fairness. Self-Publishing Review, IndieReader.com, and Kirkus spring to mind. Unfortunately, most of them charge a fee—$75 to $575—that is too pricey for many Indies. That said, one would expect, and indeed hope, to see other (less costly?) organizations established as Indie publishing gains ground. We will have to wait and see—keeping in mind that the phenomenal changes in publishing are fairly recent and still unfolding.
It takes time to build credibility.
As for the complaint that Amazon forces writers to do their own promotion, I would point out that this practice is not limited to Amazon. In fact, it is already being co-opted by traditional publishers, especially the smaller houses. For an example, read Trey Ratcliff’s account here of how, after landing an agent and publisher for his photography book, A World in HDR, Ratcliff learned that marketing and promotions would be his responsibility.
But regardless of the role Amazon plays in shaping marketing trends, the fact is, sales and promotions are wedded to publishing—in traditional and Indie universes. And those with the talent and taste for entrepreneurship will hold an advantage in the market place.
Which brings me (finally!) to the charge that Indie authors cheapen and damage ‘literary culture’ with their yakking, bragging, tweeting approach to marketing.
To that accusation I would begin by asking, what qualifies as yakking and bragging?
Is it an author web site—let’s say, like the one bestselling detective author Sue Grafton maintains? A site replete with links to interviews, newsletters, journal notes, book promos, and even photographs of Ms. Grafton’s husband, her chef and personal assistant, her cats?
Is it a 5,500+ word Guardian essay/book promo that, in Franzen’s case, holds forth in print on topics as diverse as Austrian satirist Karl Kraus (the subject of Franzen’s new book, The Kraus Project), Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple versus PC television commercials, the transformation of Canada’s boreal forests, and even low-cost porch furniture on sale at Home Depot?
As for all that annoying Indie Tweeting, I’d be surprised if someone hasn’t already pointed out that it would take some 270+ Twitter tweets to match the 38,000 characters (letters, punctuation points and spaces) in Franzen’s above-referenced Guardian essay, which is but one of dozens of online articles, interviews, reviews, and quotes devoted to the bestselling author.
I cite these examples not to criticize Grafton or Franzen for taking advantage of the promotional opportunities available to them. Nor do I mean to imply that by exercising those opportunities they’ve been guilty of yakking and/or braggadocio (perhaps loquaciousness, a wee bit of showiness?). Rather, I mean to suggest that it seems unreasonable to decry and demean Indie authors en masse for making use of the limited media opportunities available to them, unfair to begrudge us our piddling sales tweets and Facebook ‘likes,’ however annoying they may be.
As for this Indie writer (and in merciful conclusion), allow me to add that I have long since adjusted my authorial aspirations to the realities of the marketplace—and my personality. The simple truth is, not everyone will write bestsellers and not everyone has the talent for self-promotion (apparently my horn-tooting gene is recessive). Some of us must settle for a smaller readership—perhaps very small; readers cultivated via our blogs, by means of self-published essays, short stories and novels—and yes, even via Twitter.
Some of us may yet hit it big. Others, not so much.
I can live with that.
I can because I believe that for myself and for many others driven to write and publish independently, our reasons outweigh issues of ego and sales figures, dollars and cents (most of us earn less that $500 a year)—not that those motives are necessarily unseemly. But there is more to us than that. There is something that impels us to the intellectual, emotional, and physical exercise of writing. Something about the quest for clarity and connection that urges us to the task.
And what good is all that effort if we don’t make use of viable options for sharing it?