Well, I figure a good first post on my new site would be one which answers a question which I’ve barely even asked myself so far, why Indie publishing?
Now over the months to come there’s going to be more and more said about my novel (well, by me at least) which is currently being edited by someone who takes a less chaotic approach to punctuation, spelling and common sense than I do. As well as having some fine cover art crafted by Dave the Excellent Artist, who, if you ever get the chance to see his David Bowie, will make you think the real thing is a bit shit really. Until all that’s done though I thought I’d use this space to cover some of the questions which a lot of writers are asking themselves these days to see if my own random dribblings might offer up some clarity for others.
When I started coming to the end of the first vaguely presentable draft of Crashed America my mind, as is natural, started to turn towards idle day dreams of fame, fortune and the sort of decadent lifestyle that would make Scarface reach for a calming cup of tea. Then I realised that writers very rarely, if ever, make any money from what they do. Undetered though my mind shifted to ways to make at least some meagre living from what I love doing, even if making stuff up and writing it down can never really count as a real job to anyone who’s actually done a real job.
Tradition dictates that publishers and agents are the route to literary fame and immortality. Like a holy commandment a path has long been laid out for new writers of endless mail outs, endless rejections and little hope all on the off chance that something, one day, will make it out of the slush pile. And for all the media hype and chatter about the self (or, more fittingly, Indie) publishing scene the traditional path still remains the first port of call for most writers trying to find a way to share their work.
The weight of history and established wisdom snowballs when combined with the routine self-doubt of anyone who’s spent a few hundred hours honing their craft in isolation with a distant eye on the validation of success. Publishers are the arbiters of quality, their seal of approval means you’ve made it and, until you fuck up the second novel at least, their acceptance places you where I’d imagine every writer ever has wanted to be – comfortable in the certainty that somebody out there likes your work. It’s a respect build on practicality. The media, insofar as they care about books these days, have always dealt exclusively with their publishing establishment counter parts. Ditto for bookshops and readers in fact – although the ties of tradition to all three are rapidly being eroded at the moment. And that seemingly all consuming certainty which surrounds the writer really can seem like a self evident truth, at least until you step back a little.
As I mentioned the traditional literary niche which locked publishers, writers, distributors and the media into a sealed circle is being increasingly challenged. Indie writers are NY Times best sellers, an increasing number are making a (minimal) living from work they themselves are managing and access to the tools of distribution has become ever more democratic. More importantly though the traditional sense of establishment approval is becoming less and less prominent. The slush pile and the handful of readers working within the industry, which once held all the allure and glamour of a Hollywood casting couch, now seem slightly meaningless, to me at least. Major publishers have gone a long way to invalidate their own position, both by picking up self-published writers and by placing ever more attention on absolute crap. It is, after all, hard to have faith in the esteemed wisdom of a company whose output includes work by Katie Price (as nice a person as I’m sure she is), Dan Brown and whichever celebrity feels like having a ghost writer hammer the self indulgent excess of their lives into a Christmas best seller.
I hope there’s not too much arrogance in that sentiment. With the hangover of having actually (nearly) finished something sitting on my back like the proverbial monkey I would always hesitate to tout myself as one of the greats. But I do want to be good, that’s my drive and aspiration and when I look for a measure of what I can do it’s no longer the slightly paternal pat on the head of the old industry that I look for. For me it’s the audience that I want to give my work to and the audience whose approval I want because as terrible as their/our taste may sometimes be they’re still very definitely the ones who actually matter.
Financially too the game has become a very different one. First time writers have always made pretty much no money, whether they sign up with the biggest publishers around or desperately try to flog eBooks on Amazon. The industry used to balance out that initial poverty with promises of promotion and support, as well as the hope that a second effort would offer a proper pay day – not that I write for anything but the love of course. Now though they take fewer and fewer risks and offer less and less to the first timer as profit margins shrink ever more and the allure of a safe, if unimaginative, bet becomes more and more dominant in their collective mind. Sure the path of Indie promotion remains the far harder one as writers are obliged to master the dark arts of marketing for themselves but it’s been proven that with commitment and luck there’s more of a reward to be had, both financially and emotionally, from doing it yourself.
If it works then the lion’s share goes to the author, including the audience that they’ve directly built around themselves. They retain absolute control over their work and to a large degree get the chance to circumvent the slush pile by being able to tell prospective agents and publishers that the audience they already have is all the credentials they need.
Of course it’s not easy to get it right, as any number of poorly written, poorly edited and unpromoted efforts will attest but that’s a risk worth facing and one which the writer themselves can control. More importantly it’s one which I myself believe I can overcome and that challenge and it’s rewards are infinitely more appealing than the purgatory of those endless mail outs and the ever unpredictable whims of unknown readers buried in a pile of slush.