Friday, 12 August 2011

Indie Publishing: Traditional Publishing’s Competitor – or Slush Pile?

This is probably not a post which is likely to make me very popular but, you got it, I’m going to say it anyway. To avoid pointless arguments about what I’m not saying, I’d like to be clear upfront. I am not saying that writers should never indie publish.
But… What is indie publishing?
I expect there are as many different definitions or concepts of what indie publishing is as there are for each genre and subgenre of fiction. We could probably argue about it until the cows come home. So I’ll tell you what I think it is. Then you can argue about it, and I’ll just watch.
I consider indie publishing to be an alternative to traditional publishing for writers who have submitted to traditional publishers and/or agents and received responses along the lines of ‘It’s great but it’s not for us’ or ‘You’ve got a fabulous story but it’s not commercial’.
In other words, indie publishing is an alternative for writers who are skilled in their craft but can’t get an editor or an agent to take a risk on them for reasons that do not relate to the quality of their work.
How about what indie publishing is not?
·         It’s not an excuse to cut corners on your WIP. A lot of them exist for a reason. If the response you are getting is that your WIP is not interesting enough, engaging enough, well-written enough, or suffers from other technical problems, indie publishing will not magically solve them;

·         It’s not the ‘easy option’ for the ‘lazy’ writer. Good writers are not born, they are made. They are forged in the crucible of reviews, critiques and, yes, rejection. Only when we are told what is wrong can we make it better. If you have just penned your very first novel or story and indie published it (particularly without an editor, or review or critique by someone who knows what they are talking about) I am sorry, but it’s probably more useful as toilet paper.

And yes, I say that as a writer. I have one of those ‘first novels’ lying around. Like most writers who have been around the traps a bit (and after nearly 20 years at this, sorry to say I am old enough to be one of them), I pray to god or anyone else who might be listening that no one ever sees it. How embarrassing. As a matter of fact, I can’t even tell you where it is right now. Probably on a floppy disk for which there will shortly be no means to read it. I can hope, anyway. Maybe I am lucky enough for it to have been the broken one I found the other day.  

·         It’s not publishing for ‘vanity’. In the old days (which I remember, crivens), writers had to pay other people to have their book vanity published. Now a writer can epublish their book, even if it’s absolute drivel, and expect other people to pay them. If you are providing a product to consumers, it should be a good one, and not just to stroke your own ego.  People pay for a good product or service. Money spent by a consumer just to make you feel good is not money well-spent. Unless maybe it was spent by your mother.

·         It is not an excuse to drop standards. If you are indie publishing, I expect you to know how to spell, and have good grammar, as the most basic tools of your craft. You don’t need to know the names (I can never remember what a preposition is) but I expect you to know how to use them. I also expect you to know good dialogue, to not infodump, to weave backstory carefully, to have interesting plots, believable characters with depth… The list goes on. In short, everything I would expect from a traditionally published novel. I’m sorry, but the method of publishing does not change the ingredients in a good book. Yes, I have high standards, but in my defence I will say I never held someone to a standard to which I did not hold myself;

·         It’s not an excuse to break the rules – without good reason. In traditional publishing, as an unknown author, we are told all the time that breaking the rules will land you in the slush pile. Not so in indie publishing. What slush pile? Well, that may be true, but rules exist for a reason. If you break a rule, and it doesn’t somehow add to your story or advance the plot or somehow make it better than if you had abided by the rule – then breaking it is probably detrimental;

·         It’s not an excuse to not know the rules. If you want to break rules meaningfully and intelligently, you need to know what they are. Learn them, please. Study your craft.
I recently heard the question asked ‘are you regarded as having achieved less because you indie publish?’ I don’t hesitate in saying ‘you betcha!’. We all know the odds against traditional publishing. Ergo, if you are traditionally published, you have achieved something of heroic proportions. You beat the odds. Even if your writing is not great literature, you still beat the odds.
That, however, does not automatically mean that an indie book is bad, because we all know plenty of good work doesn’t get traditionally published. Unfortunately, a lot more of what doesn’t get published isn’t good work, which brings me to my next point.
I recently heard suggested that we should do away with one star reviews because they are ‘not fair’ to the writer. Really? Why not? If the quality of your work is that poor, why shouldn’t you get 1 star? Because your fragile ego can’t bear it? I’m sorry, but if you can’t take negative criticism, you are in the wrong line of work.
Granted, there are bound to be a number of undeserved 1 star reviews. But then, as discussed in my last post ‘What Price Your Honour?’, there are also large numbers of undeserved 5 star reviews floating around. Maybe we should also do away with 5 star reviews?
But then, now 2 star reviews are undeservedly harsh, and 4 star reviews are coveted. I know! We shall have 3 star reviews only. Now you are all the same. Is everyone happy?
I expect not. That was a very exaggerated example, but most of you probably got the point. A review system is, by its very nature, designed to distinguish between good and bad. Any scale, no matter where it starts and finishes, will have a lowest point and a highest point.
As a reader, I can say that I have seen enough false reviews that I don’t bother looking at the star rating of a book anymore. It is meaningless data. Worse, I have started discriminating on the basis of price point. Two bad experiences with (traditionally published) 99c books, and I am ready to swear off them. If I won’t buy traditionally published 99c ebooks, what hope do indie books have? Not much, I’m afraid.
I have in fact never bought an indie book. I have read free excerpts of various indie ebooks, designed to entice and lure the reader into purchasing the complete work. Sad to say, none has yet been of sufficient calibre, or sufficiently intriguing, to induce me to do so (though some clearly had promise). What a sad state of affairs.
I like the theory of indie publishing, but as you can see, so far the practical reality is disappointing me. Please don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that all indie authors are bad, I am saying that inconsistent standards and unreliable reviews are demotivating me to look for the diamonds in the rough. I am sure they exist, but where to start looking? It is the proverbial needle in the haystack. I am time poor, so I must choose the books I read carefully.
If indie publishing wants to be taken seriously, and to provide a viable, commercial and, ultimately, profitable alternative to traditional publishing, writers need to hold themselves to some kind of quality standard in the work they choose to self-publish. Otherwise, indie publishing will be doomed to be nothing more than a very public slush pile for traditional publishing. I would think that a tragic waste of something that could have been so much more.
Fellow writer, I implore you – always strive to improve yourself. Take workshops. Join a review group. Use beta readers. Pay an editor. Listen to the feedback you get. But please, don’t publish anything less than your absolute spit-polished best.
Hold yourself to a standard and be proud.


Erica Lucke Dean said...

This is really a great post. Highly informative and should be out there as a must read for anyone who thinks there is a short cut to getting published. There's no substitute for hard work and determination. And then more hard work :)

Wendy said...

You make your points well. On the point of inconsistent standards: true, there are a wide variety of standards in indie publishing. However, I think this may provide a necessary backlash (for now, until things settle out) for the vary narrow set of standards enforced by the former "gate keepers" of published work. These may well have lent to a "cookie cutter" approach to writing, forcing all writers to aim for the same format if they were to have any hope of their work being seen by the public. While I agree that a work must be good to be published - per self or otherwise - I also feel a broader perception of what is considered "good" may lend itself well to a wider representation of ideas and creativity.

Aside from this, some of us self publish for reasons other than those listed above. You can check out my most recent blog for my own personal reasons.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

I agree that the standards imposed by publishers are too narrow. However, those standards relate to more than just the quality of the writing at an objective level - it relates to marketability, audience appeal, profitability etc. In the sense that I refer to quality, I mean purely in the craft sense - good spelling, grammar, and of course the things that make a story engaging. Well-written. Coherent. Forward-moving.

I expect there are many reasons for indie publishing besides an inability to traditionally publish - more than I could possibly hope to list exhaustively. Some of them would include wanting more creative control than publishers, not being a 'team-player' and preferring more autonomy, or believing that the novel wouldn't get the treatment it deserves from the publisher, just to list a few.

Thanks for commenting!

Jlgentry said...

Ciara, We are totally in synch on this. It took me several edits and a clear focus on how to improve the storyline be eliminating unnecessary verbiage and plot elements to get my book to its published state. If I had published the first draft like I had planned, it would have been a catastrophe. I good friend, who is a published author, gave me some solid and painful feedback. It took me about a year to fix it all (I had to put it aside for 6 months to let it simmer), but I am very pleased with the end result. As are the 7 5 star review writers.

An indie author has to develop the editorial discipline or find a real editor who will provide the necessary feedback. Don't look for an editor who will re-write your work. For that matter, there are two types of edits. One is for the content - your story and if it holds together and if each sentence draws the reader on to the next. The second edit should be for copy - spelling, grammar and usage.

Thanks for writing this. I am an Indie author and take pride in the hard work it takes to make a good read. To tell you the truth, I learned more about writing during that editing process than in the first draft.

I guess you hit on something I am passionate about. Thanks again.


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