Continuing my thoughts on Hachette vs. Amazon, I read a post on The Guardian’s blog, called “Self-publishing is not revolutionary, it’s reactionary.” As the title suggests, the main point the post makes is that, despite what people think, self-publishing is, in fact, reactionary. It offers the following arguments in support of this unusual claim:
- self-publishing is individualistic because the writer is both producer and marketer of his work
- the reader is reduced to the status of consumer
- because of the above two points, self-publishing is timid and not adventurous enough. Indeed, self-published authors will only write in specific genres that the readers-consumers will buy. Self-published authors will not attempt an original work, for fear of falling short of the consumers’ expectations
- in traditional publishing, authors are allowed to put their work first and not bother with the entrepreneur side of things, the latter being the job of the publisher
- self-published authors have basically installed the tyranny of the market (sic)
- the problem with self-publishing, is that authors are expected to publish in specific genres and around particular themes, therefore leaving other equally interesting but less profitable subjects out of the self-publishing world. For instance, academic works, poetry, arts, new and daring literacy fiction will never appear on bestseller lists, which is why Indie authors don’t bother with these.
- bottom line, self-publishing authors are “authorpreneurs” and individualistic
I wonder what Hugh Howey (whose interview I will discuss tomorrow) would make of the way the first two points lead arbitrarily to the conclusion that it is Indie authors that are timid, when they have nothing to lose but their time. Traditional publishers, on the other hand, who actually spend money on each book they publish, can somehow afford to be generous, knowingly publishing books that will never become best-sellers. I was also impressed by the tyrannical power attributed to Indie authors. In fact, I was reminded of Joe Konrath’s recent rant:
“So I fell into the trap of becoming too involved in the Amazon/Hachette dispute, and I’ve been openly wondering where all the stupid is coming from, and if I could somehow cork the stupid so it stopped splashing all over the Internet.”
Granted, a lot self-published works evolve around specific genres (romance, sci fi, fantasy, paranormal, vampires). But I have seen some amazing poetry, very funny and touching children’s stories, self-help books (for humans and animals alike) and so many other subjects that I just can’t accept that self-publishing is genre-specific. Yes, self-publishing can be a vanity thing; people want to publish their thought or a piece of written art and decide to do it themselves. Taken within that context, self-publishing is individualistic. However, it is equally liberating!
As far as the reader is perceived as a consumer, I think the reader always was and always will be a consumer. Recently, a big bookstore chain in Greece organized a contest, whereby the public had to choose their preferred title among 700 titles published between 2013 and 2014. This is traditionally published books, through traditional publishers. Some ninety percent of the titles were romantic books, light reading and historic romances. Ninety percent! I have absolutely nothing against this genre but I find highly ironic the fact that traditional publishing houses are accusing self-publishers of being individualistic, when they themselves will only publish saleable books of a particular genre. Let’s not kid ourselves; readers have always been consumers because they actually pay for the book. Were the readers offered the books for free, then we could talk about something else. Oh wait – that’s what Indie authors have been doing!
As far as mixing authorship with entrepreneur, I think that it is quite useful. The moment an author decides to become commercial, i.e. to write in order to make a living, they should have some sense of entrepreneurship, whether they sign a contract with a publishing house or not. Having a feeling of how a book is published, what sort of costs publishing entails or what profits the author should expect are all valuable concepts that any author should have. We all have –more or less- a sense of how we should be prudent with our money (investment, savings, paying bills, paying for a pension … the basics) but we have never been accused of being entrepreneurs because of that. Since when is that a bad thing, and why should it be different for an author?
Finally, I was reminded of the Price Waterhouse Cooper report on publishing, which you may remember from my previous posts. The report was comparing traditional versus electronic publishing. The only books that resist electronic publishing are:
- children’s books: these need to be tactile, while children like pictures, and it is still hard to present beautiful images in Kindle format;
- specialty books: photos, directions, maps etc are difficult to portray electronically;
- academic books: because graphs, images etc are harder to read on a small screen, while student love to keep side notes
These are the main subjects where physical format is still the norm rather than the exception, and these are the books that traditional publishers will probably continue to print and publish for a while longer. Since self-publishing inevitably involves electronic publishing, it is no wonder that relatively few people bother with specialty books or academic ones.
In other words, it has nothing to do with being an “authorpreneur” and everything to do with the limitations of digital publishing. After all, since finishing my PhD thesis in 2000, Architecture in the Digital Age: in Search of a Collaborative Design Paradigm, I have published it online!
I know you’ll have grown tired of reading this, but I just don’t get this whole “war” between Indies and traditional publishers. We all love books; we all wish to increase our readership; we all want to make a living out of it. It’s not a zero-sum game; when a reader reads a traditionally-published book, it’s not because he won’t read an Indie one and vice versa. Readers enjoy a good book, and don’t care who published it. So, how about we bury the Hatchet (heh heh – I kill me) and focus on fighting illiteracy instead of of each other?
– photo taken from Allen R. Allen’s blog… with Ruth Harris
What do you think? Is self-publishing reactionary or revolutionary?
I think that the claim that indie authors will not attempt an original work & will stick to popular genres only, is quite ridiculous….Indies write in all possible genres, including poetry and also for literary magasines. And how have we ‘installed the tyranny of the market’ when we actually gave it fresh air to breathe for the first time? As usual, The Guardian is seeking to impress, but without solid facts.
I’m disappointed by the Guardian’s self-imposed role of Big 5/trad pub protector. Its articles on the subject strike me as particularly snooty.
That is the most bizarre take on “indie vs. legacy” publishing I’ve ever heard! Imagine, indie writers being accused of being “timid” and “in it for the money”! I can’t even formulate adequate words to describe how absurd this is.
Thanks for sharing this, Nicholas! Looks like we indie authors still have a lot of work to do to garner the respect we deserve.
Lol – I’m sure our children will look at us the same way we looked at our suffragette grannies! 😀
It’s just a matter of time before almost every writer is a hybrid one.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go wash up for the third time today, courtesy of the puppy…
Haha, I belong to the second pic. Of course, that could mean Indie or Trad published. But I’m Indie and proud. It doesn’t worry me that I don’t cover my costs, (Mind you it does bother someone I know, lol.) I write to be read – End.
I remember a tip I read in Joe Konrath’s blog: “you won’t become a writer by refreshing your Amazon report every five minutes. You’ll become a writer by writing.”
Yeah, right! 😀
As for the Indie vs. Trad debate, I believe that time will render obsolete – and I mean a decade at the most.
I agree with what Ali Isaac said above and I think this Guardian writer has it all backwards! I think traditional publishers are out for the bottom line and want only what will sell (with the exception of some literary or scholarly publishers). This statement: “Indeed, self-published authors will only write in specific genres that the readers-consumers will buy. Self-published authors will not attempt an original work, for fear of falling short of the consumers’ expectations” is all wrong, in my opinion. Sure, the self-published author who is eager only to make a monetary killing may do that, but then there are people like me who do write something original and different and would probably have to search for 10 years to find an agent or publisher willing to look at it. I’m not out to make a lot of money and I don’t care anything about consumers’ expectations – I just want to get a hearing from people with tastes and interests similar to my own. That was why I decided self-publishing was the way to go.
I have encountered a lot of different reasons for people turning to self-publishing. More than anything, it’s because they love books and writing. In more than a few cases (myself included), this is combined with an ambition to make this our full-time job, and make a living out of it. But I have never – so far, anyway – met someone who does it to get rich.
Given the insane amount of work involved, I can’t say I’m surprised by this… 🙂
I agree with Ali–the Guardian article gets so many things wrong, it’s difficult to know where to start. Traditional publishers are the ones who have created and enforced rigid genre conventions. Particularly for romance novels, authors are expected to toe the line and follow the accepted formulas right down to word count. It is authors of fan fiction and other indie types who have pushed the boundaries. My romance stories would not interest a traditional house, and in my mind that’s a badge of honor. Furthermore, I am not trying to generate income but to reach the small number of readers all over the world who share my tastes and interests. Taken together, they make a nice-sized crowd! People like me are in this for the love of writing. It is the traditional houses that operate to make a profit, which they do by selling masses of genre fiction (and then they disingenuously pretend that they are not businesses but arbiters of taste). The idea that authors are relieved of marketing duties with traditional publishing is completely bogus. I investigated some trad houses when I first started writing. Almost all of them made it clear that they expected authors to do much of their own spadework using social media and other methods.It left me wondering what they actually provide, other than the services of a proofreader which can be purchased independently. Finally, authors of traditional literary fiction are nothing if not “individualistic,” and more power to them!
I’m not against literary fiction and traditional publishing, and I think that there are problems with Amazon’s business policies, which should be dealt with through anti-trust laws. But I’m tired of the prejudice against indie authors.
You know, I was reading about this on an author’s blog – her publisher had returned her manuscript because it didn’t have the correct amount of words for the genre! This was an author who had already publish a dozen books in that genre, and who used to run her own publishing company. She’s now self-published. I have to find the post; it was amazing!
I think self-publishing is both. It is a revolutionary step in the book business because people can get their work out there more easily. That Catch-22 of needing an agent to get a publisher, needing a fan base to get an agent, and needing a publisher to get a fan base is kind of negated here. You can build a fan base and prove that you’re marketable in any genre. To me this is a reaction to how traditional publishing originally worked and the frustration of rejected authors who firmly believed in what they were writing.
As for the timidity and sticking to what sells, I think that stems more from what people are perceiving than the reality. A lot of Indie Authors jump on the bandwagons to get attention or money. Plastering ‘if you like Harry Potter’ on a book blurb is bound to raise a few eyebrows. Yet, there are many out there who fly under the radar with non-genre stories or the lesser genres. I know someone who writes Westerns, which isn’t a major genre. So, I really think people who say Indie Authors are timid haven’t looked at the full picture.
I do wonder one thing. Where does the Indie Author who has wanted to write in a ‘safe’ genre since teen years fit into this? That isn’t really a choice based on where the consumers are, but one of personal interest and enjoyment.
I like the way you look at self-publishing as a reactionary step. When I first read the Guardian article, I was all “whaaat?”, but your take makes sense.
I’m less convinced by your statement that “a lot of Indie Authors jump on the bandwagon to get attention or money.” Attention, sure; but money? Most Indies I know pay out of their own pocket to pursue their passion.
One of the reasons I self-published Pearseus is that its combination of fantasy and sci-fi is rather unique. I knew it’d be well-near impossible to find a publisher who’d want to publish. But to me, it’s just that freedom that makes it all worthwhile!
As for Indie Authors who want to follow a genre’s convention, I guess there is a word for them: rich! 😀
To explain what I meant: I’ve run into a lot of indie authors who are of the mind that anyone can write and publish a story. This is where you see a slew of 99 cent books that haven’t been edited. They go for quantity over quality. It might not be a main income for them, but it’s ‘fun money’ as I’ve seen a few mention on forums back when I started. To be honest, I think this mentality is getting phased out because indie publishing is changing against it.
I published my books because after 10 years of rejections, I wanted to find another path to get my stories out. It wasn’t until I put my first book out that a few people contacted me to point out why I was getting rejected. Present tense action adventure isn’t as common as I thought.
A thought provoking post. Although I actually disagree with the Guardian blog’s opinion. I’ve never met an Indi author yet who’s doing it for the money; there are better get rich quick schemes. Indis write because they have a story to tell. We dont gather round the hearth to hear the bard tell it anymore. It’s all done digitally. This is our way. That means we write what we are passionate about, what we believe in, whether it’s risky or not. If it is a dangerous subject, there’s no one to stop us. We write our own story, for ourselves. We’re not commercial in that we sit down and think, today I’ll write a para romance because that’s what sells. That is the attitude trad pubs have. They won’t take risks on newbie authors or contraversial content; they only want to produce what they know sells… like celeb life stories and cook books, and the latest fad diet book. Oh and lots of para romance! Clearly this Guardian blogger hasn’t visited a bookshop in a looooong time… he probably buys all his books on Kindle lol!
That’s exactly what I was telling Charles. I doubt most Indies are in it for the money (like you say, there are many easier ways to earn a living).
I love your take on why we do it – it really resonates with me! As for diet books and celeb life stories… don’t get me started! 🙂
Loved your arguments and the solid logic behind them. Like all else, there are two ways of seeing self-publishing, and one can easily come up with arguments to support both sides. But the truth you present is indisputable: publishing houses go for sales; if they come through genre-specific work, then that’s the game they’ll play. Being high-brow about the flip side (self-publishing) is getting old, and it’s just a defensive tactic that will soon peter out.
I agree that trad-publishing has to go for sales; it’s a business. Let me put it this way: if they didn’t, they wouldn’t last long… 🙂
As for the defensive attitude petering out, I agree. Or, to be more precise, I believe that the hybrid model will become so widespread, that snooty attitudes will become obsolete.