Thursday, August 19, 2010

Going Indie

It's 1994.  I've finally gotten over my prudish attitude towards music, and I start listening to pop.  Move to 1996. I'm a little late to the party, but my ears can now tolerate rock.  And I'm falling in love with alternative.  The top 40 charts, ironically, are being taken over by indie music, or at least music that has been made to sound as indie as possible.  1997, MTV plays a video by Reel Big Fish called "Sell Out" that openly mocks the music industry, which can no longer survive without giving at least a slight nod to the cultural ideas of the counter-culture that hates it so much.

Then the MP3 revolution hit.  Big business responded with lawsuits.  Finally, when that strategy failed, they decided to actually sell digital music, and they are now making more money that ever before -- not via CD sales, which have dropped to almost nothing, but through digital music.

Indie music has never been healthier.  Artists now have power to negotiate better contracts because bands have alternatives to "selling out".  Music is less expensive to record, distribute, and market.  A really good artist with a firm niche can rise to the top without the help of a record executive.

Flash forward a little more, and watch the same process happen, but in reverse, to the publishing industry.  For a number of reasons, piracy is not as big of an issue when it comes to books.  For one thing, the industry offered legitimate ebook formats early on.  In fact they essentially drove the demand by being the first to invent them in the first place.  Kindle is no Napster; it was designed by big business for the specific purpose of selling books legitimately to as many people as possible.

Ebooks began as the legitimate child of the publishing industry, and with this legitimacy, ebooks are rapidly gaining market share over paper books.

Let me introduce the bastard stepchild of self-publishing.  Once, this form of publishing was known disparagingly as "Vanity Press".  Now it is finally getting adopted and gaining a legitimacy of its own.

One problem with self-publishing in the past is that it was very expensive.  An author had to front the project with a few thousand dollars for a print run of 500-1000 books.  That is no longer a problem.

The next problem was slush.  Vanity press books had a reputation of being crap.  They were for authors who had been rightfully rejected for publication because they were bad and the author was desparate and vain enough to front the money to publish them unedited.  Sure, plenty of good books were rejected, too, but self-published crap tarnished the reputation of the whole lot.  So typically they sat in cardboard boxes molding in the garage.

Publishers still provide a valued service, though some would argue they do so poorly.  A publisher says, "Hey! Ignore the slush pile.  This is the book worth reading."  Technology will hopefully solve this problem as well.  Collaborative filtering (aka customer ratings and reviews), blogs, and review sites help the cream rise to the top.

Over time I suspect we will be seeing additional mechanisms to improve indie quality.  Based on a recent survey I received, Amazon is looking into providing more author services, including low-cost proofing and editing.

A lot of us don't trust publisher opinion anyway.  Because these days, books are rejected on all kinds of grounds -- maybe the writing sucks, but more likely, business is poor for the publisher.  Or they're not taking on any new authors.  Or the genre is wrong.  Or the book is too extreme, or doesn't quite fit any genres.  I've heard so many stories of rejection letters that stated, "I liked the book, but... you're not already famous".  I also recently heard a story about an African-American author whose characters were white, but upon discovering her skin color, the publisher categorized her book under AA Fiction, where it didn't get as much visibility.

On the other side of this coin, I've read traditionally published and edited books (some of them bestsellers) that are poorly written, poorly plotted, poorly proofread, or all of the above.  Some of these have inspired me to keep writing -- if he or she can be published, then so can I!

I'm hoping I'm right, that we will see a rise of excellent, well-written, and extremely popular indie books -- that being indie itself will be a selling point to drive business, just the way it has been in the music and movie industries.

This post is part of a blog carnival. To find the other posts in this carnival, go here.


  1. You know, the only reason there is a "publishing industry" at all is because the cost of production and distribution of book became so huge that two things happened: first, the machinery could only be owned by a few businessmen, and not by the typical writer, and second, the cost of running that machinery became so great that the businessmen had to start turning down some projects. Thus the "gatekeeper" mentality, except they seem to oh-so-conveniently forget one small thing: they're not turning things down based on quality, they're turning them down based on profitability, which is only marginally related to quality.

    The prohibitive costs of production and distribution are gone. We're not turning a new page in history, so much as going back to a time when the storytellers made their living by telling stories, instead of dancing for the businessmen.

  2. I absolutely agree. It's similar to the development of intellectual property laws as well.

    When the internet hit mainstream in the mid-90's, I would quote Ben Franklin, "The freedom of the press is limited to those who own a press," then add, "Now everyone owns a press." That is becoming more and more true, as blogs lowered the skill requirement to publish to the internet, and now POD and ebooks take it offline into the world of kindle devices and print.

  3. I agree with your assessment on book quality. Crap is crap, be it indie or traditionally published.

    That is one thing I love about Amazon. With their star rating and review system, you can quickly see what people think of a title. Factor in the free preview on Kindle and there is little risk of throwing away money on a bad book regardless who published it.

    I think digging diamonds out of the slush won't be as difficult as some may think. The bulk of the responsibility falls on the indie author to market their work, which isn't easy, but that's how it should be.

  4. Thanks MT. And what people don't realize is that a lot of this is nothing new. Authors traditionally have had to promote their books even after signing with a major NY publisher. I think only the details are changing. Instead of a editor, books are being edited by "beta readers", writer's critique groups, friends and family, and hired proofers/editors. Instead of magazine reviews and B&N endcaps, books are found via blog reviews.

    It's exciting, if disconcerting, to watch the changes. The naysayers, like those in the link below, are just like any group of people who have resisted the changes that all disruptive technology bring.

    When you see the weather changing, you can either try to guess and dress appropriately, or keep on wearing those shorts in the snow. Those who change are more likely to succeed.

  5. I think we've all read books and thought, well if that was published . . . .

    The book industry seems to be the last one in which it is "cool" to be indie. Nice to see that day is arriving/has arrived.

  6. Hmm, I don't think the coin operated laundry industry has gone indie yet. ;) I suspect we haven't seen the end of transformations to indie. I think this is just the latest. Never doubt the wonders of technology. For example, I suspect the energy industry will one day "go indie", when production of energy moves from massive reactors and dams to in-home solar, wind, or as-yet-uninvented forms of power production.

  7. "Those who change are more likely to succeed."


    Personally, I don't have the time/energy/desire to deal with people who are resistant to the changes/new opportunities.