Wed 15 Aug 2012
There’s an amazing piece up at Forbes about publishing and the indie revolution. It’s written by David Vinjamuri – a NYU professor/social media & marketing guru/traditionally published/soon to be indie – author. I even love the title: “Publishing Is Broken, We’re Drowning In Indie Books – And That’s A Good Thing.” It assesses whether indie publishing is a good thing or a bad thing and evaluates publishing in the wake of the indie revolution – where we are, how we got here, and where we’re headed. It’s a thorough piece and well worth reading and considering.
I was struck most strongly by the section that gave the “low down” on whether indie publishing is good or bad for authors. And I do mean “low down” because the piece quotes authors who should be supporting – even cheering – for the success of other writers. They’re not cheering – no, not at all. Some of the most successful authors in the business are demeaning and deriding their colleagues’ work. What’s that about?
Vinjamuri quotes Brad Thor, a bestselling techno-thriller author, as saying:
The important role that publishers fill is to separate the wheat from the chaff. If you’re a good writer and have a great book you should be able to get a publishing contract.
But in calling indies chaff, Thor was being kinder than some of the other bestselling authors. Sue Grafton, whose work has hit the NYT list numerous times, said the following about indie authors:
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. I compare self-publishing to a student managing to conquer Five Easy Pieces on the piano and then wondering if s/he’s ready to be booked into Carnegie Hall
Ms. Grafton’s comments seem inspired by an over-inflated ego and delusions of literary grandeur. Does she think that one is worthy of respect only if they took one path to publication instead of another? Who or what is indie publication disrespecting? Ms. Grafton speaks of “the arts” and if writing a book is one of the arts, then the ONLY judge of a book’s worth is the reader. Unless they write nonfiction, writers are in the business of telling stories – plain and simple. Some of the best storytellers I ever met were wizened old country gentlemen who’d gather around a kerosene heater in a tiny local general store. They never published anything, but I’d put their “art” of storytelling against any bestselling author in the business.
Vinjamuri believes that the prejudice of traditionally published authors against indie authors results from the former’s adherence to a blind – and largely misplaced – faith in the system. Traditional authors tend to believe that good writers will be published and bad writers will not. In disputing that point, Vinjamuri points to John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces” which was rejected by every publisher except Robert Gottleib of Simon & Schuster (who also discovered Joseph Heller’s ‘Catch 22′). However Gottleib would not take the book without major revisions that would have changed its fundamental nature. Toole refused to make the changes and ended up committing suicide at 31.
Vinjamuri asked some indie authors to respond to the egocentric disdain of the trad published for indies. He spoke with Hugh Howey whose sci-fi novella “Wool” has sold over 200,000 copies in the US and was recently optioned for a movie by Ridley Scott. Howey compared the current traditional publishing system to a lottery and said;
When people think of traditionally published successes, they think of The Hunger Games and Harry Potter. This is what they compare to the self-publishing route. But those are lottery winners, the extreme outliers. In order to level the playing field and have a true comparison, you need to look at everything that gets submitted to the traditional machine – that means all the work that never makes it out of the slush pile – and compare that to all the self-published e-books on Amazon and elsewhere. Counting the top 1% from the traditional route and everything from the self-published route creates a weighted argument and is disingenuous. And calling cases like mine the exception and forgetting that this is also true of every book in the center aisle of the bookstore is also facile.
Howey’s response to Grafton’s venom is similarly astute. He says:
Tell me this: why is self-publishing antithetical to “honing one’s craft?” Who ever received writing advice in a rejection letter as sound as the worst 1-star review out there? There’s far more to learn from engaging the market with your product than there is in form letters that tell you not-a-single-frickin’-thing. What’s wrong with testing the waters? Instead of wasting one’s time writing query letters, why not work on that next manuscript instead?
I’ve blogged before – on a number of occasions – about authors who criticize and demean other authors instead of cheering and supporting them. I don’t get it – I really don’t get it. A writer’s life is solitary enough. Wouldn’t you think that we would at least see the benefit in helping each other instead of playing “outsnark the snark?” Vinjamuri agrees with this as well and says:
There is something very odd about this war of words between successful authors on different sides of a tectonic shift in the publishing world: it doesn’t exist in many similar industries facing the same sort of technological upheaval. You don’t hear Christina Aguilera or Adam Levine knocking indie bands. Instead they joined a show called “The Voice” which aims to capitalize on the credibility of indie artists by finding journeyman artists and giving them a shot at major label contracts. Indie filmmakers are revered, not reviled, partly because they eschew the studio system and its constraints on artistic expression. And the art world seems keenly attuned to the idea that the next Georgia O’Keeffe might be producing revolutionary work somewhere out of their sight until she turns 30.
The entire Forbes piece is astute and well worth reading for its historical perspective and predictions as to the paths to future success. I don’t disagree with any of it, but would like to focus on how we treat each other as we head towards that bright, promising future. No matter how we arrive at that future and regardless of whether we are traditionally published or indie, readers will judge the work with the same yardstick: DO I LIKE IT?
The readers do not care whether a work was edited to within an inch of its life and marketed harder than a presidential candidate in October of an election year or whether it was put out on a wing and a prayer by an indie. They care only about that yardstick and it’s as varied and vast as the world and all the different people and countries it contains. Some readers will only read books about “thing x” and others wouldn’t buy a “thing x” book on a bet. Tastes and preferences vary too widely to allow writers to compete with each other even if we wanted to.
And why would we want to?
The way to ensure that the publishing business thrives is by supporting other publishers – whether they’re big ole’ companies or a strange duck lady from Myrtle Beach. Everyone involved – the writers, the graphic artists, the agents, the booksellers and the readers – will all do better and fare better if we treat each other better.
And my response to Ms. Grafton is that the party in the exchange most deserving of respect IS NOT the writer, bookseller, agent or editor — it’s the reader. Bickering between authors, traditional or indie, does nothing to advance the industry or enhance the reader’s experience. However, supporting each other and advocating for each other serves both purposes. We are all in transition and we can all advance into a prosperous and secure future if we remember that ripping up and tearing down never got anything built.
Thanks to Mr. Vinjamuri for his fine article — y’all read it and be sure to leave a comment. Tell him that the crazy duck lady sent you!