I’ve been commenting on a few posts on Facebook and on Reddit about what I see as the forced rivalry between indie and traditional authors (those who self-published versus those who are published through a commercial press). This is a rivalry that isn’t helped by prevailing attitudes in both groups. Though attitudes in the traditional community are slowly changing, the idea that self-publishing amounts to a monetization of the slush pile—with all the negative connotations that implies—remains a reality. I am, myself, a recovering elitist snob. In the not-too-distant past, I often looked down my nose at self-published efforts; “vanity publishing”, we used to call it, only fit for those who lacked the skill or the drive to brave the unforgiving world of commercial publishing. I even blushed, in my early days, when I had to explain that my first publisher was a small press, as if the size and reach of the house you were affiliated with were the final arbiters of a writer’s success.
Vitriol, however, is a two-way street. Indies are quick to toss out Twilight or Fifty Shades of Gray as proof that the system is rotten, bereft of an artistic soul. Partisans make claims that run the gamut, from “traditional publishing puts out badly edited and poorly proofed books” to “a lot of the stories are flavorless”—as though only those who tread the indie path are capable of writing and publishing a unique tale. The rest of us, we poor trad authors, dance to the tune of our soulless paymasters, writing bland stories couched in bland prose which are slapped between bland covers and trucked out to bland stores reeking of burnt coffee and pumpkin spice, where they—and we—are quickly forgotten.
The truth is, neither side is correct in its thinking.
A writer is one who writes. There is no other qualifier than that. Publishing, both indie and trad, exists as a vehicle to get the writer’s product out and into the hands of readers. Here is the difference: an indie author assembles a team or fills the various roles herself: writer, editor, designer, artist, marketeer; a trad author is asked to join an existing team, where the aforementioned roles are filled by others. The end result is the same: produce a book that will gain the readers’ attention, get read, earn money. In every other respect, the effort of the indie author and the trad author is indistinguishable. If I, as a trad author, want to build my readership then I must do precisely the same things as my indie brothers and sisters do to get noticed. I handle my own promo, set up my own interviews, hang out in places where readers congregate online, offer free copies, run contests, blog to infinity and beyond.
So why not just go indie and keep all your earnings for yourself while maintaining total control over your work, especially if the effort required is identical? A fair question, and one that is put to me quite often. The answer is woven in with who I am. I started writing pre-Internet Age, before the indie revolution, when the only legitimate form of publication was via a large or small press. I grew up reading anecdotes from writers who struggled in the face of an endless storm of rejection just to get their work noticed. One learned to write through practice and imitation, dipped your toe in the short fiction markets to refine your voice, then with a few bylines under your belt, you set your keel for the great shoal of light that was the New York publishing industry. THAT was the life I wanted! And I made that my goal.
I like the cachet that comes with being published by one of the Big 5; I like having a literary agent who is as much a mentor as he is my advocate at the Flatiron Building. I am no entrepreneur, so I willingly cede total control in order to have access to editors and copy editors, artists, a marketing team, physical shelf space in bookstores, an avenue to easily receive industry reviews, etc.—all the unseen benefits of having weathered slush piles and torrential rejections. The path you take to seeing your own work in print depends largely on acknowledging your limits: how patient are you? How much rejection can you take? How much control over the process of taking a book from manuscript to finished product do you need? How comfortable are you being in business for yourself? Answer these honestly and you will start to see the head of your trail.
One last thing: in no sphere of human endeavor is there such a thing as a level playing field. You will be ignored, pushed away, told no even as your neighbor—a world-class hack who writes anything from dinosaur porn to inane techno-thrillers—is lauded for her genius and showered with the filthiest sort of Hollywood lucre. Life, and publishing, is ultimately not fair. Just because you wrote it doesn’t mean it deserves to be published. To quote one of my literary heroes, Steven Pressfield: “Nobody wants to read your shit.” What you have to figure out is how to make somebody WANT to read your work, be it an agent, an editor, or a dedicated reader.
In that, we are no different at all.