David Vinjamuri wrote an excellent article for Forbes Magazine that encapsulates the situation in publishing today, examining the view of this rapidly changing industry from both sides. To listen to the cyber natter and chatter battering about on the subject of indie publishing, it's hard to determine if the generalized “traditional pub” view of indie authors is truly as widespread as it appears, or if it's merely being loudly shouted by those with the most social reach (and perhaps the largest chips on their shoulders).
It's a disappointing but undeniable characteristic of our society that those who have been oppressed/suppressed on the way to earning their fortunes resent most critically those who haven't. “Paying your dues” in artistic trades is basically a rite of passage. Yet as Vinjamuri points out, the music and art worlds have both embraced indie artists. Traditional publishing should jump on the bandwagon while it's still moving slowly enough to catch a ride.
Here's what David Vinjamuri said in his Forbes article:
I love books. Physical books. Books that sit in my lap and warm it like a sleeping pup. Three and a half years ago, I had an e-reader unwillingly thrust upon me. I ignored it at first; shunned it. Then one day I was packing for a long trip and it came on me in a flash that if I used the damned thing I wouldn’t have to limit myself to five pounds of books in my luggage.
Since then I read more ebooks than physical books. I buy a lot more books, too. Last year I noticed that books were getting cheaper, but the writing was getting worse. It started to get harder and harder to shop the Kindle store because I was either upset by the price of a book or the quality of its writing. Accidentally, I had stumbled upon the new face of self-publishing.
My experience reflects a profound and wrenching transformation of publishing that is shaking the industry to its roots. The beneficiaries of the existing order – major publishers and their most successful authors have become the most visible opponents of the turmoil that these “Indie” authors have introduced.
Which is too bad, because careful examination suggests that this period of chaos will eventually yield significant rewards for both authors and consumers. It even points a way forward for traditional publishers who have faced years of declining profits.
Is Indie Publishing Good or Bad for Authors?
I interviewed mega-bestselling techno-thriller author Brad Thor (whose new book Black List has already given me paranoid nightmares). Thor is unequivocal in his support for the existing system:
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.
Thor is being polite. When successful mainstream authors let their guard down, stronger words flow. Just listen to the 32-time bestselling author Sue Grafton (as interviewed by Leslea Tash for LouisvilleKY.com):
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
Why do mainstream authors dislike Indie publishing to the point where some even disagree with the coined term “Indie”? It comes down to worldview. Bestselling authors who are talented and hard working – like Thor and Grafton – are inclined to believe that publishing is a meritocracy where the best work by the most diligent writers gets represented, acquired, published and sold. But this is demonstrably untrue. The most famous counter example is that of John Kennedy Toole.
Many people know that Toole had his great American novel, “A Confederacy of Dunces” rejected by publishers and that he committed suicide at 31. They may not realize that Robert Gottleib at Simon & Schuster recognized Toole’s talent but believed Confederacy to be structurally flawed. Gottlieb did not think there was an audience for The Confederacy of Dunces without major revisions – revisions that would have changed the character of the novel. Toole refused to comply and eventually committed suicide.
Rejecting Toole’s work was a marketing decision that Gottleib made for Simon & Schuster. And it wasn’t necessarily the wrong decision from a marketing standpoint. Remember, Gottleib wasthe guy who acquired Catch-22 from Joseph Heller based on a partial manuscript. In the publishing world as it stood then and stands now, Toole’s work might have never found its audience. Without the advocacy of novelist Walker Percy – which helped generate the literary attention that allowed the book to win a Pulitzer Prize – the novel might well have failed.