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Why Do Indie Authors Get Little Respect?

I’ve been working on a piece for Novel Journey (I post this Monday), and am spring-boarding off the recent announcement that Thomas Nelson, the biggest name in Christian publishing, will be cutting its workforce by 10% and its new author titles in half. Michael Hyatt, CEO of TN, cites both the ever-changing industry and the need for better, not more, books. While I tend to find myself agreeing with the decision, it’s raised some interesting questions.

Among them is the issue of self-publishing and independent presses. With the big boys seeking, primarily, brand name authors with shelf cred and/or the cream of the “breakout novel” crop, it makes sense that novice and middlin’ authors should look more toward flipping their own bill. Heck, blazing the indie trail has worked for numerous musicians and filmmakers; in fact, some of the biggest names in the music/film business started with no-name artists, working on a shoestring budget. Problem: Unlike film and music, indie authors get little respect. But why is that?

Bookninja recently broached the subject in a post entitled, On Independence in the Lit World, which links to a fascinating article in The Guardian about indie authors. From Why Writers Can’t Go It Alone:

Doing it yourself is to be much admired in music and cinema. That mainstay of Hollywood, Robert Redford, was so enamoured by the growing movement of indie cinema in the United States that he set up the Sundance Festival to give the film-makers an outlet and an audience.

Without indie music, there would be no Smiths, no Happy Mondays, no Kylie, even (she was on Stock, Aitken and Waterman’s own indie label, PWL). Without indie cinema, there would be no Reservoir Dogs, no Ghost World, no Night of the Living Dead. Without indie publishing there would be no … who? Who are the big indie writers, those who refuse to compromise by not allowing The Man to dictate what and how they should write, and earn massive respect because of it?

The literary world only bestows acceptance, it seems, on those who are published through the traditional avenues. Independent and small presses get short shrift – national newspaper supplements seem loath to review indie books, the big high street sellers won’t stock them, unless the books are about the tough lives of mill girls or histories of public house names, which can be shoved on a shelf marked “local interest”.

Is that true? Does the literary world only bestow acceptance on those who are published through the traditional avenues? And why is it that independent filmmakers and musicians receive far more interest in their respective industries than do authors?

The Guardian author, David Barnett, speculates that the lack of respect toward indie authors is due to the fact that “books are a much higher art than pop or film” — an interesting premise that I won’t explore here. Nevertheless, I’d add a couple more possibilities to that list.

  1. Writing is far more accessible to the average person than is music or filmmaking. I mean, everybody’s got a PC and some wild story. I may not have a guitar, an amp, a sound studio, an 8mm camera, special effects, and a stunt double, but by golly I can plop down at the kitchen table, tell a tall tale, and dream of being featured on Oprah. In other words, more amateur authors means, percentage-wise, less good books.
  2. Independent publishing is far less costly than are music and film. Which reinforces the previous point — more novices can pocket the expenses of publishing their memoirs than can a film school student cough up enough jack for his first film, which means potentially more mediocre product.

Either way, it’s pretty obvious that self-published authors receive far less respect than other indie artists. But with us trending toward less books — at least, less books by new authors — perhaps we are poised to see an expansion of indie presses and, just maybe, a little more respect for authors who go that route.

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{ 9 comments… add one }
  • Nicole June 27, 2008, 5:31 PM

    As you know, Mike, this can be a somewhat sore subject for me, self-publisher of two novels. However, for the very reasons you mentioned, I understand the lack of respect. Theoretically, anyone and everyone can self-publish. The really strong custom-publishers have begun to implement features that make this less likely such as their editing criteria, their reasons for refusal, etc. And they strive to put out a product in the physical/technical sense which is second to none. Since the opinions derived from ANY editors is subjective, it is a matter of opinion with these custom groups what they/their editors decide is worthy of print (and this applies to fiction and non-fiction).
    As you also know, The Shack is selling off the shelves with readers eithr loving it or hating it.

  • Nicole June 27, 2008, 5:41 PM

    (I’m sorry to ramble on, but I wanted to finish when the darkness captured my words–thus the reason either is missing an “e”.) The author(s) of The Shack put their own publishing “house” together to self-publish the book. It has a reputation of being “poorly” written, but it’s made a bundle of money.
    I disagree with Barnett’s statement. There can be excellence in any medium, and the opposite is also true.
    The most difficult part of being an “indie” writer is marketing a product which people feel is innately inferior because it doesn’t come from a royalty publisher. Yet, in recent years strictly from a technical standpoint, there are typos, extra words, and other mistakes frequently in these books. Plus, there have even been cases of nearly identical covers on novels from different publishers. Not exactly the “excellence” these publishers demand from writers.
    Alright, I’m done for now. Sorry to take up so much space., but it’s a good topic. Most people don’t know the advancements made in custom publishing in recent years.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller June 27, 2008, 7:13 PM

    I just recently read a novel from an indie publisher–a small, established house, not one manufactured to mask self-publishing. Unfortunately the writing didn’t hold up.

    That, in my view, is the problem with most books from indie or self-pubbed sources. One editor commented on Rachelle Gardner’s site, when this topic came up, that a good many self-pubbed authors will ignore the edits given them and insist on publishing as they wrote it.

    I understand, because that used to be my view about my own writing, to my shame.

    In my opinion, the work it requires to write fiction well is one of the best kept secrets. Most readers don’t see or know the techniques they benefit from. And if those techniques are absent, readers will most likely know the book isn’t as good but won’t know why.

    I’ve read over and over that the persistent writers are the ones that get published. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know, the persistent ones get better. The longer a person writers, the more his skills are honed.

    I see few self-pubbed writers like Nicole who takes the time to learn and do it right. Most are in a hurry and think their work is already great without an editor. There’s a name for that kind of writer—amateur—and their books are the proof.

    Sadly, many don’t even know the difference. They rail against the book business as if the system is why their books didn’t take off like the Shack did or like Christopher Paolini’s fantasies.

    Poorly written books do make it big. We can all point to examples. And well-written books languish on the shelves. We can all point to examples. Some will never make it to print. For the Christian, it’s not that hard, I don’t think, to realize these things don’t happen by accident. We have a soverign God in control, and He oversees Joseph as he was sold into slavery by his brothers just as much as He oversees Joseph rising to the position of second in command in all of Egypt. It’s God’s call, and we’ll never be able to figure out what His system is so we can game it. 😉


  • Xdpaul June 27, 2008, 8:06 PM

    Writing is the least revered of the arts.

    In Hollywood, the low creative man on the totem pole is the script writer. On broadway, its the playwright. In consumer media, it is the book.

    It is lonely work. It is not collaborative. It is unheralded.

    I like it that.

    Toil until you get it right. That’s the important thing.

  • Mike Duran June 28, 2008, 1:37 AM

    Becky, I totally agree with your perseverance and pliability reminder. But if, as you suggest, poor quality is why self-published authors do not get respect, then why doesn’t that apply to indie music or film? Somehow, we take for granted that indie musicians will be more raw and less produced… and it doesn’t bug us. And we expect an indie film to have rough edges, inferior acting, sets and special effects, and cinematically look less polished. Nevertheless, independent films/filmmakers are experiencing a renaissance of sorts. So why are authors held to another standard? Or is there something about the craft of writing — as opposed to music and film — that I’m missing? Blessings!

  • Mike Duran June 28, 2008, 1:53 AM

    Xdpaul, I’m not sure I concur that “Writing is the least revered of the arts.” While Hollywood films are marketed on celebrity name brands and CGI smoke-and-mirrors, the story is the first thing any exec contemplates. “What’s it about?” is the first question asked. The audience may miss the script for the boobs, bombs and blood, but the heart of any successful film is defined characters and a cohesive, well-paced story. The screenwriter may be “the low creative man on the totem pole,” but he/she anchors it. No amount of special effects can save a poorly told tale.

  • Nicole June 28, 2008, 2:24 AM

    Maybe some people apply the understanding or leniency to indie music and film that you described–and you’re right: it’s absolutely there. But not all do. And perhaps there are actually more who are willing to accept indie musicians and filmmakers as being more hip or avant garde than they are wiliing to endorse those writers who dare to publish their own work with the assumption that because they have chosen this path, they are inferior and unpublishable any other way but arrogant enough to think they’re worthy of publication. That seems to be the majority of opinion about those of us who choose to self-publish.

  • Xdpaul June 30, 2008, 3:23 PM

    I’m sure actors and directors are just clamoring to trade salaries with a scriptwriter.

    I, too, believe that a good script anchors a good film. I also believe that most producers find writers to be expendable. They certainly treat them as such.

    And they are. But that’s also what makes writers the marines (all apologies to real marines) of the creative world. We’ll go into new territory first, we’ll play in the mindfields, and we’ll go it alone, if we have to. And if things don’t go well, we can be easily replaced by the next hungry talent in line.

    So yeah, writers are like Rambo. A nebbish, pasty Rambo with a keyboard, maybe.

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