In case you hadn’t heard, 2012 is reportedly ‘The Year of the Indie Author’, not to mention the year of the death of the book and also, according to Hollywood and the Mayans, the year the world will end altogether. It’s going to be a busy year. The literary vs. commercial fiction divide seems to have shifted. The literati have relented slightly, and permitted those in the ranks of the lowly-brow to shelter beneath their lofty ones from this new threat - the wild, untamed indie-brow.
Ewan Morrison, the man who hailed the end of printed books (whose cup of coffee is perpetually half-empty) has predicted the inevitable bursting of the self-published ebook bubble, a natural consequence of the hype surrounding it. Admittedly there is a huge difference between the perception of self-publishing as an easy, get-rich-quick formula and the reality—that it is a lot of hard work and that the financial returns are not guaranteed. Kindle millions club icons like Amanda Hocking and John Locke are not realistic indicators of the earning-potential of self-published authors, any more than JK Rowling is for published authors. But we can all dream.
To self-publish: firstly you have to actually write a book, a whole book. Let’s give authors their due—writing a book is hard work, even if it’s a bad book. Secondly, you have to edit and proofread it. At this point you can rely on your own grammatical ability, or ask your Mum and best friend to take a look, or you could pay for the services of a professional editorial consultant. You will need a cover design for your book too, so you could take a stab at it or rope in a friend with artistic flair or, once again, you could pay for the services of a professional. This is probably a better alternative as the cover will go a long way towards selling your books. If you want to produce printed copies of your book there is a whole financial outlay to go along with that. Alternatively, you could choose to e-publish through a website like Smashwords or Lulu who will convert your Word file into all of the different eReader formats for free and then distribute it for a small percentage of your sales. Once you have achieved all of this you have to start marketing and promoting your book. You need to utilise all avenues of social media—have a Facebook page, a Twitter following, a blog. You need to try and get people to review your book on their websites and blogs which may require that you have to read and review a lot of other people’s books in return. It’s a lot to fit in if you have a day-job.
Then again, if you are looking for a traditional publisher these days there is also a lot of work involved: finishing the actual book, sending it to an editorial consultancy, finding an agent and then hoping and praying that they will be able to sell it to a publisher. The traditional market is also oversaturated. Unless you are a reality TV celebrity you will probably not get a huge advance. There are no easy solutions.
Self-publishing has been inevitably tied to the phrase ‘vanity-publishing’ and perceived as a slightly disreputable way to publish. This perception is changing but self-publishing is not a new phenomenon and there are many authors who were discovered by publishers when they published their own work. Leo Tolstoy, for example, paid 4500 rubles for the first printing of War and Peace. Self-publishing is also obviously a good solution for established authors: JK Rowling, Stephen King and Deepak Chopra have all self-published ebooks. Suddenly it doesn’t seem quite so dodgy.
The major criticism levelled at self-published books is that they are badly edited. One need only take a look at Jane Smith’s slightly scathing Self-Publishing Review blog to get an idea that this might be true. I must confess that I have not bought many Indie ebooks, in fact I have only bought one. I sometimes download them when their authors are offering them for free on Twitter. The one self-published ebook that I did buy was called Diary of a Mummy Misfit by Amanda Egan and could be summarised as ‘Bridget Jones but with kid and living in South-West London’. The editing was fine—there were no spelling or grammar issues that I noticed and I enjoyed the book. The only criticism I could level at it was that the ending was too happy, too prettily tied-up in a bow. But perhaps I’ve just not read enough Marian Keyes lately.
Another accusation levelled against indie authors is that there are no ‘gatekeepers’. Publishers have suddenly been elevated to status of cultural guardians. How did this happen? Surely publishers are looking out for the bottom line, for what is going to sell? Give the reading public some credit and let the publishers down from the pedestals we’ve put them on. There are a lot of bad books that have been published and have sold well, and equally there are a lot of good books and good authors out there that have been overlooked. We have only to look at the list of rejection letters received by most great authors to realise this. Self-publishing opens the gates, is that really a bad thing? Writers will succeed on the basis of a combination of merit and word-of-mouth as they always have done.
If you’d like to meet some Indie authors, Twitter is a good place to find them. It seems to be a supportive community—they review each other, promote each other’s work and comment on each other’s blogs. There’s definitely a sense of solidarity—particularly amongst those writing YA fiction. There are some who incessantly tweet their own book titles and reviews but others are more subtle and will engage with you in a friendly way rather than just asking you to buy their book. They discuss the pros and cons of indie-publishing quite openly. One author, Lilith Saintcrow (what a great name), rants on her blog about people who presume that self-publishing is a more lucrative option: ‘I LIKE SELF-PUBLISHING. It’s a good choice for some writers. It is a great choice for other writers. The problem is, it’s a kumquat and trad publishing is a tomato. They are both fruits, yes. But they are not the same thing, and they don’t behave the same way when you cook them.’ Some of these authors have chosen indie publishing and some have resorted to it when all other doors were closed.
It seems ironic that indie queen, Amanda Hocking, has now signed a traditional publishing deal with St. Martin’s Press in the US and Pan Macmillan in the UK, but she doesn’t think so. ‘A lot of people are saying publishing is dead,’ she says. ‘I never did, and I don't think it is. And they want to use me to show it isn't.’ Publishing is not dead. It may have to change and adapt but it’s not dead. And Indie authors are not the illiterate, money-grubbing, queue-jumpers they are purported to be. Can’t we all just get along?
We’re not finished with the self-publishing conversation yet. During Birkbeck Arts Week in May the Writers’ Hub will present a panel discussion entitled: Self-Publishing – Vanity Fair or Brave New World. More details to follow shortly.