indie vs mainstream: the Brave New World of publishing

For a while the idea of self/Indie-publishing in my mind was merged with that of samizdat, and honestly, growing up in 80s/90s Russia I used to think why else would someone consider an ‘underground’ publishing as an option if not to circumvent a regime’s censorship? Back then, my impulse response to ‘self-pub’ in the association game would be Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Now it is Amanda Hocking...

The world has changed a lot since I was twelve. Or maybe it is I who has changed.

The Caxton Celebration - William Caxton showing specimens of his printing to Kind Edward IV and his Queen. Source: 

If you’ve ever been to a bookshop in Australia, it is a known fact that books in Australia are expensive. Also, property in Australia is expensive. And because of these two reasons, I’ve been trying to avoid buying paper books (sometimes I slip...). I have no space for books (our bookshelves are overflowing as it is) and one of my new year 'themes' (note: not resolutions as those are useless) was to be more frugal. So, to keep true to my ‘theme’ I invested into an ereader about a year ago. As it turns out, that was money well spent. Just think of all those public domain books. What a bliss. Plus, all (with small exceptions) mainstream-published books eventually end up coming out as ebooks, and those are drastically cheaper than paper-based ones. And this brings me to the final ‘pro’ of going digital – now that virtually everyone everywhere can publish a book via one of the self-pubbing channels (Kindle, Smashwords, Lulu, etc), ereader is a perfect medium to access and read those books.

But as I keep learning, (digital) self-publishing is not all that great. Yes, it is an amazing outlet to publish books that are good (great) but for one reason or another get rejected by the mainstream pub houses, but also it is a graphomaniac’s dream (or curse - you choose one).

Self-pubbed digital books are not only cheap; sometimes they are free; plus digital and on-demand self-pubbing gives writers certain freedoms that the mainstream publishing can never give (e.g. setting up your own price, getting 70% or more of royalties in some cases, creative joys of designing your own book covers, managing your publicity, etc.) But these strengths can also turn into weaknesses. This brings me to the main reason I’m writing this post (for a while I thought there was nothing I could add to the already over-saturated discussion on this now old dilemma of Indie vs mainstream): the shocking amount of bad self-published books. Without naming names, let’s just say not all Indie authors are at the level of Amanda Hocking or High Howey…     

This is the third time I mention Amanda Hocking in this blog post. It’s because I really think she’s fascinating. If you read YA books, you know about Amanda. The short story of Amanda Hocking is that she wrote a lot of YA books but none of those books were picked up by agents or mainstream publishers. So she published them herself. Now she has a contract with St. Martin's Press, an agent and her books are selling like hot pies. Amanda is an embodiment of what I imagine Indie literature is (or should be) nowadays – her writing is honest, it is raw but polished, her characters are realistic and lovable (or hateable – pick one! The thing is one way or another they do cause some kind of emotional response from a reader). Amanda used to be my go-to author for any YA cravings ('used to be' because I’m at the stage of over-saturation, though I’m sure I’ll be back for more soon). But Amanda is at the ‘wow’ side of the self-publishing specter.

It could go other way easily.

I currently have about twenty books I got off Kindle because they were on promotions and cheap (or free) and seemed enticing at first glance – they had curious titles and truly amazing covers. The truth is, in none of those books I managed to progress beyond the first few pages. Maybe, those books had good-enough (even great) concepts, but I’ll never know… Because I usually stop reading if every paragraph causes me a major cringe. The bottom-line here is those books could use an editor. At the very least.  

Editing aside, horrible books are not exclusive to the Indie-pub domain. Being lucky in landing an agent, an editor and getting your book published by a proper publishing house unfortunately is no panacea from the book being bad. In the words of RenĂ©e Miller “there are traditionally published authors whose work seems like arushed vomiting of sentences and little more.”

Yeah, I’ve read a few of those in the past two years. And my general rule is if I paid for a book, I have to finish it. I really don’t know why I torture myself like this - it’s some kind of book-fanatic principle. I’m reading one of those ‘obligatory-reads’ now…

If my two years of reading and writing YA taught anything is two things: never trust a hype; and be more picky about the books I choose to read. My time and brain cells are too valuable to waste on dull recycled stories that want to be something but can’t no matter how hard the author makes their characters angst all over pages, and do all the other stuff they think is required in YA.

Personally, despite my musings above, I love how the publishing industry is shaping up. There are more opportunities for writers and readers than ever and it’s only going to get better from here, I believe. Agents, editors, publishers also change in order to keep up with progress. That means more great books will get published, and more new and unique voices will be discovered.

There were always great books rejected by mainstream publishers (think of J.K. Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, one of my favourite books ever. The rejection led to a very sad turn of events for the author, but I can’t help thinking how it would it turn out for him now when mainstream publishing is not the only option).

The channels of publication aside, talent is still at the core of it all. There will always be great books rejected for some obscure and subjective reasons, but if an author is determined enough and has what it takes to write (and market) a good book – all they need to is access to internet and a Pay Pal account. 

Keep on reading!


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