On Vanity, Buddies, and Getting it Between Covers

(image from vanitypressing.com)

This is a shared post by one of our View From the Keyboard contributors, Geoff Hyatt. As corporate publishers and even hard-working, fighting-the-good-fight independent publishers are less able to sink resources in a title that may not turn a profit, the idea of self-publishing can become more appealing to a greater number of writers than ever before.

The Self-Publishing vs. Indie Press: One Skirmish on the Front ~ by Geoff Hyatt: I recently read a passionate argument against the tide of self-publishing, posted by an editor at a small press horror blog. It incited a commenter to attack some of what he perceived as shortcomings in small presses. Both held viewpoints bandied about quite a bit these days; seeing them voiced in the same place really brought the dispute into focus for me. While the entry refers to horror writing, it certainly can be applied to other literary genres. It’s something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit in the past couple of weeks.

The original poster suggests we are entering “a dangerous phase where writers will outnumber even readers in this genre.” A proliferation of sub-standard self-published horror will make readers unwilling to purchase emerging authors in general, and further marginalize an already stigmatized form. Today’s 99-cent downloadable novels are “tomorrow’s freebies,” destroying any chance of fiction’s profitability. These downloads are making hobbyists writing’s only practitioners.

Small presses, he argues, sift through a torrential river of manuscripts in order to locate a few nuggets of gold for the reading public. Those of us wading into self-published waters are likely buying these gatekeepers’ rejects. If the indie presses fold, no one will be there to select, edit, and market books aimed at a small or niche audience. The average reader will be up a certain creek without a paddle, and so will be every other author not reaching a mass audience through a major publisher. In short, the good shall be left to drown in a sea of the mediocre and worse.

The retorts this post can incite are many, but the most commonly stated is what one commenter decries as the “buddy system” he sees present in independent presses. The commenter declares that small presses “mainly publish works from their employees and/or friends, or a friend of a friend. Sure, some of the stories are indeed readable. But there is also a lot of garbage published because of this system.” It’s a harsh assessment, but not an uncommon one. Attacking the “buddy system”  (also known as “Best Friends Press”) is the counterpoint to the idea of indie presses as curators of the artistically viable. To those on the outside who do a little Googling, the connections between editors and authors of some publications can create the impression of a vast mutual appreciation society based on collective advancement. All of this can be very intimidating for new authors on the scene.

Both sides of this argument seem a bit dramatic. Self-published books are clearly exactly that to a discerning reader. Does this mean they’re all rejects unworthy of our time? Of course not—but how will the reader know which book to buy without a press to signify that it’s “good?” Entire sites are devoted to reviewing self-published books, and more will doubtlessly appear. There are communities out there, and doubtlessly more on the way. People interested in self-published works will find critics they trust.

I think readers have different levels of expectation for self-published and indie-published work. Small presses usually offer better editing and more professional production than self-published e-books, and their higher price reflects this. The proliferation of self-published downloadable books actually raises the bar for everyone. Small presses now must put forth more effort in order to validate their role as curators. This means improvements in design, editing, marketing, and content. Self-publishers must now work twice as hard to stand out in the crowd of their direct-to-Kindle contemporaries.

As for the “buddy system,” it’s not the many-headed hydra it seems to be, at least not more so than the rest of the world. First of all, I hear of people being published by people they’ve never spoken to before all the time. It does happen. But yes, of course, people also publish and promote their friends’ books. However, they usually do also genuinely believe in these books. Artists often befriend one another because they respect and enjoy one another’s work. Besides, almost anyone publishing today has put in a hell of a lot of hours to get where they are, and most of it was spent writing.

So, I was wondering. Ever play a gig with your band, and when you look out in the crowd you realize more than half of the audience is made of the other bands you played with tonight and all their girlfriends and friends? And everyone else on the bill is signed to the label run by guys who used to be in a band with guys in the headlining band? Maybe not, but this is how it goes most of the time. And yes, it can be frustrating, especially if you’re just getting started. But there are a lot of opportunities out there. The fact that you’re shy, anti-social, lazy, or just plain not interested, isn’t the fault of people who don’t feel the same way. Besides, you can always just start your own thing, right?

There are no winners and losers here. Whether you self-publish, or go the indie route, or get a hotshot agent and sell the movie rights to Michael Cera, whether you teach at city college or Columbia University, there is no finish line. If you write, it’s increasingly unlikely anyone in this world really cares that much, anyway. You would be hard-pressed to find someone on the sidewalk that can name ten authors who released a book in the past year. Self-published horror or the network of indie presses have little to do with that. Let’s not make this harder on ourselves than it has to be. Remember, this is supposed to be fun. Isn’t it? Go write something. Or don’t. Do whatever feels best.

Thanks, Geoff, for letting me put this up. Readers, writers: your thoughts? Oh, and by the way, keep your eyes open for Geoff’s fine novel, Birch Hills, slated for release later this year.