So when did the indie success stories become our success stories?

Remember the excitement of 2009? It was land-grab time, frontier-building, territory-staking. It was the year of a thousand disturbingly colonial metaphors. The indies were coming. It was “our” time.

Fast forward to 2011 and already the stories are hitting the news. Indie authors are on the bestsellers lists, indies are crossing over from self-published ebooks to mainstream deals. The digital war has been fought, the armistice signed, and we won.

But hang on. “We” won? Who’s we?

It’s my contention that what we have here is a classic semantic slippage, and it’s one we should have seen coming (no one likes a smart alec but forgive me for mentioning that I was writing about it well over a year ago), so when I hear “indie” writers gang their jealous asses up on Amanda Hocking or complain that it made her rich and famous but what about them, I have as much sympathy as a badly-constructed simile about turkeys.

What has happened? The word indie has remained a constant; its usage hasn’t. It has gone from being a term that related in some way to content (if someone was an indie author you kind of had a very rough idea what they might be writing), via the fact that content was delivered in a particular way – direct and DIY – to referring now entirely to who owns that process of delivery. If it’s you then great, you’re an indie.

So what? Well, so for one we’re writers, we should get our use of words straight. And for two, and this is the real thing, when we say something’s a game changer – and “we” do, because it is – we should be clear what game has been changed, and who the beneficiaries are. In other words, what’s it done for us and, as we spout our e-revolution gospel, what’s it going to do for those we’re proselytising?

The game that ebooks have changed is the delivery game. The people who stand to gain from delivering a marketable product to the market are the same people who created the product. What that product is remains essentially unchanged. What we have, as I pointed out eighteen months ago, is a new way of delivering the same old same old, not a new product being delivered or, importantly, demanded.

It’s true there *is* a longer tail than there was (those old Chris Anderson debates have gone mighty cold, haven’t they?) for alternative fiction – you can sell some of it rather than none of it, but it isn’t an alternative fictioner’s paradise.

And that’s really what I want to address. Those of us from the early days who called ourselves indies, the writers of literary or urban fiction, experimenters, seekers after the non-traditional and non-linear. We were indies then, but when people talk about the success of indies now, it’s not us they mean. We are still on the outside. Our audience is tiny on Kindle, and it will remain so. So where DO we fit?

Well, rather conveniently I don’t have the answer to that. In part, and this is the point when people start jumping on bandwagons, because there isn’t one answer, because we are each different, and we write different things with different appeals. But what we must do is remember the streets aren’t always paved with gold, not every bandwagon blah blah well you get the idea.

By all means Kindle your book – in fact there are very few reasons not to (there ARE reasons, for some of us – I Kindle my books but I don’t put my paperbacks on Amazon, for example but that’s a whole other story, and I imagine others will have reasons to do neither – not being able to give your work away is one good reason for some). But think what you can expect to get out of it, remember that when you say you’re indie what you mean is something more than the indie aspect of process, and – and these are the biggies

  1. Don’t put in an effort disproportionate to what you could ever get out of it – if you do and you don’t get what you want, it’s not the fault of the system, it’s the fault of your wonky prioritizing.
  2. Don’t let what you’re doing keep you from carrying on looking for the best way to find your audience
  3. If you are indie for the art (what that means is more than one blog post in itself but you probably know if it means you) don’t get carried away by sales, especially if you (naturally) find yourself liking them – it’s a very interesting question whether your success is because your audience is getting edgier or you are getting more mainstream. I find it really helpful writing two completely different kinds of material – one for sales and one for live performance, which is where my alternative material finds its audience

So yes, we indie authors are seeing great indie success with ebooks. And that really IS great, but indie in that sentence means two different things, and we forget that at our peril.

Dan Holloway is a spoken word performer, touring his own show, The New Libertines, at festivals and fringes this summer under the banner of his literary project eight cuts gallery (http://eightcuts.com). He is also a writer of alternative fiction such as the novels Songs from the Other Side of the Wall (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Songs-Other-Side-Wall/dp/B003LN1UBG) and The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Man-Who-Painted-Agnieszkas-Shoes/dp/B004QGYH6M). He is also author of The Company of Fellows (http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Company-of-Fellows/dp/B004PLMHYC), a thriller set in Oxford University

  • I like to think that ‘usage is not meaning’ but it is, and that’s the story of language. Value has become price, successful indicates income, and ‘indie author’ is no longer what it recently was. In my many years working in small ‘independent’ bookstores, in the time before ebooks, an indie author was one who was published by small presses, so the term has already been retooled. An indie author was AltLit, like indie rock was ‘alternative’ a generation or so ago. Everything that becomes attached to money is swept into the mainstream by the industries whose job is exactly that – seek out and co-opt. So the terminology changes but the underlying facts do not – there will always be those whose work will not fit neatly into commercial cubbyholes, whose work will not be popular, but remain on the sidelines, in the shadows, where it belongs. If you are serious about being non-commercial, you can make it so. If you give your work away, freely and widely, the moneymen will never come near you. It is hard to resist the temptations and few will understand and frankly, most people need every penny they can scrape together. It really is a choice, though. Indie or bust.

  • I agree absolutely, Tom. I think what I’m trying to do is explain why it is that indie authors of the old stripe feel so frustrated – it’s because they see indie successes heraldsd that, to them,, aren’t indie at all, but are portrayed as such to the outside.

    As I say, I have a foot in both camps – as a spoken word performer and writer of utterly uncommercial transgressive/literary fiction, and as a self-publisher of thrillers, and that gives me a balance that keeps me sane

  • Dan, I’d love to see your “utterly uncommercial transgressive/literary fiction” inside one of your thrillers.

    Tom, I liked your line: “If you are serious about being non-commercial, you can make it so.” You’re the voice of reason in the independent publishing community.

    I have to admit, though, it’s sometimes difficult for me to distinguish what’s commercial, or will soon be, and what isn’t and will never be.

    I suspect that what almost all indie authors from the olden days have in common with almost all of us who have belatedly joined their movement is the need to keep one’s day job.

    • Ha ha! Well, the transgressive side certainly comes out in places in The Company of Fellows, in one plot thread in particular that led to a very interesting review for the book on Amazon UK from a reader who seemed to love it but found that too strong a scene for her to read on. I know your comment has a winky after it in spirit but if I may get transgressive-geeky for a moment, the thing about writing transgressive fiction is you are basically writing an extreme position in large part to expose its inconsistencies as well as to provoke a reaction in regard to people’s knee-jerk response (in other words everything is slathered with a layer of irony that the reader expects – so you can say things and readers will get what you’re doing that if you say in another context they’ll think you’re sick or a misogynist[interchange for any other …ist]). For example there’s a series of flash pieces in Razorblades called “The things we talked about while she was bleeding out” each of which is a fictionalised phone call to a real person, just after they’ve cut their wrists. In them, the narrator is utterly oblivious to anything other than themselves, and in some cases their artistic, in some their sexual, needs. Each piece starts with a light humour and only reveals the suicide element half way through, whcih works brilliantly live because you get the audience onside laughing away then suddenly hit them and they’re completely disoriented, haven’t a clue what they should be thinking (there’s a video of me reading at http://www.youtube.com/clarewatersandfriend#p/u/5/fxRxPbIXS34 whcih illustrates this), which is, as a writer, about the most rewarding feedback you can get – a laugh suddenly truncated to a gasp, to an awkward silence, to a nervous giggle when the jokes don’t stop coming. That’s a game you just can’t play within the scope of a regular novel where the expectation is for things to be linear, where having to unravel irony would compromise the pace, and the fact that the layers I want the readers to be dealing with have to do with clues and motivation.

      Oh, and yes – I think the need for the day job is pretty much universal amongst authors indie or otherwise – it’s also my primary argument for writing what makes you happy – if you force yourself to write something you’re not comfortable with to try and make a living, the worst that happens is you end up with a hobby that makes you as miserable as your day job, the best that happens is you replace one unsatisfying day job with another. So write what satisfies you, that way the worst case scenario is that you enjoy your evenings and lunch hours

  • Dan, I’ve enjoyed this conversation. Write whatever you like, and “the worst case scenario is that you enjoy your evenings and lunch hours.” I daily think that thought but have never written it out quite the way you did. Now I’ll simply quote you, giving you full credit for it.