Dan Holloway wrote a very interesting piece questioning the ‘success’ of indie authors. I have a lot of respect and affection for Dan’s work, but he left me scratching my head at one point. For a start, I’m not really sure what ‘indie’ writer means. Nor am I convinced by his distinction between ‘mainstream’ and ‘edgy’.
The concepts of ‘underground’ or ‘counter culture’ or even ‘alternative’ don’t really apply today – there are just various levels of distribution. To quote from Mark Fisher – ‘alternative and ‘independent’ don’t designate something outside mainstream culture; rather they are styles, in fact the dominant style within the mainstream*. Dominant culture is so diverse, so fragmented and so slippery it will embrace and reconfigure around any attempt to challenge it.
When I started hanging out in the peer review sites, where I first met Dan, and then the eager world of print-on-demand self-publishing, what struck me was what a conservative world it was. I was never persuaded that many aspiring but unpublished writers were in that state because their writing was too bold or difficult for the mainstream; in fact, the literary corner of my local bookshop had a far wider and bolder range of material than most of the unpublished stuff I was reading online. The angry, provocative, difficult voices were few and far between (luckily, Dan was able to find a few and round them up into his superlative Eight Cuts corral). But I shouldn’t have been surprised; taking a wider perspective, it’s arguable that the novel itself is a conservative/mainstream art form whose innovative peak was in the early 20th century; genteel peer-review sites are not the place one should expect to find revolutionaries and avant-garde artists aren’t too bothered about the novel.
Dan’s warning, “it’s a very interesting question whether your success is because your audience is getting edgier or you are getting more mainstream” is, I believe, somewhat suspect. There’s an implication there that if your books are beginning to sell, then maybe you have sold out, or that ‘edgy’ is inherently better than ‘non-edgy’. I don’t accept that. It’s a question of finding an audience – not a mass market audience, but if you’ve got something important to say and you’re saying it well, there are people out there who want to hear it. Having something strong and original should be an advantage. If no one wants to listen, perhaps you’re saying the wrong thing or saying it wrong.
I don’t think I or Dan or any of the writers he is associated with are thinking in terms of mass market, airport-rack fiction sales, but I think if we do what we do well enough, we should be expecting readerships in the thousands not the hundreds. We’re not writing concrete poetry or free form improvised music – our pre-occupations and styles are not so weird or obscure to appeal to just a handful; if we do what we do well enough there is a substantial audience out there, the problem is reaching them.
In the end, assuming you are doing what you are doing well enough (and we have to assume that or we wouldn’t carry on) it’s a question of reaching that audience. Every technological innovation that democratises the process of publishing – the Kindle being the latest – increases the competition to find readers. Lulu publishes a thousand new titles a day, Kindle is only going to increase that. The old filter mechanism of agent/publisher/critic/bookshop is in terminal decline, supplanted by the marketing strategies of celebrity culture and product placement. Alongside that we have a myriad of blogs and review sites which, inevitably, are forming into a hierarchical structure (if you get your book mentioned on Boing-Boing you’ve no need to bother about all the other sites). What was once a gentleman’s duel is now a free for all scrabble in the digital jungle. But the battle that is going on is a huge one about culture and democracy and how or whether we should get our books published is only a tiny part of that.
To be honest, the success of the Kindle has surprised me. It’s put the art of typography back a couple of centuries and it doesn’t do black, let alone colour, but at the moment, I like them. Where it all goes next, who knows.
Roland Denning is a writer and film maker whose novel, The Beach Beneath The Pavement, has just been released in a new ‘2011 austerity edition’ on Kindle. You can also listen to his dystopian, paranoid radio play/podcast here.
* Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism, Zero Books 2009.