We’re All Indie This Together – a reply to Dan Holloway

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 I was never persuaded that many aspiring but unpublished writers were in that state because their writing was too bold or difficult for the mainstream; in fact, the literary corner of my local bookshop had a far wider and bolder range of material than most of the unpublished stuff I was reading online.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.

  • I really agree with this piece. When I was 12 I decided I wanted to write historical fiction. Light, romantic, historically accurate genre fiction. The kind of fiction Laurie King has dubbed frivolous fiction. The kind of fiction I read as a break from my life.

    I am a professional historian, 35 year career teaching on the college level, and on retirement I have self-published a historical mystery, which I probably would never have published for a variety of reasons if I had gone the traditional route. My book isn’t edgy, it isn’t cutting edge, but it does exactly what I wanted to do, tell a story that entertains, while illuminating what life was like for a woman who needed to work in the late nineteenth century.

    Maids of Misfortune: A Victorian San Francisco Mystery has been published for 16 months and sold over 11,000 copies. I couldn’t be happier, but I don’t feel for a second I have sold out. Selling out would have been never getting the book into print, keeping the manuscript in the drawer, or changing the story because an agent thought I shouldn’t risk using both a female and a male point of view (which is what one of several agents who have expressed interest in the book told me).

    Yes edgy, experimental work does have a place in self-publishing, but so do cook books, garden advice manuals, or cozy mysteries.

    • Like mlouisalocke, I spent 35 years in education before retiring and self-publishing my prehistoric adventure novel, and after looking at many previews on Create Space, I was surprised not by the edgy material but by the poor quality of the writing. Whether people are indie or mainstream, they need to know how to spell, punctuate, and choose words.

      • @Kathleen Rollins: I’d prefer the spelling, punctuation, and word choice to meet my comfort standard. When I write, I’m pretty particular about those things. That said, it seems to me that in most of these forums people make pronouncements about what others must know or must do and are allowed to call themselves. In reality, they don’t have to do any of those things. If they find an audience who is okay with what they are doing, it does no harm to the rest of us. We do have to be discerning enough to take advantage of previews and free samples… either that or be willing to blow off the 99 cents or $2.99 if we have bought something through which we find simply cannot wade. Nobody is forcing us to take shots in the dark.

    • @mlouisalocke: Bravo. Well said. I have had my suspense novel, By the Light: A Novel of Serial Homicide in the Kindle Store since 1/11/11. I had wanted to write novel since childhood and chose to write in a genre I like to read. I’m selling but did not sell out. I’m glad Amazon and others have provided a way for stories such as mine to reach public eyes without paying with my arms and legs. I consider myself to be an indie author. There are some who would say otherwise, pointing out that I needed Amazon. If you have to write it, edit it, print it, and distribute it yourself to be independent, I’m thinking that the indie population is way small.

  • Apologies – TWO APPALLING TYPOS IN THIS PIECE. Para 3, pentultimate line “gentile” should be “genteel”. And two lines above it, “surprise” should be “surprised”.
    If there is someone in who can correct it, I’d be very grateful.

    Roland Denning

  • Hi Roland :)In terms of what I said about whether audiences get edgier or writers more maintream, I have, just as in the main thrust of my article, something much more to do with internal psychology than I think you take me as saying. I mean what happens when we start clicking our kdp report hourly, seeing those figures climb, falling in love with that adrenalin, wanting more, tinkering with our pitch, trying to tap the Kindle reader’s mind, not realising that slowly what we are aiming at with our writing has changed

    I agree entirely about the conservativeness of the self-publishing world.

    • “I mean what happens when we start clicking our kdp report hourly, seeing those figures climb, falling in love with that adrenalin, wanting more, tinkering with our pitch, trying to tap the Kindle reader’s mind, not realising that slowly what we are aiming at with our writing has changed…”

      Let’s not pretend we don’t love to see our worked sold. That we don’t get pleasure if a lot of people turn up to see us read.

      “Tinkering with the pitch/tapping into the reader’s mind”…

      Well, writing is a form of communication, and sometimes you do want to tweak what you are saying to make it work. Like in a live show, you want the funny lines to get the laughs, you want to move people, you want to get through. That’s the value of writing groups, getting that feedback and learning from it. It never, for me, changes what I want to say but it might well change the way I say it. And if my pitch doesn’t engage many other people (or engages people who aren’t actually interested in what I do), maybe my pitch is wrong.

      Of course, Dan, I do understand what you saying – getting trapped in the trivia and ego-cossetting side of it all (similarly, the online world offers numerous opportunities to anything other than getting on with your own work, like I’m doing here) but there is also the other side of that coin – being a martyr to your own obscurity.

      • “Let’s not pretend we don’t love to see our worked sold. That we don’t get pleasure if a lot of people turn up to see us read.”

        Yes, that’s my point – but most of us only realise that after we start – it’s the same in all the arts.

        As for being a martyr to one’s obsurity – I’m very happy with the solution I seem to have stumbled on of writing books that are unadshamedly commercial on the one hand, and doing what the hell I want on the other

        • “I’m very happy with the solution… of writing books that are unadshamedly commercial on the one hand, and doing what the hell I want on the other”

          Good on ‘yer. We all do things that have different appeal to different people. Just let’s not concede to hierarchical assumptions that one is better than the other. Sometimes we need to shout out from the rooftops, sometimes we need to whisper to a few.

      • lol … checking our kdp reports hourly? So busted!

        But, ‘not a sell out … I think most of us agree that authors are not divided into two camps – ‘edgy’ versus ‘mainstream’. Over our careers some of us will hop back and forth crossing the line between the two camps ala Amanda, Barry Eisler; and some will decide that the grass is greener right where we are.

        Typos [my own and others] make me wince. So, I’d say I’m a more careful editor than some, but there are better storytellers than me around. We find our own levels, and our reader-following accept our flaws or move on. For some that readership grows to the mid-list; for some that readership includes only those on our Holiday Card list.

        What I celebrate is the fact that the technology exists to make it possible for us to take our own destiny into our own self-publishing hands. All writers now have the option of steering from ‘contract Lulu’s’ in order to find an audience. This ‘edgy’ versus ‘mainstream’ sounds both out-dated and silly.

    • I’ve got nothing against labels. With that vast lost property mountain of unread books out there, how are people going to find yours?

      Problem is, as you move away from genre, the more difficult it is to find the right tag, and the more difficult it is for the reader to know what they’re getting. The music world has got this better sorted – if you want dubstep-wonky-synth-old-school-hard-house (or something like that), you can find it. “Literary satire” just doesn’t do it.

      • I too have struggled with the dilemma of labeling/selecting a genre for my own books.

        One line that we often hear about writers and other artists is that their work defies classification. This of course is meant to imply that their artistic efforts reflect too much depth and complexity to be delineated in such a manner. And while we all probably entertain similar fantasies about ourselves and our work from time to time, usually this is simply not the case, and there is in fact some word(s) you can use to describe the kind of book you’ve created. Besides, the label is for the reader’s sake, not your own. It can be tough, but sometimes you’ve just got to bite the bullet and assign some form of genre – it gives potential readers one more thing to go on, you know, just in case your pretty cover and clever title aren’t doing the trick.

        Side note: Labeling your book “literary satire” is probably a surefire bet to convince 95% of the reading public to read something else instead!

        • “Labeling your book “literary satire” is probably a surefire bet to convince 95% of the reading public to read something else instead!” – You’re probably absolutely right.

          Give me a better label and I’ll use it!

          • Nice one Roland – More of a knock on readers who have no interest in “literary” books (let alone satirical ones) than the genre itself.

            I suppose herein lies the true dilemma: By associating your book with one genre and its readers, you effectively close it off somewhat from others and theirs, which in the end is probably the best reason to resist painting one’s book into too tight a corner. Unfortunately, however, there’s only so creative one can get with hybridized labels before they start to sound flat-out ridiculous. Sci-fi tragicomedy zombie western, maybe?

            Best to be honest, methinks. You wouldn’t have labeled TBBTS as “YA paranormal romance” just because it would likely help sales, after all. Really, we should just write what we enjoy (and what we’re good at) writing, and let practical concerns like increasing readership come secondary to honestly describing what we’re all about.

            Literary satire it is, then 🙂

            • “We should just write what we enjoy (and what we’re good at) writing.” I’ll vote for that.

              • That works, but I also believe that writers write. Suspense books about serial killers have always been fascinating to me. In real life, there are both interesting and boring serial offenders. In fiction, they are almost all ways interesting ones with quirky characteristics. The genre has reasonable popularity, especially when you throw in a little romance to take the edge off of the gory details. I also like narrative non-fiction about true crime because those books are usually about interesting criminals.

                That said, I read several other types of stories (lighter suspense, humorous mysteries, cozy mysteries) looking for niches where I might find comfort. Building characters, scripting engaging dialog, using descriptive language to make people and places come alive, and generally creating a story that will entertain are what I shoot for. Those things can be done in lots of genres. Some of the lighter ones allow you to focus more on the writing than on attendant research.

                Perhaps my favorite author is Pat Conroy. He builds characters that breath, rise up, and take over your consciousness. He describes events and places so vividly as to transport you to his setting. His equivalent of research is observation of the places, events, and behavior that surrounds him every day.

                I guess the labels to which I aspire most are good writing to describe my work and entertainer to describe me. If I can give folks a break from their day-to-day, put them in another place wearing other shoes, and make them glad they took the journey, I will be happy.

                • Typo: all ways = always. Please forgive. One must be careful when writing for pesky writers.

  • Pardon me – I was referring to Roland’s book “The Beach Beneath the PAVEMENT”, not STREET, as “TBBTS” would imply. Can someone please change it to read “TBBTP” instead?

  • It has been called (by reviewers, not me) ‘a historical story about now’, ‘Shamefully funny. Bloody funny. Very, very funny’ and ‘dark comedy with a whiff of post-modernism’ and a ‘paranoid dystopian techno-thriller’.

    So if you know a bookshop with aisles labelled like that, please let me know.
    Perhaps I’ll just call it ChickLit.

  • I would put myself in the indie/non-mainstream/literary/weirdo camp, but at the same time, I want to make people laugh.

    I’m also well aware that dealing with ‘interesting ideas’ and important issues and challenging convention doesn’t necessarily make your book better than one that is unashamedly commercial. Because you’ve written about something important doesn’t mean you’ve written an important book.

    What is crucial is, whatever we do, that we engage the reader. And if we don’t do that, we have only ourselves to blame.