First off, let me just say that I was a holdout for a long time for not calling self-publishing “indie publishing.” But that was back when self-publishing was desperate to be taken seriously. Now it is. And it’s become as vital a force in the publishing as “true” independent publishing. So indie publishing works now because all of independent publishing is changing.
JA Konrath talks about the “Publishing Death Spiral” in which traditional publishing is going to be assaulted by writers who can get much better terms on their own if they publish themselves. I’ll gladly dance on the grave of a publishing industry that publishes a Snooki novel, but the problem is that self-publishing will put a dent in less money-grubbing independent houses as well. And this is just as inevitable as the sea change when mainstream commercial writers see the light of 70% royalties and go all in as self-publishers.
Amazon is the biggest target of fear and anger because they’re the ones offering 70% terms and upending the whole system. Dennis Loy Johnson of Melville House Press says:
Amazon will soon be a pretty solid publishing company; even small presses like Melville House are already losing out to them on esoteric projects, such as obscure translation projects. But Amazon’s publishing house will be in service to a different idol, because publishing isn’t, right now, and hasn’t been, for 500 years, about developing algorithms. It’s been about art-making and culture-making and speaking truth to power.
Well, if it’s about culture-making, then what’s that obscure translation project?
But dominating the industry is bad for all kinds of things we hold dear — free speech, great art and a rich and diverse culture. All of which is to say that yes, there is a need for publishers. Many of them, in fact.
This would be a problem if self-publishing didn’t exist. If Amazon indeed decided everything that got published, this would be terrible – but they don’t: they offer the biggest DIY publishing platform available. So self-publishing offers a “diverse culture.” A gatekeeping system offers fewer books. As great a press as Melville House is, the logic doesn’t really hold. There’s certainly a great advantage in being published by an independent press which can offer editing, cover design, and marketing, but it’s not the only system available. Also from that Times piece:
I fear much more what Amazon’s entry into publishing might do to independent publishing houses where writers’ potential and the great possibilities of literature are often valued far above sales and the seductions of profitability.
Even if Amazon monopolizes the industry, this doesn’t affect the diversity of writers who might use a self-publishing platform. Certainly writers should support independent presses who have been supportive in the past, and can do good work on a book’s release. But accepting a 70% royalty isn’t necessarily due to a writer’s greed, but just that self-publishing can be very practical – no queries, no time, better terms.
All that said, monopolies are of course not good in any industry. Just today there’s news in the UK of Amazon buying out the Book Depository. And while Amazon controls their algorithm, potentially recommending Encore, Createspace, or Kindle titles before others (people who bought this also bought) this does not appear to be happening. Even if it did, Amazon offers the platform for all books to be found. The real problem for small presses is not that Amazon is taking over other companies, but that writers see Amazon as the best career move.
I love small presses, and it would be terrible to see Amazon do to small presses what it did to independent bookstores. Most of the time when people criticize traditional publishing, they’re talking about the big 6 publishers and their marketing obsession and abandonment of non-celebrity writers. But the reason that writers might want to abandon that system applies both to independent presses as it does to corporate publishing. It’s just as hard to get published by an independent press, but for different reasons: they have less money, so they can publish fewer books. Or, rather, it’s the same reason: money is guiding their business plan, as it is for all businesses. They’re just not quite so callous about it. If many small presses could publish more books, they would.
So there’s a growing list of independent authors (read: people who don’t write commercial fiction) who will also have a growing problem with getting published by a small press. Small presses will have a harder time earning money because those writers who are more likely to turn a profit on their own may be more willing to self-publish. This will cut down the number of literary presses, or the number of books they can put out a year. As there are already more authors than literary presses, there won’t be enough presses to go around. So: yes, that does cut into the diversity that small presses can offer, but only because so many writers will be publishing somewhere else.
It’s not a great fate for small presses, which is why many despise Amazon so much, even if Amazon increases a press’s sales. And it truly would be terrible to lose the world’s small presses, just as it’s terrible to lose the world’s small bookstores. But that’s what’s happening, and what’s going to happen. “Death spiral” in this case is too tough, because it’s not a fate anyone should be particularly happy about. But Amazon isn’t necessarily the big bad enemy in this case, because ultimately they’re offering a great service to writers.