Henry Baum’s recent post (about foul language in self-published books) raised this issue, which has been on my mind for a while. What IS so “indie” about “indie writers.” Is it merely a fashionable term, wishful thinking? The term comes from the “indie” film and music trends of the late 20th century, but I think those artistic fields are fundamentally different in important ways from book publishing. Both music and film require much more equipment, technical expertise and money, and usually involve more people as well, whereas writers only need to type into a computer, save their files, and upload them to online providers such as Amazon or Smashwords.
Another important distinction is motivation. Self-publishing seems to me to be a different game entirely. From what I’ve seen, most “indie” writers are not rebelling against any industry standards. Independent films are generally movies that the major studios would NOT make, and independent music was originally not the kind of music that the major corporations believed would sell, hence they had no interest (co-option came later). But indie writers are mostly writing the same kind of books that are already being published. They’re writing in the same popular genres, with the same themes, structures, plots and conventions. They’re following the same rules and outputting the same products. There’s just so many of them! The big publishers are used to controlling the market, keeping the gates (as it were) but the walls are falling down around them. People can now put out the same stuff that the publishers can, and since it’s pretty much the same, why should the consumer care where it comes from? If it’s cheaper, even better. So what’s so “indie” about them?
I know there are some who really are breaking new ground, playing around, experimenting, getting ahead of the curve, but writing is a tricky thing to be independent with. Story-telling is deeply engrained in all of us since childhood. The conventional norms exist for a reason. When someone recently critiqued one of my books for “not including the appropriate arcs”, this was just a reminder to me that readers do have definite expectations. They desire a certain kind of story, one with the right amounts of “character development” and “narrative” with “underlying themes” and “dramatic tension” and of course a “resolution” with comforting denouement. Writers defy these conventions at their own risk, but how else can you be “independent”? What does that mean in writing? (Opinions, please)
In music, ‘independent’ is always about defying conventions. Kurt Cobain did not sound like everything else on the radio at that time. Independent films are not required to have the most beautiful people in them. Independent books, though …
The contemporary self-publishing field does make it possible for truly independent attempts at literature to make their way into the world more readily than before (even those missing the appropriate arcs), but how many of them are there, and how many people really want to read them? My guess is that the answer to both of those questions is “a pretty small fraction,” and that’s okay. It’s better than nothing.
I would just suggest that the term “indie writer” is misleading, and mostly misapplied. It sounds cool, but rings a bit hollow when you look at what is really out there.