The Art of Reading Indie

Can anyone be beautiful if someone doesn’t say to them, “I think you’re beautiful”? Can anyone be intelligent if the results of a test don’t confirm “you’re a genius”? And more pertinent to our discussion, can any book be good if not validated by a 4 or 5 star review? Can a book without reviews at all be good in any sense of the word? Doesn’t someone need to tell us it is? Otherwise, isn’t beauty, intelligence, and artistic worth a relative term, utterly meaningless without a verifiable source?

To me, the question of indie writers and books comes down to this simple question. When you browse the shelves of a bookstore or library, you implicitly know that these books have been curated for you by the experts. Not only publishers, but booksellers, sales charts, award committees, and librarians have each had their say, and personally picked through the debris of literature to offer these chosen gems: these are good and worth your time, they seem to say. So even if you take a book and decide it’s not for you, the reason isn’t that the book itself is bad, or comes from an inferior pen; it simply wasn’t your cup of tea, or what you were in the mood for. You don’t take it personally (or most of us don’t). 

The same certainly isn’t true for an indie writer, whose book is usually curated by the writer’s discretion alone. Such a book has no publisher or librarian standing behind it; it merely says why not give me a chance? But there’s no guarantee that if will be well-written. It may even be ungrammatical. Chapters might break off without development. Characters might be crude caricatures, dialogue a mannequin’s attempt at small talk. The story might betray its origins as a half-baked excuse for conflict. It might outstay its welcome by the second chapter. For these reasons and many more, some readers avoid them entirely, or at least approach them with considerable skepticism. Why read indie books when there are thousands—millions!—of properly curated books waiting to be found?

Perhaps the answer lies in those very “millions.” If there are millions of curated books, each one backed by a publishing company or an agent, can every one of those millions be a unique work of art? To have a publishing industry, in fact, you not only need a standardized measure of quality, but of product. In short, you have to produce many of the same kinds of books on a predictable schedule. If every book tried something new or innovative, the industry would falter. Money would be lost. Careers would go down the drain. In point of fact, doesn’t it take someone coming from the outside—an indie, so to speak—to reinvent the wheel? (and in art, the wheel could always run a little smoother).

Indie books have the potential to be true game changers in the industry. They don’t have to follow market trends; they don’t have to play by established rules; they can mimic old forms while boldly striving for something new; and most of all, they can question common sense advice about what makes writing and stories “good”. A team of gatekeepers, from agents to editors to CEOs will all have an opinion on this and will make sure a given book conforms to these models. Not that these people are Philistines with no taste…but they do have to make money. An indie writer would love to make money, too, but they also (probably) have another source of income. His or her entire income probably isn’t riding on the success or failure of this novel (and if it is, maybe they should take up a more stable profession). The freedom of being able to publish a novel without scrutiny while following your own aesthetic leads to a classic Scylla and Charybdis situation: on one side, malicious indifference and anger to your ‘new’ book, and on the other, the chance of writing something slapdash that hasn’t undergone the proper vetting/editing process to make it worth reading.

And it’s true: so many indie books probably shouldn’t have been published. The authors might not have the skills or the patience to write a good book; or they might possess these talents, but the enticement of publishing on demand tempted them to release a product too quickly, selling a glorified rough draft as a slick, $15.99 novel. Given these realities, should we, as readers, become the gatekeepers these authors avoided? Should we read them with dark brows and clicking tongue, lashing every spelling error and grammatical lapse? Should we really expect them to be the equal of traditionally published novels? And what penalty should we exact upon them when they fail to meet these expectations?

My answer to these questions are relatively simple: you have to read them differently. They’re not ‘normal’ books. Lest this sound condescending, consider that I, too, am an indie writer. And I honestly hope that readers don’t read my books like the latest bestseller (which is why I only charge the Amazon minimum for each one, 99 cents). I write books that follow many traditional hallmarks of the fantasy genre, but I’m also aware that I can re-write or re-fashion the rules on a whim. And so I do. I write the fantasy novels that Jane Austen might have written, which means (I think) that I try to look at a familiar genre from an unfamiliar perspective. I love old books, books that are two-hundred, three-hundred, even a thousand years old. But I also love where books have ended up, and what’s happening to them today. When I try to write books from both perspectives, agents and publishers tell me I’m wrong; we don’t write like that anymore, the kids won’t understand it, your writing is stiff and you use too much punctuation. In short, it’s not a product they can successfully market and curate on the shelves with their other ‘millions.’

That’s why I chose, at first reluctantly, but now by choice, to self-publish my novels. I want to mix and match, to bend and twist, to mold the fiction into a new shape that resembles (without mirroring) the books that I love. I want to take chances. And most importantly, I want to amuse myself. I don’t see a lot of joy and gusto in publishing today, largely because it’s become so safe and predictable. Indie writing doesn’t have to be safe or predictable. What they have to do is be themselves—not according to a formula, but according to the inner logic of the story itself.

Of course, that requires readers who are willing to follow along. Readers who don’t mind the occasional spelling mistake or story lapse, but who are willing to take the stories for what they are: bold experiments by lone visionaries who don’t have the backing of a major publishing house or team of editors and curators behind them. These are people pursuing a dream against all odds, and it’s a dream no one particularly wants them to follow. For that reason we need to read these books not like the next Steven King novel or the latest Neil Gaiman installment. Experience them like a strange new language, one that takes time to translate and to understand properly. And if, in the end, the story turns out to be a dud, to require more time to rebuild and reshape—what then?

That’s the unique beauty of indie writing: you can then tell the author. Communicate your concerns and misgivings to them rather than simply lobbing off another 1-star review. Don’t look at indie writing as a finished product. Rather, it allows you, the reader, to be a co-creator, an editor, a quality control expert. Chances are, the author is waiting desperately in the wings to hear something, anything, about his or her novel. And the chances are, your insights and criticisms will be like manna from heaven, reminding authors that someone is listening—someone is reading their work. A single good reader makes any writer, no matter how accomplished, a better one. So doesn’t it behoove us to read as many indie books as possible, to find the gems, and encourage these writers—good and bad—to ruthlessly pursue their art. For writing is an art first and foremost (sorry marketers!), and only artists will help us adapt it for the ideas and individuals of the 21st century.