For many authors, the very phrase “self-published” means defeat. And to some it’s simply the “easy way out.” Conversely, many people would never buy a book that didn’t have the stamp of approval from Tor, or Harper Collins, or Penguin. And let’s be honest, some people only buy books from big name authors and no one else, publisher be damned. So what chance do indie authors stand, who often publish on their own and are relative nobodies? In general, people who laugh when you tell them you self publish have one (or all) of the following arguments:
* If you can’t get an agent or publisher to accept your work then you probably have no business being an author; you’re simply not good enough.
* Why buy a ‘generic’ book when there are thousands—millions—of bona fide works of art to choose from? Who needs “Best Value” Cheerios when normal Cheerios are cheap and readily in stock?
* Indie books are poorly written and edited, making it a chore to read them. The big publishers pay people to smooth out the kinks of their authors’ works—but indie authors either can’t afford to or simply don’t care.
* Indie books are derivative and unimaginative copies of the best sellers, much like a ‘direct to video’ movie (who seriously wants to watch Star Crash instead of Star Wars?)
These are all compelling arguments, and like many stereotypes they contain a kernel of truth. Are there many poorly written and edited indie books on the market? Of course. Are some of them derivative and generic versions of the best sellers? Sure. And do many indie writers turn to self-publishing when all the big name agents and publishers turn them down. You bet they do. Ah, so I’ve admitted the truth—it’s all true, you just said so!
Proving some things true doesn’t prove all things true. Just because McDonald’s gets your drive-thru order wrong twice in a row doesn’t mean they always get your order wrong in every city throughout the country. It ultimately comes down to the individual franchise or workers, but it can’t be indicative of the experience of an entire restaurant chain. Whatever you think about McDonald’s food (and I boycott it, personally) the reality is that many managers take pride in their businesses, and many workers are happy to do a good day’s work. Not every teenager working a minimum wage job hates life—and by extension, hates you. And even I, who hate McDonald’s, have occasionally been forced to eat there on a road trip and can get good service and decent food and think, “well, okay, so it’s not always bad—but I still don’t like it.”
You see where I’m going with this? Are all indie writers hacks, charlatans, and wannabes? Do they slap together books simply to turn a quick profit and then skip town? Even more so than McDonald’s owners, they’re people with dreams, many of whom work long hours at a ‘real’ job and then come home, bleary eyed and exhausted, and still log in a few hours with a work-in-progress, hoping that one day it will climb the charts and validate their secret passion. Because the reality is that not everyone can be a writer. There are just too many books already out there, and too few people who want to pay people for writing books (and sadly, too few people who want to buy them).
Conversely, there are probably millions of people who are genuinely talented writers, at least half of whom also exhibit traits of genius—people who could legitimately revolutionize the field. How many of their works, however, will ever reach print? Probably only about 1%, and that’s being generous. A sad truth of the modern world is that many talented people will die without a single person recognizing their gift. Some will get a measure of recognition, but not enough to quit their ‘day job,’ and many more will give up in despair and look back at their affair with art with revulsion—or guilt.
The ability to self-publish is, in some ways, one of the most compassionate bones ever tossed to society via technology. Now everyone can publish their works and see their works in print. True, the price of getting every talented writer a book is that millions of untalented writers and outright hacks get one, too. But is that worth the cost of admission? In general, I would say it is; after all, bad books come and go, but the good books stay, as long as enough people find them first. And now, even in a field drowning with books, it’s still possible to find a truly good book—even by an unknown author. Below are some very compelling reasons to buy an indie book and support a self-published author despite everything you’ve heard, everything you’ve said, and everything you know (or think you know) from first-hand experience:
* Most self-published writers are writing against the current, so to speak; no one asked them to write this book, they’re not being paid for it, and they often do so at great personal and professional expense (i.e. when they should be taking care of kids or doing their jobs—or sleeping!).
* They’re following a dream. Sure, professional authors are, too, but they’ve already achieved it in some measure. Indie writers are all like Cyrano de Bergerac (Rostand’s once-famous play), who claimed that the only fight worth fighting is the one that you know you can’t win. The fight that you’re doomed to die in. That’s the indie writer: howling into the winds having already seen the pitiful fate of their comrades.
* They can afford to take chances. An established author has to think about their agent, publisher, editor, audience, and so forth, and all of them have a say in what they write and when. The indie author can write whatever the hell they want. They can fly in the face of trends and even defy industry wisdom about what sells and who wants it.
* Usually the people who start new trends are doing it where no one is looking. Honestly, Steven King isn’t going to change the landscape of horror or science fiction at this point—he did what he did, and his moment is over (though he continues to write good books). However, even he came out of left field and changed the market. Today, that’s most likely going to come from someone who doesn’t have the ear of the industry. Someone who is writing in obscurity until an intrepid reader catches wind of it and says, “why isn’t everyone writing like this?”
* You can actually make a difference in these authors’ lives. If you write a fan letter to J.K. Rowling, you might get a generic reply from one of her many handlers. I’m sure she’s happy you like her books, but really, she has bigger fish to fry. But if you read the work of an indie writer, and you write them...then will respond to you. Likewise, it will make an immediate and tangible different in their lives. You could even become the catalyst that makes a great writer about to give up write their next bestseller.
* Indie writers are more likely to be fans of the genres they write in. All-too-often, genre fiction catches the attention of an ‘important’ writer who wants to revitalize their career, like Margaret Atwood trying her hand at writing a superhero comic. I’m pretty sure she could give a shit about superheroes in general, or even comics; indie writers, on the other hand, are much more likely to read comics and to know the universe they’re actively trying to shape. In other words, they’re probably more like you.
* One word—surprise. Simply put, you don’t know what you’re going to find with an indie book. The big publishers are very predictable in what they publish: namely, what has already sold. Indie writers might be trying the same thing, or they might try their hand at something completely different. You’re much more likely to be taken unawares by an indie than a mainstream writer, though admittedly big writers can surprise and indies can disappoint.
After all, reading isn’t a formula or an equation. It’s a gamble...and sometimes, it really pays off. So while there are many good, sound reasons to never buy a self-published book, there are some damn good reasons to defy current wisdom and do just that. And honestly, buying a book is never a bad thing to do or something you should regret. In fact, you’re more likely to get better service and a more wholesome product than if you go through the McDonald’s drive thru! It’s a hell of a lot cheaper, too...