So, here it is – the first Guest Post (note the capitals) since ‘A Farewell to Sanity’ began a year and a half ago, and most definitely not the last. I took a risk and asked my sister to write for us, despite the fact we rarely agree on anything. But actually, when I read her post, I found that our points of view were not all that dissimilar after all. I’ll see what you think after you’ve read it. It’s a little longer than my usual posts, but she felt she couldn’t explain herself in less.
If any of my other readers would like to write a guest post, please contact me :)
I’m Bella, Miriam’s rather elderly sister. Being 21, I come from a fabled generation where my classrooms at primary school didn’t have computers, and I never used the internet till I was eleven. I used to tape songs I liked off the radio to listen to them on car journeys. I graduated university in the summer and now work as a content researcher for a corporate events company based in a trendy part of central London. I run www.divine-decadence-darling.blogspot.com to satisfy my fashion whimsy – whilst my job stimulates my intellect, a girl could get quite tired of talking about nothing other than Near Field Communication Technology and Contactless Payments all day. I’m outspoken and opinionated and not afraid to hide that I’m educated, and if I don’t get sent hate mail after this blog post, maybe I’ll write to y’all again.
Indie publishing. What a minefield. My sister and I have had many heated discussions over the dinner table on this one. The problem is, heated discussions rarely manage to get nuanced views across, so this is my chance to put my argument to you once and for all. You’ll probably still disagree, but isn’t that the beauty of freedom of speech?
First of all, I want to quickly run down what I mean by indie publishing. I’m including self publishing here for ease, and so I mean any books/short stories/poems/rants that are self published or published by a company that you set up yourself for the legal aspects, or any company that operates out of someone’s house/a garage/a warehouse/ an office that you’re fairly sure is 10 square feet, and so on and so forth. I’m not talking about boutique publishers with specialised offerings – for example, academic publishers, or a feminist press, or an imprint that only publishes art retrospectives. These aren’t part of the mainstream publishing industry, but they’re also not the indie publishing phenomenon that I want to talk about.
Now we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about the good aspects of indie publishing. There are a lot of talented people in the world; a huge number. But companies only have so much money to spend on hiring people to read speculative manuscripts all day. Even agents only have so many hours in the day. Inevitably, people are going to write good books that are going to get missed. In the days before the internet and indie publishing, getting rejected by every major agent and publisher pretty much meant putting the manuscript back in your garage/wardrobe/loft and admitting to your dad that you did need a job in the mail room of his stationary company after all. And that was the end of that. Who knows, maybe you end up running the stationary company and having a whale of a time inventing fun new stationary products like those pens with post it notes in them. But that wasn’t what you wanted to do.
It’s also difficult to take risks if you’re a huge publishing conglomerate with shareholders. Would you want to stand up in front of the people who okay your salary and explain why you took a risk that lost your company £200,000? No, me neither. So you end up playing it safe, and inevitably, the more off the wall concepts end up not getting published. And that’s a crying shame. Some of my favourite books are off the wall concepts. The thing is, they were written by geniuses, meticulously researched and extremely well written. If they weren’t, they’d have been colossal flops, meaning that the publishers wouldn’t take the same risks again. And the problem is that a lot of books aren’t as good.
Here’s where the first problem with indie publishing comes in. A lot of books have potential; few come fully finished. Most books need a serious edit and an editor with experience and training who can look the author in the eye and say ‘I don’t care how much you like this sub plot, it goes nowhere and is a waste of paper’. If you self publish, you don’t have access to this kind of editing, and the same is true if you publish through a tiny indie publisher. When T S Eliot first wrote The Waste Land (in my mind, the finest poem ever written), it was a mess. He handed it over to Ezra Pound who restructured it and cut large chunks. It improved exponentially. Now, T S Eliot was a genius who wrote his first masterpiece at 18, and we can’t all be him. So naturally, although some self published novels will be heartbreaking works of staggering genius, inevitably, most won’t – and where those that aren’t would once have gone straight into the rejections pile, now they’re on the internet being read by people here, there and everywhere giving indie publishing a bad name. Without an external gate keeper to cast their professional eye over the story, quality is inevitably lowered.
But Bella! You say, This need not be the case – there are editors out there just waiting for me to pay them to read my book. I accept I’m not a genius and I will take direction. That’s what brings me to my real argument. Editors waiting for you to pay them… well that requires a fair amount of money. In fact, the whole indie enterprise requires both money and time. To be a successful indie author you need a blog. You need to maintain it, update it with witty and thought provoking blog posts. Answer the comments individually. Become known on the blogosphere, guest post for other blogs, comment on other blogs… it’s a full time job! And that’s the rub. Indie publishing requires you to write and be active in the online writing community to an extent that basically rules out anyone with a career. Now, you’re going to find me harsh when I say this, but when I say a career I mean a job that is going somewhere. I do not mean working behind the till in Topshop. I do not mean working in your suburban library (trust me, tried it, wanted to die every week). I mean a job with prospects, one you needed high qualifications to get in; one that will in future be able to support you and your dependents. Indie publishing is all well and good if you’re a part time student, a stay-at-home mother with very small children (before they learn to run and fall down stairs and other inconvenient things). But it requires you to not need to be earning money from your book or blog at any great rate.
Thirty years ago, if you wanted to write, if you wanted to work in fashion, politics, media, journalism, television, then you graduated university and took a job as a runner, researcher, wardrobe assistant, editorial assistant, whatever for £17,000 a year. You lived on beans on toast in a run-down flat in Hackney and after a few years, if you were good, someone said ‘okay Bella, you’re heading up the next project’. Survive that and you were off to the races. But now you’re working unpaid internships for as many as four years. It requires your parents to support you until you’re 25 or so. So if you need to earn money young, those careers are closed to you, at least to start with. What I worry is that indie publishing potentially does the same thing to writers. Instead of simply sending a letter and a chapter to an agent, you need to prove you have a social media following and have maybe already had a few short stories on Amazon as a free e-book. And maybe a facebook page that at least… 5000 people like. And so on, and so forth. And gradually we come to the situation where writing becomes another one of those careers that’s all fine and dandy if you have the money behind you to sit around creating a social media presence, closed off from the 90% of the population who don’t.
Now, realistically, I know that writing this blog post won’t do a thing to change this. But I see so many blogs waxing lyrical over indie publishing and so many people leaping down the throats of anyone who tries to raise a voice against it. The problem is, every indie published book that is a success makes it more difficult to make a living the traditional way. Every student making £200 a month from indie publishing and feeling rich makes it more difficult for someone to live on the proceeds of their writing (just to give you an idea – the average rent in London is £500 a month. Good luck) and the more writing becomes a closed shop.
I love free speech, I believe in the power of technology to improve industry and I think the development of indie publishing shows traditional publishing was missing a trick. But I also think we should be wary of diving headlong into a pool without first seeing if there are sharks in the water.
Thank you, Bella!
So, what do you think about this? Do you agree?