The One True Way of Indie Publishing

First: apologies for the headline. It’s totally a grab for attention. If you want to bail now knowing I was attempting deliberate manipulation, no one would hold it against you, but before you go, consider that’s what everyone else is doing lately, and know that, for the record, I would state that there is no “one true way” of anything–nor that I’ve ever read anyone else make that claim about independent publishing (or “self-publishing,” as corporate publishing and those associated with it tend to call it). I’ve read independent authors note that they’ve had positive experiences with places like Kindle Direct Publishing and Smashwords, and even encourage others to do so–often while noting the disadvantages of signing that corporate contract that so often gives away so many rights with little in the way of remuneration or benefit.

I think, sometimes, that such authors focus so much on being positive about the experience that others feel they have to highlight the disadvantages of not having corporate support for one’s book, and that’s fine. But sometimes I think that goes overboard, or maybe doesn’t consider the entire situation, and I think it’s important to.

Earlier this week, Tobias Buckell wrote about “survivorship bias” with regard to publishing, and specifically some data published by Smashwords. It’s here. He helpfully subtitles it “Why 90% of Writing Advice is Bullshit Right Now,” which makes me wonder if he considers the post advice and where he thinks it might fit in that statistic. The post specifically links to this article on survivorship bias, which is basically a warning against “advice from the successful.” Buckell’s argument seems to be that successful independent authors are the “survivovrs,” so we should be wary of thinking too much about their success or basing too much of our own strategies on theirs, because . . . I don’t know, to be honest. Their success isn’t yours. They’re outliers. Maybe. Something like that? He quotes:

Survivorship bias pulls you toward bestselling diet gurus, celebrity CEOs, and superstar athletes. It’s an unavoidable tick, the desire to deconstruct success like a thieving magpie and pull away the shimmering bits. You look to the successful for clues about the hidden, about how to better live your life, about how you too can survive similar forces against which you too struggle. Colleges and conferences prefer speakers who shine as examples of making it through adversity, of struggling against the odds and winning.

Which seems to me to be ironic, because “hybrid” authors are basically the “bestselling diet gurus, celebrity CEOS, and superstar athletes” of publishing.

Provided, I’m not sure they see themselves that way. But maybe that’s another aspect of bias.

A subsequent interview with Buckell throws the term “cult” at “self-publishing” (though, nicely, Buckell isn’t the one who uses it, which is somewhat of a relief).

Talk about your biases.

Buckell notes in a subsequent post “If reporters want to talk to the real interesting folk, it’s hybrids. I’m finding more and more wisdom in their moderate, hard-working voices.”

“Hybrid” authors tend to claim that “hybrid” publishing is the best way to go. “Try lots of different things,” they say. Here’s Chuck Wendig promoting the idea that “the hybrid author checks many, even all the boxes. The hybrid author refuses to walk one path, instead leaping gaily from path to path, gamboling about like some kind of jester-imp.”

Here’s the thing: check the “traditional publishing” box.

Go on. Check “get an agent, who finds you a corporate publisher, who offers you a small advance against (small) royalties while promising marketing support, albeit in nebulous ways.”

Check that box. I’ll wait.

You can’t.

Here’s the problem: it’s not about choice.

I’ve never seen any indie author claim that going indie is the “one true way” as so many “hybrid” authors argue it’s not (they’re right. It’s not. There’s no one true way. There are as many ways as there are authors, but that doesn’t get headlines, does it?).

Have indie authors claimed it’s the best way to begin a writing career? I’m not sure. I might have read Hugh Howey say something to that effect. I think a lot of independent authors might recommend doing so to others–though the admonition to do so only after proper research and preparation may too often be implicit, rather than explicit (and again, that doesn’t get headlines).

Being an author who moves fluidly among different options is, obviously, ideal. So is making a living from writing (most authors don’t) and selling more than 1000 copies (most books don’t).

If we lived in an ideal world, all the authors who wanted to be “hybrid” could be. If we lived in an ideal world, libraries would receive more funding than they’d know what to do with. If we lived in an ideal world, every copy of every print run of every book would sell completely out to such an extent that no bookseller would ever have anything to either remainder or return, and people would line up at bookstores’ doors before every Tuesday and load up their bags with all the new releases they could manage.

We don’t live in an ideal world.

And because we don’t live in an ideal world, considering options for what they are is important.

Except calling something an option implies a choice, and as we just mentioned, getting an agent, who finds a good editor at a big publisher with deep pockets for both an advance and marketing, is not something one can choose, only pursue.

I’m not saying an author shouldn’t choose to pursue that route. I mean, me, personally, I wouldn’t, but I’m not saying no one should. I know some authors want validation or big advances. I know some authors believe deeply in the idea of “just writing” and outsourcing marketing. Or whatever the motivation. Maybe the first adult novel they ever read was published by Random House and that’s just always been their dream. Who knows, and who am I to tell people what their motivations should be? Regardless of the motivation, if writers want to pursue that gleaming corporate contract, hey, cool beans.

Here’s my hypothesis: indie authors recommend independence so often because it is the choice writers can make. It’s not easy. It’s likely not lucrative (but what writing is?). The only “success stories” you really hear are the authors who sold eleventy billion books on Kindle and went straight to Simon & Schuster or Random House the moment either came knocking.

I’ve seen an agent claim that being independent is best for “control freaks,” but I think that belies that it’s good for authors who want to be active, and do things, rather than simply hope that people will enable or allow them to do things.

It’s not something to undertake lightly. It’s not something to try without first finding a good freelance editor, and doing a lot of research on how to do it. It requires a lot of work and effort, and a certain perspicacity. I don’t recommend doing it without those things.

But I do recommend it.

It’s not a “cult.” It’s not the “one true way” (there isn’t one). It’s simply a good option at a time when various factors have limited authors’ access to many more options. Maybe there are many paths, but let’s not pretend some of those paths haven’t been bricked up and blocked off. Let’s not pretend that authors can simply walk down any path they choose. Some of those paths have gates, and let’s not pretend that any author who chooses to knock on one of those gates will be granted entrance to the path beyond.

Let’s be honest, instead: maybe there is one true way in publishing, and it’s whatever way you take.


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