I’ve noted several times how much I dislike the phrase “self-publishing,” even going so far as to note there’s no such thing. I’ve spoken often enough (arguably too often?) against corporations and conglomerations and the oft-neglected complexity that has come to color storytelling and writing. I’ve noted that people who call the late-twentieth century business model of publishing and distribution “traditional” are badly misusing the word. I realize, however, I’ve never really talked about what independence means to me, or how I’ve come to it, or why. I thought I would.
I never meant to become an independent author. For a dozen years at least I pursued the path to publication that developed around the early 1980s. I queried agents, hoping to score representation and then a big, competitive auction and then a huge author tour and the sort of authorlebrity status that doesn’t really exist unless you gym-tan-laundry and hire a ghostwriter to do the messy word stuff.
If you end that sentence just before “and the sort,” you probably have a good idea of my mindset. I really believed that was possible.
What happened was a two-fold realization, the first part of which being that the latter part of that sentence is, generally, what brings the former part, and then, finally, that those final four words are the part I needed to dedicate myself to.
If I couldn’t do the messy word stuff, nothing else mattered. And if I could do the messy word stuff, nothing else would matter.
Turns out that’s true.
It wasn’t an easy realization, and it took me a while to get there, during which Twitter allowed me to publicly rant and vent and gnash my terrible teeth and roll my terrible eyes. There’s nothing I really regret saying, I don’t think, but I do wish I’d known enough to redirect my energy more proactively.
I’ve learned that more lately. To be more proactive. To be positive about cool stuff rather than negative about uncool stuff. I still have some moments of negativity, but my hope is that they’re becoming fewer and farther between.
By the time I came to realize the messy word stuff is what really matters, I’d already finished my MFA and a solid chunk of my MBA. Now, while maintaining positivity, and without resorting to slagging on agents or editors or publishing, I’m just going to note that a lot of factors and elements have come together to create a setting in which authors can prosper without the help of individuals whose help used to be necessary (for one reason or other).
Realizing that made me look more closely at business models and contracts and rights and stories and writing and publishing.
And I wasn’t the only one. A lot of authors started doing so. A lot of authors started to realize that they could do things on their own.
People who used to help authors called it “self-publishing.” Because their way, they decided, was “traditional publishing.” A lot of those people are publishing veterans with 20 years under their belts, but in 2012, twenty years only brings one back to 1992, and by then the late-twentieth century model was already 20 years in place. They’ve never known business without conglomerations and Barnes & Noble, so to them, maybe it really does feel “traditional.” Maybe they just don’t know any better and can’t imagine any other way to do things. Maybe they can’t, in fact, so tied are they to corporations who need to eke out profits.
I don’t know. Truth be told, I don’t want to know.
Because I realized somewhere along the way not that I didn’t want to be part of that system but rather that I maybe didn’t fit into it. That my novels and stories might always befuddle and confound some poor marketing folks because they wouldn’t know what the hell to do with them. Something like Meets Girl—a debut literary novel that functions equally as a satire of said . . .? Time travel is a difficult market in the first place, never mind when a novel attempts to not only define but also depict a temporal paradox and higher-level theories of quantum mechanics.
(I can only imagine some poor acquisitions editor attempting to pitch Meets Girl at a production meeting. “Remember that movie Adaptation? Well, like that, but a novel. About a guy who meets the Devil. Well. It might be the Devil. Or not. It’s about a girl—or maybe writing. I’m not sure. Oh, and did I mention that it has quotes from other novels? I forgot that bit.”)
For me, independence has little to do with means of distribution or ways of doing business and a lot more to do with creating work outside the environment mentioned above. Once, I mentioned that I didn’t understand why independent filmmakers weren’t called “self-whatever” but independent authors were called “self-published,” but I notice that Wikipedia, at the time of this writing, notes that independent filmmaking has less to do with distribution and everything to do with someone creating work outside the system created by major movie studios.
(This may be changing. Over the past few months, I’ve seen Rolling Stone call independent albums “self-released” and independent films “self-distributed. Which isn’t exactly the progress one would have hoped. It’s pretty much the exact opposite, in fact.)
Ditto independent musicians. It’s arguably less about selling CDs (?) at tables when playing in bars and more about producing an album without the involvement of a major label.
(Here there is an analogy to be made between editors and producers. Even an independent musician needs a good producer to make a great album; even an independent author needs a good editor to make a great novel. Just as an independent musician can hire a producer, so too can an independent author hire an editor. One doesn’t need to be part of the corporate system to do either.)
Independence, to me, doesn’t mean uploading to Amazon. It means that as an author, I operate outside the realm of literary agents and corporate publishers. Of course some will make the argument I’m giving up one corporation for another, but the fundamental difference is two-fold: first, in terms of access and second in terms of analogy. For me, Amazon is not acting as corporate publishers did—it’s acting, rather, as corporate booksellers did, and so it’s all more akin to removing literary agents and corporate publishers from the equation and getting books directly into bookstores, except of course bookstores don’t exist, and onto bookshelves, except the bookshelves are nearly every internet-connected screen in the world.
For me, as an author—not even to mention as a reader—that’s revolutionary. And revolutionary is something I’ve always wanted to be.
Independence gives me that opportunity, to do with as I will. That freedom to both fail and thrive, that ability to experiment and question. As anyone who’s read my choose-your-own-adventure noir “Jamais Plus” knows, I like to experiment.
The way I see it, I have a job to do, and that job is storytelling. As a professional writer, part of my job is to use whatever tools I can to do my job, and so far as I can see, Amazon and Kindle are in the long run both better tools with which to do my job than literary agents, publishers, and Barnes & Noble. I think “in the long run” is an important phrase there, because I think it’s important to realize that writing and storytelling and building a career are long-term endeavors, and especially for authors might take too long for corporations or people associated with them to invest in except in extraordinarily rare cases.