Indie Publishing Is Here … Just Get Over It

The Guardian ran an interesting article by Barry Eisler. It would only have been provocative or newsworthy for those who’ve been asleep in a cave for the past 10 years and woke to suddenly find themselves in a world of digital and POD books and of authors who publish independently of agents and publishing houses. Eisler led readers through the exact same conversation that people have been having for the last couple of years: That digital is here to stay and publishers need to find ways to stay competitive.

Readers commented about whether agents and publishing houses are still relevant and whether indie authors aren’t at a disadvantage because they lack the marketing muscle that traditional publishers provide. It was a litany of the same fears and doubts that I’ve been seeing in the reader-comment sections following umpteen articles about self versus traditional publishing. And I’ve been through these conversations to know that (a) traditional publishers aren’t going anywhere, but will simply have to re-position themselves in a changing landscape and (b) no mid-list or newbie author at a traditional publisher has much marketing at their disposal anyway (their tools–social media promotions, blogs, interviews, contests, etc.–are the same ones as for indie authors).

Eisler wraps up The Guardian piece by suggesting that publishing houses–because they’re no longer essential to the equation–need to offer value, something that makes them, as he puts, “useful” in a market in which indie publishing services are mushrooming. But what this means, I’m not sure. I’d like to see some non-scammy ideas on what publishers can do to set themselves apart because, so far, what we’ve seen is disgraceful.

We’ve seen attempts by major houses to insinuate themselves into the indie publishing pie. I’m talking about Penguin’s buyout of Author Solutions, a self-publishing service with a history of unscrupulousness (also check out David Gaughran’s takedown of Penguin and Author Solutions from 2012), that’s led to some unpleasantness for Penguin’s parent company. Another lame attempt at being useful was evidenced when Argo Navis started offering indie publishing services through ICM (this isn’t indie publishing actually because the books being put out by Argo Navis are all ICM agented), but, for some reason, it believes that overcharging for services that competitors like Amazon or Smashwords charge a lot less for was a sound business idea. It’s all mind-boggling; so far, I’d say traditional publishers have utterly failed in their attempts to be useful.

That’s why, about seven months ago, I made the choice to put the kibosh on all the agent and publisher queries (I’d gone out to several dozen) and opt straight for self-publishing. After a couple of years of manuscript requests, positive reads, complimentary feedback during one-on-one’s with agents at conferences, at seminars, etc. and lots of, “I like it, but I’m not in love with it,” and “You’ve got chops, but this is, frankly, too mid-list,” I decided I literally had nothing to lose by going indie. Also, I realized that, four years since finishing the first draft of my novel, I didn’t wish to wait another year or longer for a publisher to commit and put it on their production roster. And I decided to take control. So, I started my own imprint–Bandwagon Press–and signed up with CreateSpace to help with cover design and interior formatting as well as to create both the POD and Kindle versions of my book. I also hired a copyeditor to start fine-tuning my manuscript.

As strongly as I feel about my book, without an agent or traditional publisher, it’s at a disadvantage in an indie world dominated by genre books. My story has no vampires, zombies, drugs (OK, there is one minor scene of drug use), abusive or self-destructive teens. It’s not sci-fi, a romance, a mystery or thriller. What I’ve written is straight-up literary fiction; now, it is YA coming-of-age, multi-cultural fiction, so I’ve got those labels going for me. And it does have an angsty teenager in its midst and an exotic locale–India–as its setting. It deals a lot with issues close to the heart of every young man, i.e., friends, girls, and freedom. So, while I want to stay completely true to what the book is at its heart, I’ve also got to push whatever labels it falls under to connect directly with potential readers. Reaching potential readers is going to be key, as I see it, especially for a book that doesn’t have immediate genre appeal (like I said, no zombies). I’ve written a quieter novel, but I believe it’s got an emotional impact that will sneak up on its readers, who’ll feel genuinely affected by what my character lives through, feels, and becomes. Publishers Weekly liked it enough, so I figure that’s a good start.

I don’t believe The Leaving of Things had a home in traditional publishing. And I’m excited to be part of a vibrant new publishing landscape formed by writers, readers, and technology. It’s here that I’ve staked out a piece of digital real estate for my book. I have no idea if it will flourish here, but I’m happy to start tilling the ground.

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