On Monday, American novelist and screenwriter Chuck Wendig published a post titled, ‘Self-Publishing Is Not The Minor Leagues’. That title is fairly self-explanatory: self-publishing has established itself as a financially and artistically viable way to get a book to market so, in a nutshell, Wendig makes this plea: can indie authors please stop eulogising the very existence of this stuff. He makes a totally rationally, even-keeled (too even I’d argue) appeal to the self-publishing community to be more professional and critical.
Hundreds of comments, a follow-up post and some message board angst later, it appears that not everyone agrees. It gets weird but there is a part of the self-publishing community that seems incredibly resistant to things like:
- Honing one’s craft in private
- Professional editing
- Professional cover design
- Critical debate about the quality of an ebook
It all scans as ludicrous at first glance. But it’s very human as well.
Some of these people have found and fostered an online community around their writing and it’s important to them. It’s strangely valid in a skewed way: these ebooks are not literature and never will be literature (they’re more akin to pulps) so why labour this community with literature’s standards of excellence?
The point Wendig makes is that a tsunami-sized slush of this stuff online distracts the readership in general. It hurts the brand. His fear is that the worst of this stuff hurts self-publishing as a whole.
I’M NOT REALLY HERE TO WEIGH INTO THIS DEBATE
What caught my eye while trawling the outrage were various comments comparing the growth of self-publishing (or indie publishing) to that of independent music. The latter is a place where I’m fairly experienced, having played in bands and worked as a music critic since my teens. That was a while ago PS. Decades. Yeah, plural.
What follows is a list of my thoughts on how the digital distribution of these two cultural products compares.
It’s pretty rough and preliminary.
GOOD LUCK IF YOU THINK WENDIG IS THE BAD GUY
Wendig’s advice on his blog is directed to other writers. This is what his blog is mainly about. Writer’s read and advocate reading so they’re a good demographic to be preaching to. So his advice comes from a good place. He wants to help other writers. If indie music is anything to go by, he’s getting blowback because people are killing the messenger…yet the message is coming anyway.
In music, virtually no one cares if a band’s work is independently released or comes from a major. There are a few top tier outlets that almost exclusively deal with majors but these are the sort of crass mainstream entities that would cover anything if it got big enough…it’s just that indie bands almost never do. I’m talking about commercial radio (for the most part) and most of broadcast television. These are outlets that – to use an ebook analogy – would cover the John Locke’s of indie music but no one else.
Below that tier, no one cares. In fact, for a developing band it is an added advantage to be a fast moving, innovating (or trend-riding) indie band rather than one contracted to a big company. And just like in book writing, the ‘big company’ – in ever shorter supply – would virtually never sign a developing band anyhow. Just like with DIY authors, a big company wants to see that the audience is in place before they invest.
In short, most of the meaningful cultural distinctions that can be made between indie and non-indie music are dead, dead, dead. Most successful bands operate exactly like Wendig: they work in a flexible, hybridised way, depending on whoever has the money and the power to get their shit out to the most people.
AMAZON OH DEAR
For a long time, I figured that ebooks don’t have a Pitchfork.com. And for a long time I thought this was great. But then…I realised Amazon.com is the ebook Pitchfork and instead of 6.8 rated reviews written by a dark cabal of music nerds (actually, many of them are wonderful writers) you instead get you ‘3.2 stars’ from some self-selecting bunch of semi-anonymous yahoos doing free labour for a massive corporation.
There’s also Goodreads.com but, personally, Goodreads to Amazon probably scales the same way as Pitchfork to Stereogum / Consequence of Sound / The Quietus / Mess & Noise. There’s a big drop off after the market leaders.
There is a dominant critical voice in the field of ebooks: it’s Amazon.
And if you think I’m being harsh, ask yourself this: when was the last time someone told you they bought a record because it had good reviews on Amazon? Hopefully never. If someone has told you this, slap them.
Self-publishing may have a growing legitimacy but there’s a lag in the criticism attached to legitimacy.
You can’t really have one without the other. When there’s no critical filter, readers will continue to use the one filter that still exists: legacy publishing.
Compared to indie music, ebooks are in their infancy. Independent music had almost a two decade start on the internet. By the time P2P rolled around, indie music (punk and post-punk, rather) had already paved most of the way: fanzines went online as fan sites, scrappy DIY 7” records went online as MP3s, independent channels of publicity and promotion were already fairly mature in the mid-1990s. There was also a bunch of capital already circulating around indie-music. The Minor Threat discography has sold something ridiculous like half a million copies. That’s the sort of seed-funding that would run a independent digital publisher like Crime Factory for an eternity.
That sort of infrastructure just doesn’t exist yet in indie publishing.
Further to which, by the time online digital distribution rolled around in the mid-90s, there was already the sort massive slush of sub-par music that Wendig talks about / tries to rescue from it’s own mediocrity via his original post.
Does this affect indie music? Nope. That’s just compost on the forest floor. Sometimes good bands grow out of that compost but listeners never really get lost in the forest, flailing away need-deep in the bad stuff.
Instead, they stick to the paths cut through the forest: channels of criticism, coverage, social media and promotion, and that thing that already sells ebooks pretty well, word-of-mouth.
THE FOUR-HOUR AUTHOR
A major difference I can see is that there is a fairly noticeable element in ebook publishing that wants to get rich quickly. With all the attendant shabbiness and shadiness of a gold rush, I notice time and time again the reference back to ‘record sales’ and to ‘passive incomes’ and so on. All that junk.
One of the biggest trends in book blogs is to publish one’s sales figures. People are curious about this stuff. People love any daydream that puts fast money in their pocket.
There’s a fairly constant hum of expectation in ebook writing at this level: I want to make some money writing novels.
It’s weird. I wish I had a more elaborate commentary than weird but that’s almost it.
I can’t think of a single musician I’ve met over the age of 18 who thinks that music is a pathway to financial stability. Sure, you can make some money in music and writing, but if it’s about money, just do virtually anything else. It’ll pay better.
Having written words and played music for money, I can safely say these are the two lowest paying interactions with the marketplace I’ve ever had. I got paid more to be the store cleaner at Big W.
The people I do know who make a living from this stuff, they’re so invested in it they almost don’t have a choice. They’ve been writers or musicians since day dot. They’ve been trying to get good at their craft – any way they can – since day dot. Whatever success they’ve had, appears – from the outside, to me – to be the product of making do. I’m gonna do this, it’s all I want to do and it’s the thing I’m really good at, I have to make it work because I have no options here. A decade later, it does work for some of them.
The rest keep their office jobs.
THESIS: There’s no thesis. These are just some ideas/observations.