When I finished my first novel Offline in 2004, I had a choice. I could have gone through the traditional route and found an agent, who would find a publisher, who would take the book through the production process until it wound up in bookstores. Or I could publish my book independently and get it out to the public right away. I chose the latter route.
Unfortunately, the discussion about independent and traditional publishing has turned into an “Fandroid versus iSheep” style flame war with John Green as the latest to throw some NSFW fireballs. Although I feel the same way he does about Ayn Rand, I find his attack on independent publishing disappointing — especially when you compare it with his comments about independent producers versus the establishment when it comes to TV.
The reasons why I chose independent publishing are similar to the reasons John sticks to YouTube: creative control, a desire to reach an audience instead of meeting a corporation’s bottom line, and the freedom to develop content that I enjoy creating and an audience enjoys reading.
With independent publishing, I don’t have to wait for years to get my book on the market. I don’t have to deal with “author’s notes” from low-level editors who don’t understand the book or try to shoehorn it into a marketing niche where it doesn’t belong. My book wouldn’t be remaindered after three months, and my writing career wouldn’t be considered over if I didn’t sell hundreds of thousands of copies of my debut novel in its first run. Independent publishing, especially with print-on-demand and eBooks, gives me time to build an audience.
Independent publishing also enables me to be part of a growing community. Contrary to what John Green said, independent publishing is not a solo effort. (This is why the term “self-publishing” is a misnomer.) We work with beta readers, editors, book designers, cover artists, publishing and distribution companies, and other writers. We build communities on social networks, share ideas, and support each other. We independently published authors have become creative in the way we promote our works and engage our readers. We are also committed to producing quality books. Independent publishing doesn’t eliminate a writer’s need to perfect his or her work. The difference is that we can work with each other and our readers to get feedback, and we can take back works and fix them when needed. We don’t have to depend on an in-house department of editors and hope they catch all the typos (which they can’t do either).
Independent publishing is entrepreneurial. We have the same type of innovative spirit as the personal computer, automotive, and — yes — publishing industries had in their infancy. Infant industries do produce crude and poor quality products (but established industries like modern publishing do too), but they also produce gems that attract customers and push these industries forward. If we dismissed these industries in their infancy, we wouldn’t have the computers, cars, and mass-produced books we enjoy and depend upon today.
I’m not saying there is anything wrong with traditional publishing. Independent publishing is not for everyone. When you publish independently, you have to take on all of the tasks of a big publisher. This includes sales, marketing, distribution, and finance. You have to hire help and find partners. If you don’t have the interest, resources, or capabilities to perform those tasks, you’re better off working with a publisher. Furthermore, major publishers can still reach larger markets than independent publishing. A independently published author can be Amazon successful and get books into bookstores. But independently published authors can’t get books into every major bookstore chain, supermarket, and airport gift shop the way a major publisher can. Major publishers can mount massive advertising campaigns, arrange shelf placement at bookstores, and get writers on talk shows. Independent publishing can’t produce the success of a J.K. Rowling, Jodi Picoult, or John Green. At least not yet.
But not all writers seek that level of fame and fortune. Sure, we dream about being on the top of the New York Times Best Sellers List and getting a seven-figure movie deal. We have to be realistic and know that this is a spot for either the very talented, the very lucky, or the very famous (or infamous). Most of us are happy to build an audience, get their support and positive reviews, and earn enough to get a nice return on investment. There is a place for us in the book business too.
We shouldn’t dump on writers whether they use Lulu or Random House. We’re all trying to do the same thing: Craft words to share with an audience.