Are The Cards Stacked Against Self-Published Authors?

I'm a huge admirer of literary fiction and of edgy, ground-breaking, literary fiction in particular: Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, The Jungle. The list goes on, but each work challenged (and continues to challenge) its readers to ask themselves probing questions and to examine every facet of human society, no matter how uncomfortable or controversial. Each was a risk. Each moved the mile-marker forward.

Nonetheless, had each made its debut in the new Millennium, would it have had the same impact? More to the point, would any of these authors have even been given the opportunity to have his book published (in the most traditional sense of the word) in today's ultra-formulaic, play-it-safe society? Or would they -- like so many of us who have strived to buck formula for originality and lost a chance at representation in the process -- also have been forced into self-publishing? Browse the not-so-wide assortment of overly repetitive "new fiction" at your local or online retailer, and you might agree. It's mostly fluff.

Granted, there are only seven basic plots (or one or three or 20 or 36, depending on which source you site), a point my Dad made repeatedly during the three years it took me to write my debut novel, The Life He Knew. "But," he'd remind me just as frequently, "what's really important is substance. That -- and the courage to go against the grain." Orwell had it. So did Huxley and Bradbury and Sinclair and the countless others who took up the pen to warn us about everything from totalitarianism to the once deplorable conditions of the Chicago meat-packing industry.

Investigations and sociological studies were launched based on these writings. The Pure Food and Drug Act was legislated. In some cases, the English language itself was affected. But that was then, and this is now, and now is when we see that those incredibly astute criticisms of emerging American (as well as non-American) censorship have been replaced with something else entirely: Monsters -- monsters of near-mythic, superhero-like qualities. Monsters we'd rather date and/or sleep with then run away from. Monsters... that sell.

Call it a trending fixation. Call it a sort of wish fulfilment. Whatever it is, it encourages readers to imagine life as being grounded in something other than humanity. In the words of the 1987 cult movie, The Lost Boys: "Sleep all day. Party all night. Never grow old. Never die. It's fun to be a vampire."

Admittedly, that concept (perhaps more than any of its fictional competitors) has its appeal. Why face today's problems -- no matter how seemingly mundane or grating or overwhelming -- when you can sprout fangs and simply fly away? Forget the abysmal job-market. Never mind that stagnant economy. Student loans? Health care? Don't cast an eye to the future. Drink blood and be merry.

It's escapism 101, perhaps one of the most profitable approaches to consumer entertainment of all time and the veritable antithesis to risk-taking. Still, although these monster-mash romances and supernatural trysts (not to mention highly bankable "zombie apocalypses") may transport us to alternate worlds, they're all printed here... and it's in this realm that cold, hard cash reigns supreme. Agents, editors, publicists, publishers -- they're all spokes in the industry wheel -- and nothing makes that wheel turn like a hit. Hence, the almost ceaseless bombardment of overly redundant, essentially profit-driven material.

It all makes sense in a "self-preservation" sort of way, but none of it allows for real, artistic license. I know. The Life He Knew incorporates a relatively minor deviation from the cookie-cutter-norm (in my book , it's the 'monsters' who envy us -- not the other way around), and yet it was met with an almost universally apathetic "meh" from traditional representation. It was disappointing, sure, but it also got me thinking about the authors I'd grown up reading and whether or not their amazingly profound, unequivocally brilliant material would fare much better in today's market. I'd like to think they'd still outshine all comers, the way they did decades ago, but -- in an industry where readership is on the decline, where physical books are rapidly being replaced with less costly, downloadable content, and where literary agents are more than hesitant to take a chance on an unknown -- I'm not entirely sure that would be the case.

Perhaps, in this era of profit-margins, instant gratification, and shifting attention spans, thinking outside the box -- and challenging others to think as a result -- has become something of an afterthought in and of itself. Perhaps industry insiders (riddled with internet queries in a way their predecessors never were) have to put more emphasis on bankable, established entities than they do on discovering new talent, ripe with fresh vision. And, perhaps, some of this generation's more entertaining and/or cautionary writers will remain undiscovered through no fault of their own. In a story as repetitive as the material the mainstream elite are peddling, they'll slip through the cracks and be left to languish in the immensely over-populated nether realm that is self-publishing. Sloughing from one day to the next, with the odds of discovery perpetually stacked against them, while their Kickstarter funds quickly drain away, and as they struggle to differentiate themselves amidst a sea of competitors, they'll be lucky to sell the 250 copies of their books their more "successful" peers reportedly average.

If that's the case, then their anonymity is our loss. I only pray their inevitable frustration doesn't lead to their giving up.