I was chatting to a neighbour the other day, groaning about a particularly ordinary novel I was in the middle of editing.
“The story’s pretty cliché,” I said. “I’m struggling to get excited by it.”
“Oh dear,” he replied. “Hopefully she’ll just self-publish and be done with it.”
I was gobsmacked.
What did he mean? Was he saying that self-publishing is only for boring clichés? Was he saying that self-published books didn’t go anywhere so it would get lost in the digital slush pile and save us all the agony?
Whatever his message, it didn’t bode well for me.
While I have had a book traditionally published, I now self-publish my own novels, and have nine indie books available on all the major digital channels. I sold almost 2,000 copies last month on Amazon alone and have an average four-star rating. I DIY, and I do so proudly.
Or at least I did, until we had our little roadside chat.
Despite my humiliation, I didn’t call my neighbour on his insult because I didn’t want to embarrass him. He’s actually a decent bloke and I knew that he knew I self-published books, so would be mortified by what he’d just said. I couldn’t bear the look in his eyes when he realised his faux pas, the frantic backpedal, the attempt to retract his foot while swallowing words that were, frankly, indigestible.
Come on, guys, let’s remove the scales from our eyes and modern up.
We no longer believe that the produce sold at Woolworths and Coles is superior to produce from farmers’ markets. We accept that mass produced furniture from IKEA usually pales in comparison to bespoke pieces made by local artisans. We are almost always more inspired by indie movies that are made outside of Hollywood.
Yet we still cling to the idea that if there’s a Big Publisher behind a book, even a commercial or genre novel, it must be somehow better. Surely we’re better than that? Surely we’re smarter? Surely we’ve read anything by Tara Moss, Mary Higgins Clark or James Patterson?
Don’t get me wrong. All three traditionally published authors are very successful in the crime genre and I wish them all the best. I’m not saying their work is unworthy, not at all. That’s actually my point—readers should determine publishing success not me or a few suits in a plush office somewhere. Yet I could name at least 30 indie crime writers I feel do a far superior job to those three. While none of them have had the same kind of reporting and reviewing (or bookshelf space), these lesser-known authors create prose that is so much richer, characters who are far less cliché, and plots that leave you gripping the edge of your bed each night.
Yet by destiny or design, they have gone the independent route, and while some are doing really well, others are struggling. And they’re struggling, in part, thanks to the attitudes of people like my neighbour who clearly wouldn’t give them a whirl because they haven’t got the words Pan Macmillan or Penguin on the spine.
How shortsighted of him, and oh how he’s missing out!
The changing tide
The book publishing world is changing, and it’s changing fast. It’s not just that, according to the latest Author Earnings Report, indie authors far outsell traditionally published authors in the biggest marketplace, Amazon, or that they are well represented on digital best-seller lists. It’s that so many writers now choose to go it alone. Not only do they earn higher royalties per book (70% is so much more attractive than 15%, don’t you think?), they also have greater control. Nobody else gets to determine the ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘how’ of their writing success.
While online readers are clearly lapping them up, some attitudes in society have a long way to go to catch up. Most writers festivals still shun indie authors and the traditional media almost never reviews them and certainly doesn’t count them on their ‘Best-seller’ lists. It’s no wonder then that my neighbour has a subconscious bias that should be left in the 20th century along with the view that women don’t belong in the workplace, priests are beyond reproach, the climate isn’t warming, and our politicians know best.
Stories are stories are stories
Books and writing have grown up—traditional gatekeepers have been shown the gate, and readers have rightfully taken their place—and it’s time for aspects of society to grow up, too.
Stories are stories no matter what the format or publisher. The author I’ve been editing is not a great storyteller, in my opinion, and never will be whether she gets traditionally published or not. But that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t be allowed the chance to have a crack, even if she DIYs.
After all, she’s certainly no worse than “#1 international and New York Times bestselling author”* Mary Higgins Clark whose publisher is one of the ‘Big Five’.
Who am I to determine who does and does not get to publish? Let’s leave that to the people who really matter, the people who buy books. If my client doesn’t sell, she’ll still have a book to show her grandkids and have ticked off one of her life goals. Then she’ll probably just move on.
All I ask of sections of society like the media, festival organisers and my neighbour is that they keep up. Give a book credit based on its content, not the imprint at the front. Take a look at the star rating. Look at the reader reviews. Or, even better, read the first few chapters for yourself before you diss or dismiss. It’s that simple. No one’s saying it’s better, but you may be surprised to find it is.
Oh and be careful what you say to your neighbours next time. They might have just published an indie novel and be feeling pretty proud of themselves. Let’s give them a pat on the back not a silent slap.
*According to publisher Simon & Schuster