The Great Battle: Traditional Vs Self-Published

A post by tribesmate Kirkus MacGowan yesterday fired my imagination. Kirkus detailed why he chose self-publishing over traditional publishing, which led to some fascinating comments on the subject, some of which challenged my notions on my chosen path. I urge you to check it out when you have the time, especially Kirkus’s response to Gina – that’s a great one. Here’s what I said in my response:

At the risk of sounding biased, as I chose the self-publishing path, I agree with all of the points that you present; for me, I chose the path because I wanted to control my own destiny, and I feel I have enough professional experience as a writer in other venues that I can recognize the necessary qualities in my own work.

I don’t think self-publishing is for everyone. Today it may well be the path of the impatient, but in the long-term, I think it should be the path of those who have a more stringent eye, or a vision for their careers. A self-published author needs to offer something even more unique than one can find in traditional publishing, whether it’s a different take that might not be translate well to the mass-market or a fresh approach to what fiction itself means.

To sum it up, I believe that self-publishers should embrace their outsider status and give the reader something they can’t find elsewhere. And it should go without saying that they offer a high-quality experience; I’m still dismayed by some of the unfortunate quality that I stumble across in indies.

Sooner or later I suspect a system will arise to determine which indies offer the best products, just as it always has evolved. Maybe at that point all the hand-wringing between proponents of the traditional versus the self-published path can come to some agreement, as I think the trad proponents have some good points when it comes to quality control.

I’ve spoken before of my admiration for outsider art. Wikipedia defines outsider art thus:

The term outsider art was coined by art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972 as an English synonym for art brut (French: [aʁ bʁyt], “raw art” or “rough art”), a label created by French artist Jean Dubuffet to describe art created outside the boundaries of official culture; Dubuffet focused particularly on art by insane-asylum inmates.

While Dubuffet’s term is quite specific, the English term “outsider art” is often applied more broadly, to include certain self-taught or Naïve art makers who were never institutionalized. Typically, those labeled as outsider artists have little or no contact with the mainstream art world or art institutions. In many cases, their work is discovered only after their deaths. Often, outsider art illustrates extreme mental states, unconventional ideas, or elaborate fantasy worlds.

I suppose I should clarify something before I press on. When I speak of the “Indie Community”, I mean the thriving movement that I see popping up all over the Internet, banding together in places like the Kindle Boards, Twitter, Triberr, Book Blogs, and many other places. This largely seems to be a group of self-directed authors who have taken the reins on their publication, PR, and overall career direction. Most are either first-time writers or early on in their careers. In my mind, I separate a lot of this community from those who have either “made it” or who came from a traditional publishing background, as they have something of a different perspective, and more resources at their disposal. Not to say that they shouldn’t be welcome, but they represent a different slice of the market.

Of course, it’s folly to try to pin down such a group, so let’s just acknowledge this is likely a work of folly going in. Still, I want to chase the idea down the rabbit hole.

So, while the indie community itself doesn’t 100% qualify as an outsider art movement, the community does share some commonalities with outsider art, based on some of the responses that I received to yesterday’s post. Some of these include:

  • We create outside the boundaries of the “official” publishing and literary culture.
  • A great deal of us seem to be self-taught, at least when it comes to publishing.
  • Many of us speak of being compelled to write – this is common in outsider art, where it’s thought to be a means to validate and recreate comprehension of the world and existence.
  • Our goals are typically highly personal, though obviously exceptions exist.

Sure, the community emulates some of the things that traditional publishing does. Why? Because it works! I don’t think that outsider art is about avoiding wholesale the traditions of the past – it’s about interpreting them in a manner best befitting you. Those original inmates didn’t paint with unusual materials – they worked in traditional media, using recognized practices that they had translated for what worked within the boundaries of their own visions.

It can’t be denied that self-publishing has quite a few drawbacks. Our distribution networks aren’t the same as the big publishers, and our marketing budgets are nowhere near as large. We don’t have the “label cachet” that comes with a big-name imprint. We face an uphill battle in convincing readers that our work is worthwhile.

But none of those matter. At least, long-term. Distribution issues can eventually be solved through creative group sourcing – and I have some ideas for this that I’ll eventually present as a group solution. Marketing budgets are rapidly evening out, and let’s face it, the marketing budget for a mid-lister was never that great. Label cachet can be solved through community initiatives to develop a gate-keeping system; I’ve spoken before about the concept of something like an indie guild, in which existing members vet new members and the quality of their work, leading to the mark of their guild(s) on a given author’s work representing a cut above normal indie quality.

Speaking of which, I challenge the concept of an “official” publishing and literary culture in and of itself. Gatekeepers are a good thing to ensure quality, but turning that gate-kept system into some sort of all-knowing, all-seeing official record of what is “official” and “matters” is another matter entirely. I would hope even the guild system would avoid that sort of fallacy and the arrogance that you see in some authors and publishers, that the traditional system is the only means of establishing what is real and exists, when in reality there is a vast world out there of which they only dimly seem to be aware.

But why do all this? Why go to all this trouble when their system is in place? The key is in that one sentence above: To sum it up, I believe that self-publishers should embrace their outsider status and give the reader something they can’t find elsewhere. Hey, if writing a Twilight-a-like is what your muse demands, more power to you. I can’t find it in myself to judge people who are honestly doing what they love and trying to make a go of it. I’m thrilled that Amanda Hocking has made it work – just one more example of how it can be done.

I just think the real power in this movement – what really makes the indie and kindle/eReader movement troubling to traditional publishing – is this ability to offer readers experiences that they can find nowhere else. To offer unique voices, rather than the more homogenized voices that we get out of the industry these days. To present alternative viewpoints. I question whether I could write a book featuring a black lesbian (for example) as a narrator and have it picked up by the big publishers. Agents and publishers have tried to change those characters to make them more “marketable”, as if people who look different or have different sexual orientations just don’t count.

That is where we come in. We don’t have to make the quarterly profit projection. We don’t have to report our gains and losses to stockholders. We’re trying to do this for the love of our work, and we can afford to take chances with both storytelling and price points.

This is why I’m going indie: I believe that the artist and his/her imagination can present more than what we’ve been given and told is possible. What are your reasons?

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25 Comments

  1. Excellent post! I left the traditional publishing world when I’d read of the success of many indies who came before me. Creative freedom is a big deal for me and many editors I worked with tried to reign me in as a writer. Not only do we have creative freedom but we have the freedom to release our books when we want, control our price, our marketing, even our cover art. The Gatekeepers for me are now readers and that’s how it should be. As far as quality control, Amazon is working on this now and I suspect B&N and Smashwords will follow in their footsteps. Poorly edited books with too many errors/typos are being pulled off the virtual shelf and authors notified. Why is it super cool to be an indie musician yet considered “unprofessional” by many to be an indie writer? Gasp! They can’t do that!!! Yes, we can. We can also hire great editors, great cover artists and send our books to great beta readers. Yes, we test market too. Is it that we’ve figured out how to do it ourselves that frightens the pants off the Big Six? Editors and agents are sweating like crazy right now. So are the Big 6. It is human nature to hurl insults at the competition and try to make it look bad. Indies are bad alright. Bad as in BAD ASS!

    • Yes! The parallel to indie musicians is exactly what I’m thinking of, here. Lots of bands and indie labels have made it work. I know that writers can do the same, with just a touch of business savvy, attitude, and knowledge of the market.

  2. The publishing industry is in such a state of flux, I would hesitate to commit to a contract at this point. I would not have chosen Indie a year ago. Probably not even six months ago, although I was starting to think about it. Seeing others do it helped change my mind, and gaining a mentor. Although I’m far from a ‘success’ yet, I’m glad I made the choice. Having complete control is wonderful. And if we stick with it, people will find us, realize we do offer quality, and we’ll rise. I believe so. We just have to be patient … the part where I have a problem. lol

    • I hear you, Mary. Same position all around; this time last year, I was scoffing at indies and all-in on finding an agent, going the publisher route, etc. I submitted to agents and even got some encouraging feedback. I’m sure I could have sent this new version of the novel out and snagged at least a small-time agent, but the more I read of peoples’ stories dealing with agents and publishing right now, the more uneasy I became with the idea. I knew I had a major decision to make, so I drew up a list of the pros and cons, and figured indie was the way to go.

      I wouldn’t rule out signing with an indie publisher if the stars aligned and they made the right offer, but I’m 99% sure I’d have to say no to the majors, unless they made me an offer I just couldn’t resist (which is unlikely, so it’s just pie-in-the-sky thinking).

      As for people discovering us if we deliver quality, I think that helps but there’s also a need to sell the story of our careers. People love a narrative, and I think seeing an author develop into something major – and even giving people a chance to help write that narrative – can draw people in.

  3. When I finish my book, I am going to make every effort to go trad, but if it doesn’t work, I’ll take the Indy route. I agree that homogenized voices are a lot of what we see in the mainstream, and that can become pretty dull. I actually used to be an Indy skeptic, because I read some pretty shitty writing. Made me think (erroneously) “People go Indy, because they suck.” Bad, i know, but its a common misconception. I decided to stop supporting rich trad writers and started reading samples and downloading books from Indy writers when I decided to start using my Twitter account six months ago. I have to say it’s enriched my reading experience and aided in my personal creativity. I think the writer has to make the decision for themselves, but I’m not opposed to going either way.

    • Yep, right there with you. The first few self-pubbed books I read were pretty bad, but I started to pick up recommendations from there, and I discovered some really great writers. They would once have been mid-listers, anonymous faces in the cog of a large publisher. Now they have a chance to control their fates, at least in some ways.

      Refresh my memory, Amberr, does your book involve your photography? Because if so, I think that’s definitely a situation where a traditional publisher is going to offer major advantages. Something like that would really need a more sophisticated print layout and a major distribution network.

  4. My comment in one word, “YES.” 🙂

  5. Your response to Kirkus is one I can agree with. What indie publishing IS isn’t what it actually SHOULD be. It should be 1) an alternate route for people who can make it traditionally, but wish to retain control, or who have other reasons for their choice, and 2) people who can’t make it traditionally for marketing reasons, or publishers won’t take a risk on something that is outside the box, but who are STILL offering a quality product. At the moment it’s mostly just operating as traditional publishing’s slush pile or for people who are too impatient to work hard at their writing. The people who have validly chosen self-publishing are buried beneath a mountain of crap. I, too, have been very dismayed by the quality of what many people are self-publishing.

    • Ciara, that’s absolutely it. There are some of us who are trying to approach the problem from this angle (and I’ve been fortunate to meet a lot of fellow writers who are), and others who view it as a dumping ground, or a way to make a quick buck. All of us end up serving in some sort of minor league system for the Big Six when we could be smart in offering an alternative, just like indie music. I’m positive that it will work itself out over time, but of course things are so volatile right now that it’s cloudy just what form the solution will take – hence my itch to be proactive and try to shape the narrative.

  6. Going self-pub is definitely an options for me, especially to get into the international market.
    On the other hand, I might also submit with local publishers in Malaysia. I really don’t know how THAT works – all the stuff I find online are very USA-centric and I don’t even know if we HAVE agents here! More research to do, I guess before I make a decision.
    Just need to get the book done first. =)

    • I probably should have noted that most of this applies to the American market. I have no idea what the market looks like in other nations, and it sounds like there’s not a lot of information on those, period! I’m very curious to follow your journey.

  7. No, the book won’t have photography, but in the future, I might publish a book with photos–for this I would go trad, most certainly.

  8. I heart this more than you can know. And the Indie Guild concept … already happening. People are gathering and re-gathering, finding/making alliances, as we go through the experiences of indie publishing. A group of 20 YA authors (of which I’m part) recently came together, invite only. We’ve decided on a name (Indelibles) but are still working on our goals as a group. But it’s clear already how powerful the information sharing can be.

    Exciting times ahead!

  9. This is a fantastic post. I agree with many of your ideas, although I worry that the guild concept could become another gatekeeper of sorts. However, I suppose that wouldn’t preclude folks from publishing; it’s just another method of quality control, which I agree is needed. For me, when I decided to self-publish, I was scared out of my mind of putting something out there that looked and read amateur. My hand was shaking as I hit “upload”! I did not want to reinforce the stigma of self-publishing equals crappy work, and I hope more writers take the time to put out quality work (and that doesn’t just mean quality formatting). As you point out, there are some very, very good indie books out there, but it’s hard for them (me!) to get discovered. Marketing is a TON of work, but yet, at least for me, it is so, so satisfying to be able to follow this path.

    • Thank you! Well…I like the concept of gatekeepers, honestly. I know that the position can be subject to the same problems in any bureaucracy, but quality control is an important issue, especially when consumers have the choice to just go elsewhere, to people who constantly maintain that high level (though the Big Six have slipped quite a bit in that department). I just prefer “soft” gatekeepers, if that makes any sense – people who aren’t financially invested in making the work fit into a popular mold.

      As for the rest of what you said…yep, I can totally relate. I haven’t put my work out yet, but I’ve become obsessive about the details of every little thing, and where I can’t handle it, I find the people who can. The last frontier for all of us, I think, is the marketing question. How do we make ourselves stand out? Still puzzling over that one and researching a lot.

  10. Good morning everyone,
    Since it is the first book I’ve written, I have to go with the traditional. The reason is, what with all the months of writing and then all the different things you have to go through to get it even seen by a publisher/agent is overwhelming.That said, I can’t believe how much control you lose, when going with traditional. My son is a natural sketch artist and I would love for him to do some sketches throughout my novel and have even considered having him do my cover, but have found out, that not only does the traditional publishing not let you, but they also have control over the title of the book? Wait a minute….It’s my book! So I get the great debate over the two and will continue to do more (serious) research into self publishing as I get ready to write the next book

    • Welcome Karen! I actually didn’t realize that you had no input on the title! I had an idea about the cover, but I had always gotten the impression that you worked with the editor/etc. to come up with the title. Wow. I’d definitely like to hear more if you pursue self-publishing along with the traditional publishing…differences, etc.

      • I will keep you updated! Since I’m new to all of this I ask a lot of questions on my blog. Stop by if you get a chance, maybe you can help me out with some answers! http://differentcornersinmylife.blogspot.com/
        And I’m going to quote The green water blog here because it makes sense
        “The Golden Rule?”

        “He grinned. “He who has the gold, rules.”

        Even though he was referring to a screenplay he wrote I think it works for novels and publishers too!
        Hope you Have a super awesome day!

  11. This is the most enjoyable, insightful and encouraging take on self-publishing I’ve seen in a long time – maybe ever.

    When I started writing my book, just 4 years ago, it was suicide to consider self-publishing, and so I was shocked two years ago, when – after a handful of near-hits with agents who loved my project, but we concerned over its niche-market – two different agents suggested I leverage my PR background and unique concept and publish it myself.

    Two years later, I’m so much better for it, mostly because I know that it’s not one niche project, it’s actually a hybrid of two of the most popular genres out there with potential far greater than the book itself. It’s not going to be easy, and it’s out of my comfort zone, but that’s the best part! Because I waited, the book is superior to it’s original, and my vision for bringing it to, and supporting it at, market has become so clearer, bigger than I’d initially pictured, I can’t imagine giving over creative control to anyone, or giving up the bulk of the profit.

    Business is business, and those whose livelihood depends on a sure thing can’t take on the “fun but niche,” or the “love it or hate – no in between” titles, I get that. I’m glad for it. Especially now – could there be a better time?

    Before I was hoping to be part of the 1 per cent of authors deemed worthy of traditional publishing, but now, I’m glad to be part of a larger movement as one of the 99 per cent. It feels like high school, in a way. There was 1 per cent of the pretty/popular population who decide what and who was cool, but then we grow up, and the 99 per cent gets to decide for themselves what they like, and who they think is cool. In that, I suspect we’ll find that the 99 per cent have more in common than one might have thought, and with that, more power than we ever imagined. Especially the bolder we are with, and more dedicated we are to, our choices.

    Thanks for a great read.

    W&W

    • Wow, thanks a lot. Yeah, I’m in total agreement with you here; I always had questions about whether my work would place with agencies or publishers, as I’m a genre-hopper/crosser. Part fantasy, part sci-fi, part horror….I’ve heard so many different definitions for the stuff that comes out of my head. It sounds like you were in a similar boat. Great reply. I appreciate it.

  12. I think that self publishing is a great way for an upcoming writer to get their work heard. I have been doing it for a while now and have gotten so much more recognition than i have ever expected.

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