A Lot of Words About the Indie Community

I’ve decided to go out on a limb today. Long-time readers could probably tell you that this blog once focused more on writing advice and the writing life, and has slowly changed into something else over time, featuring information geared more toward readers, as well as items of note related to my stories, such as ancient machinery. This was a conscious decision, and I want to talk about it a little today, as things are about to go back in that original direction, if just a little bit.

I once intended this blog to be a way to connect with writers. While I’ve found better ways to do that, I still enjoyed sharing some of the things that I learned as I crafted my stories. Once I decided that indie was the right approach for me, I began a relentless crusade for the indie approach and the difference it could make. Eventually, though, I lost interest, to the point that I considered going the traditional route just a month ago.

I’m here to talk some about what changed during that period, beginning sometime in late December and culminating in that near-miss with leaving the indie world.

In short, the indie world made short gains, but also began to look really, really bad. I’m sure there was some element of naivete in my original views as compared to how they’ve evolved, as well, but this movement has had some serious growing pains over the last six months and I’ve watched the events play out in dismay. In short, I didn’t write about the indie community much because I was trying to avoid negativity, and for awhile there I seemed to only encounter negativity.

I’ve seen writers engage in slap fights with critics, a scenario much like Aliens vs. Predator, where we lose. While I agree that some of said critics are trolling for explosions, these writers forgot the sage wisdom of the ancient Internet: don’t feed the trolls. In the process they stirred a lot of anti-indie/self-pub resentment, representing as they did the worst excesses of self-publishing. It was really the opposite of my hopes and dreams for what indie could be.

Institutions such as not flossing.

Now I hear some writers out there already saying “But traditionally published writers have done this for centuries – !” True, they have, but that doesn’t make it right. Some terrible societal institutions lasted just as long, and it’s not a defense to participate in them today. That conversation can be saved for another time, though. Trust me, I’ll get to the whole critic-author thing very soon, likely next week, but I’m not here to talk about that now.

I’ve also seen a lot of people pumping up their reviews with sock puppets and hired friends who haven’t read their books. I’ve seen schemes to game the Amazon system. Hell, as a naive newbie I took part in some myself, not realizing the implications and stopping once I did. I realize that some of this is happening with other newbies, and I give them some leeway, but I’ve seen experienced writers doing this sort of thing, too, and it makes me shake my head.

The biggest issue to me, however, is the issue of creativity. My biggest rallying point for the indie revolution was always the opportunity to offer something truly unique that readers couldn’t find anywhere else, and I’ve seen some brilliant examples of that from people within our ownTESS community all the way to writers like Frederick Lee Brooke and RS Guthrie.

Unfortunately, I’ve also found these to be the exception rather than the rule. For the most part, it seems that indies are content to offer a lot of the same ideas that we see being churned out at the Big 6: vampires, paranormal romance, and lately Hunger Games clones. I’m not looking down my nose at those folks at all – obviously there is a huge readership for that sort of thing and there’s a reason for that, as well as its preponderance in the indie community. There is still room for great vampire stories, for instance. The problem I’ve found is trying to weed through the clones to find the truly original content.

I realize that some of this is no doubt due to the gold rush mentality of indie publishing at the moment. Everyone has a story to tell and figures they can be the one to strike it rich. For that matter, who am I tell them that they can’t? But I can lament the dearth of originality both as a reader and a writer. As a reader, I’m dying for indie writers to knock my socks off – great value and something truly new? Hell yeah, I’m there. Please, somebody, if you’re reading this, tell me about some great original indie content. I’d love to feature it on the site.

Again, that’s as a reader. As a writer? I realized that my position of the last few months sucks. Yes, this is a mea culpa because I forgot the most basic truth, that if you want change in a community, you have to be the change. Yes, I’ve been writing my own original content, but I haven’t been opening my mouth about the issue. I thought that offering a critique of the community was better because it spared everyone a hassle, but in truth it narrowed my own view and took my voice out of the conversation. That means I’m partially to blame for the problems that I’m about bitching about here, and I own that.

That means that you’re going to see a lot more commentary and ideas on this site regarding both writing and what I think indie can become. I’m going to allow myself to be a little more loud-mouthed (this is a big thing, so bear with me). Most importantly, though, I want to present you with some examples of what makes indie writing and reading so awesome. So get ready for all that, it should be fun and a little bumpy.

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  1. Being an indie author isn’t just about writing something unique. I was traditionally published at three publishers who kept most of my royalties. Indie = Real Payment for hard working authors. So let me get this straight, you think indie books should be more original, though the Big 6 keep cranking out the same themes and genres for decades? So it is up to the indie to change that? You think it is a bad thing to write another vampire novel, more paranormal romance? I was writing paranormal romance back in 2003 and still do today as an indie author. Why? I love reading it and so do thousands, possibly millions of readers. And now I make more money as an indie author. Do you realize that Rambo’s Daddy is now an indie author because he was getting ripped off by the Big 6? Many, many traditional authors are taking the indie plunge and the primary reason is because it is a GREAT BUSINESS MOVE. Have you read about the terrible Harlequin contracts? Many authors are making 2.4% in royalties even though they are bestselling authors. Indie = Self Respect. Indie = Control. Indie = Money.

    • Jonathan D Allen

      Thanks for commenting, but you’re putting an awful lot of words in my mouth, especially when I expressed the opposite of that up above. I have to question if you even read the entire post or got to the point where I started talking about clones and just blew up.

      I never said it was bad to write a vampire novel or paranormal romance; in fact, quite the opposite – my exact words were: “I’m not looking down my nose at those folks at all – obviously there is a huge readership for that sort of thing and there’s a reason for that, as well as its preponderance in the indie community. There is still room for great vampire stories, for instance. The problem I’ve found is trying to weed through the clones to find the truly original content.” Moreso, if you’ve been writing that stuff since before it was popular, you were doing something original back then, which means your own work is far from the “me-too” syndrome – you wrote what you loved. I’m not talking about people who do that, so I’m not even sure what you’re upset about here.

      I think we’ll have to disagree on your next point. Is it up to the indie to change the way things are done? Yes, I believe so. I said that right in my post, in fact. Every other industry is innovate or die. Why is publishing immune to this concept, simply because “that’s the way it’s always been done?”

      I’m not disputing any of your points about business. That’s entirely fair, and I think it’s awesome that writers are gaining the respect and money they deserve. I’m happy that you’re getting the money you earned with your hard work, and I’m happy that I have that option. That said, I think we obviously have different visions of the future of indie publishing and I don’t see why it has to be either-or. There’s room for both visions; in fact, I think the whole enterprise would be bereft if one or the other was missing. All I’m saying is that I want to add my own view of things to the mix.

  2. Part of the problem I see, Jonathan, is speed. The internet moves so quickly, people forget to breathe. It can seems as if everything important happened yesterday, and to someone else.

    I urge people to focus on the process, to shut out the noise and take the time to work out problems. There will always be problems and challenges, but it’s not possible to solve everything all at once. So one thing at a time.

    What indies are learning, many the hard way, is that publishing is different than writing. Different skills, different processes, different mindset, different priorities. Some writers can shift easily from one hat to the other, but other writers can’t. Some writers require more protection from the “elements” than others. I’ve heard agents claim they will not forward negative reviews or even rejection letters to their writers because it can cause depression or writer’s block. That was before writers could find everything said about them with a few clicks of the mouse. I know one publishing house where it is policy that writers are never allowed to see the copy editor’s notes.

    Writing great fiction requires sensitivity and the ability to turn the filters off. Those same qualities can make writers a bit crazy, too. I don’t pass judgement on writers who are acting like nuts. We all succumb eventually, in one form or another. It goes with the territory.

    • Jonathan D Allen

      Well put. That’s basically the conclusion that I reached: I was being way too hard on other writers, especially when I had struggled with the same thing. Would I like to see “the community” behave better? Sure, but it’s not my job to police things, and I wouldn’t want it even if it was. It’s up to me to behave in a manner consistent with my hopes for things, rather than silently judging people and refusing to participate. Your post reminds me of other reasons why I need to maintain that stance. Thanks!

  3. I have been having a lot of fun reading indie books lately, and for the most part, they *are* interesting and original–if only accidentally. Sometimes the choices are deliberate. Sometimes the indies are new writers who haven’t learned what a typical thriller or romance “should” look like, so their own version looks very different. I like reading novellas for that reason. It’s the “wrong” length for traditional publishing, yet most of the stories are just right!

    I just read a series of linked novellas called WOOL by Hugh Howey. You can buy all 5 novellas at once as an omnibus edition and it’s just wonderful. Everything about it, from the length to the narrative choices would make it a poor fit for traditional publishing but readers are eating it up–with good reason!

    • Jonathan D Allen

      The rebirth of novellas and short stories has been awesome, I agree! That’s been one of the most exciting things about the whole move to non-traditional publishing. I’ll have to check that series out, thanks for the recommendation 🙂

  4. In our case, we didn’t wish for the traditional publishers to simply dismiss our overall message because it is controversial. Turns out that we were among several others that published “Political Intrigue” books around the same time. It just happened. We didn’t even really label our genre until we started to publish it with Amazon but we started writing it a year before that. The strangest thing was that our fictional book began seeing real life instances. I think our book is original, in that it came from the mind of my co-author David McKoy and I just pasted his words together so they’d flow from point A to point B. Did we make newbie mistakes, you bet, did we learn from them. Yes we did. Will it make book 2 even better, I certainly hope so. Will our readers continue the adventure with us, some already want to do it.

    “Bestsellers” to you and your writing audience.

  5. Actually the perhaps the main reason of why I choose to take the indie route, was because I could choose to be original. I’m not saying that traditional publishers don’t publish original things every once in a while. But from what I’ve heard, they tend to be very restrictive as to what a writer can and cannot write. I especially balked at the fact that most traditionally published writers can only write in one primary genre.

    As far as the indie community is concerned, I think the term community is a inappropriate term. Unlike a publishing company, there’s no organization to the community and people don’t gather around and make major decisions. It could be argued at best that the indie community is a collective conscious or collection of fragmented groups, but that’s about it.

    Also, the blame shouldn’t solely be put on some unoriginal writers. The “blame” should also equally be put on readers and reviewers. If you read a lot of the one to two star reviews, a good deal of them are people being fickle about (insert genre) is not like (insert genre’s typical story). One good example is Elizabeth Ann West’s Cancelled. It’s a very well written book but a lot of the negative reviews were people upset over the ending not being like a typical romance. Not only do readers/reviewers often demand that a story fall into a certain predictability, but it seems like they’re now demanding that the writing style use only completely safe prose (as in simple sentences and paragraphs).

    While there are your generic vampire/paranormal/urban fantasy/zombie stories, it can also be said that originality is often to the eye of the beholder. One lesson I learned from Drift is never, ever, ever tell someone your influences or you will be compared to them. I thought that there were a hell of a lot more influences than Stephen King and it certainly wasn’t horror but a lot of reviewers started saying Drift was heavily influenced by King or that I was simply a Stephen King fan. I suppose that other writers have been plagued by this, even those who have written a “Labyrinth/Dark Tower” story.

    Ultimately though, I abide by James Cash Penney’s quote. “A merchant who approaches business with the idea of serving the public well has nothing to fear from the competition.” If you do what you love to do, it doesn’t matter what everyone else does or doesn’t write. Besides, trend followers have been there since the beginning of time and always will be. All you have to do is work on your own story and enjoy it 😀

    I hope everything is going well for you and your sales. BTW, I love the new covers you got for your books.

    • Jonathan D Allen

      I use the term “community” basically for lack of a better word. A way to refer to the collective group of independent and self-published authors. But yes, I agree it’s somewhat pointless to try to ascribe any collective goals or trends, that’s part of why I’m owning up to that attitude and getting more engaged.

      Interesting about the influences! I haven’t encountered that too much but I’ve also gotten the King comparisons, so maybe I have and didn’t know it? I don’t know.

      Great quote, and you sum up my current position on things – if the passion is there, that’s all that really matters. Thanks, and congrats on doing so well with your free time on Amazon!

  6. It’s kind of funny you mention originality. What I’m writing right now someone like Norm Abrams would maybe be the primary reader though I might be joking there. A kid becomes a carpenters apprentice of all things for an old cabinetmaker in a cabinet shop. Don’t think I’ve seen too much of that lately. Later on, the kid takes over the cabinet shop and becomes the cabinet maker. The experience I had while having had a cabinet shop at one time is what I’m building the story upon. There might not be a big market for what I’m writing though but I think there is at least a small one. Yes, it will be novella length.

    There are a lot of original works on Amazon right now, something different than the usual. Sometimes it takes a little bit to find those stories. There are after all 8 million books on Amazon and there isn’t all that much original story lines? I’m pretty sure you haven’t really looked.

    • Jonathan D Allen

      I’ll have to keep my eye out for that release, then. It may sound odd, but that sounds really intriguing to me.

      My response to that last comment, if handled properly, would be a long one, but I don’t want to belabor a point. Basically, I’ve kept up with a pretty heavy stream of indie releases for over a year. I’d consider myself fairly well-informed, but obviously it’s near impossible to know everything. That’s why I invited recommendations. I’d love to read some great stuff that’s off of my radar!

  7. I’m excited and looking forward to reading more. I think authors can successfully write a blog with a balance of content geared toward both readers and other authors; I don’t think it has to be one or the other.

    For the most part, I really like the indie community. I’ve seen some of the clones you referred to, and… eh. That’s all I’ve got to say about them. As a reader, I sometimes find myself intrigued by these and then disappointed, but I’ve also found some great, fresh ideas that not only entertained me but inspired me. (Brandon R. Luffman, for example, has some really awesome vampire fiction that put the monster back into the genre.)

    I’m finding that I’m leaning more toward independent publishing — especially in light of this price fixing disaster — but my mind isn’t completely closed to traditional publishing. I’ve met authors who have had good outcomes with both. I also think you can do both. I know of an author who got his start by self-publishing and was then picked up by Amazon’s publishing company, Amazon Encore. And I’m sure there is a Trent Reznor type out there who has ditched traditional for indie. 😉

  8. Nice post, I like it. I feel much the same way. Looking forward to reading more from you.

  9. I had naive expectations of what it would mean to be a part of the indie community. It was sort of like when I went to college, I thought everyone would be there for the love of knowledge and to challenge themselves. That’s why I was there. Turns out a lot of people were at college to party and to ‘get a piece of paper.’ My exposure to the indie community has been a lot like my undergrad experience. Not all indies are here to write the best stories they can and take advantage of their writing independence. Many seem to treat writing like a fan club, or a game. I see those scams (Tag me, I’ll Tag YOU!!) and am pretty certain very few competitive-taggers are taking the time to read the books they’re tagging, so great is their hunger to garner Amazon reviews, likes, and tags. It’s more like a keg party than a study hall. A lot of dreck gets vomited up as a result of the keg-party writing mentality. I gave up on the idea of community, but kept searching for other great authors who have priorities and vision in alignment with mine. I’ve found quite a few, and while there’s still vomit filling the gutters, there are also clean spaces, honest spaces where good writing is the goal (not merely tags or reviews).

    I’m looking forward to reading more of your thoughts on this, Jonathan.

  10. Personally i don’t have the time to wait–there’s good and bad stuff in Indie publishing as there is in the Big Six…I want to get my work out before I die and I want readers and I want control…tried the agent route and finally had to say f this…thought provoking post and I look forward to reading more..

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