Seth Godin’s announcement yesterday that his future works will not be traditionally published seems, to me anyway, to have finally knocked over the "Tipping Point" domino in a chain that’s long been poised to open the floodgates of true acceptance and respectability for indie authorship. For authors like Godin, JA Konrath, Steven Covey, and lesser-known indies like me, this is a wonderful development. It’s a clear signal that going indie can be a big step in the right direction for any author, established or aspiring, who’s got an entrepreneurial spirit and commercial sensibilities. But what about all those other authors, published and aspiring, who are more in tune with art than commerce? How would a Flannery O’Connor, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Camus, Dostoevsky or Salinger fare in this brave new world of indie authorship? Not too well, I suspect.
These are authors of seminal literature which has inspired whole generations of writers, thinkers and artists, and their works will continue to inspire thought and action for generations to come. Yet somehow I doubt any of them would’ve been very excited about, or done very well with, something as worldly and mundane as author platform. And this begs the question: where, and how, is the important and challenging literature of tomorrow to be discovered and brought to the public’s attention? Will it be lost to the ages for want of a Twitter account and Amazon Rush?
I’m not saying the rise of indie authorship has somehow created this problem. If anything, indie authorship has opened a door of opportunity for those few authors of literary fiction and philosophical or metaphysical nonfiction who are also web savvy and/or highly motivated to get their work out to the world. After all, it’s not as if mainstream presses have been clamoring for more edgy, unclassifiable, non-commercial manuscripts. Trade publishing in the United States hasn’t been primarily about enlarging the canon of quality American literature for quite some time.
While there have always been passionate and compassionate editors, agents and others willing to champion this or that "great" book, regardless of its apparent commercial potential, these have increasingly been diminished to the role of mere voices in the wilderness. Because the publishing business is, first and foremost, a business, and there’s nothing wrong, illegal, or unethical about that. A book that doesn’t look like a substantial moneymaker isn’t likely to be picked up by a big, mainstream house. Small, independent presses can bridge the gap between art and commerce to some extent, but those presses have to turn a profit to survive too. Great reviews and a slew of doctoral theses based on a given book won’t pay the rent.
I’ve turned this over in my head again and again, but there are no easy answers. Plenty of people have gone through the exercise of sending some literary classic or other to a mainstream house or agent under a different title just to get it rejected and then knowingly blog about the generalized cluelessness of trade publishing (and in so doing, entirely overlook the fact that publishers are engaged in a for-profit business), but this exercise barely pays lip service to the larger issue. If we agree as a culture that important, if non-commercial, literature deserves wide exposure, study and discussion, who’s supposed to foot the bill for getting it out there in front of eyeballs?
Indie authors like me who’ve worked long and hard to master platform and publishing skills may feel some righteous indignation at the notion of our artier, less business-savvy counterparts getting somewhat of a free ride when it comes to the labor involved in indie authorship, but we should try to get past this tit-for-tat mentality and look at the big picture. I know all kinds of things about self-publishing, trade publishing, setting up and maintaining an author platform, and the business side of indie authorship, and I’m a pretty good writer of entertaining little novels and instructional nonfiction, too. But I’m no Salinger, O’Connor, Dostoevsky, Garcia Marquez or Camus, and I never will be.
Is it better for the culture at large if the only new authors to achieve any meaningful level of exposure or acclaim are like me, succeeding largely for reasons having at least as much (if not more) to do with our business and marketing skills than our writerly gifts? I’m thinking, no. I have come up with some ideas to address the problem, but it’s a woefully short list. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments area.
1. Introductory self-publishing, author platform and publishing business courses should be added to the core curriculum of all creative writing degree programs; many students in such programs may have no intention of ever self-publishing, but these subject areas are so commonplace in the publishing world of today that to be ignorant of them is indicative of an incomplete education.
2. The National Endowment for the Arts has grants on offer each year, but admittedly, they’re limited to pretty specific categories and putting together an acceptable grant proposal is scarcely easier than setting up and maintaining an author blog and Twitter account.
3. Anyone who’s mastered a crucial publishing or author platform skill like podcasting, ebook creation, book cover design or the like should share the wealth of those skills by providing some free instruction to their fellow writers in the form of how-to videos, articles, or podcasts.
4. Any author or publishing pro who’s in a position to give wider exposure to a deserving non-commercial manuscript, book or story should do whatever they can to lend a hand to the writer in need.
Remember: it was probably some classic of literature, not a NY Times Bestseller, that originally inspired you to become a writer in the first place. Let’s all do what we can to give that same gift of meaning and inspiration to future generations of writers, thinkers and artists everywhere.