No Room at the Inn for Indies

This post, by Steve Piacente, originally appeared on his site on 12/10/11 and is reprinted here in its entirety with his permission.

Mainstream newspapers – even struggling, mid-sized papers – seem to look at Indie authors the way the hot girls in high school looked at the manager of the football team. You’re nice, but you really don’t expect me to date you, do you?

This situation was different, I thought, because I had been the mainstream newspaper’s Washington correspondent for a decade. I didn’t want special treatment, only a look, and figured my time at the Charleston, S.C. paper would get my self-published novel into the hands of the book editor.

The book did reach editor Bill Thompson, who politely informed me that the newspaper:

–       Will not consider paperbacks, eBooks, self-published, textbooks, or children’s books.

–       Only publishes 325 reviews a year, and there are 60,000 hardcovers from “legitimate” publishers released in the U.S. alone each year, plus 250,000 paperbacks.


The paper’s reviewers are unpaid volunteers who “insist” on “legit” hardcovers. Thompson said this was no reflection on any individual book, “but rather on the totality of the self-publishing field, which, as a rule, has tended to produce books of grossly inferior literary quality.”


He added, ”To be candid, and meaning no offense, no book review editor I know (and I am a member of three different professional associations), will have anything to do with them.”

Double ouch. But Indies should know what they’re facing.

The only time mainstream papers seem interested is when a success story rises up and forces them to pay attention. This is one of the latest, from The Wall Street Journal.

Thompson says he gets 25-30 new hardcover books each day. Worse, book coverage has gone from one-half of his job to about one-sixth. That’s because the Post and Courier’s features team has shrunk from 17 people to four, and the workload hasn’t let up. “I’m getting 100 emails a day just from New York publishers. This doesn’t count the 47 local arts groups and 60 area writers I’m trying to cover.”


I pushed back, saying that technology has changed the world, and newspapers clearly haven’t kept pace. The situation in Charleston is not unique. Newspapers everywhere are in trouble, which is why it strikes me as odd that execs would cling so hard to old ways that clearly aren’t working.

As Thompson struggles to do more with less, he says he’s “bombarded by self-publishing houses and their authors … That some writers of worthy books cannot get them published through conventional means is unfair and regrettable. But the fact remains our reviewers do not want them. Nor does management, for that matter.”

Declaring every Indie author unworthy seems unjust, especially when this sentiment comes from folks who are supposed to help separate worthy from unworthy, whether it’s books, politicians or pro athletes. Aren’t feature writers journalists? The Code of Ethics calls for journalists to: seek truth and report it; minimize harm; act independently, and to be accountable.

So to whom are reviewers accountable to when they won’t even consider Indie authors?

Thompson says he doesn’t have the time to separate the wheat from the chaff. “As a book review editor of 31 years, I have a critic’s mentality, and a critic’s belief in the importance of sustaining standards of excellence,” he says. “With few exceptions, self-publishing is the antithesis of this ethic.”


I see it this way: Back in the dark ages (like about five years ago), if you wanted to be an author, you’d write a book, scour the city for an agent, and, if the stars aligned, get one and sign with a big-time publisher. That’s how it worked – there was one key to the literary castle. If you didn’t get the key, and all you got to write were letters home.

If you did land an agent, he or she would need enough gumption to snag a publisher. If not, story over.

Technology has changed the game by providing a direct path to prospective readers. Screw the middleman. Tools like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have enabled writers to find cover artists, illustrators, trailers, editors, web designers, and, most importantly, readers. Sure, we’d like a newspaper review, but that’s just one of many avenues.

The trick is figuring out how to distinguish your work from the glut competing for people’s attention. It’s true that the good news is the same as the bad news – anyone can publish pretty much anything. My hope is that, as with any other product coming to market, the cream will rise.

As a former journalist, I like this. It’s got a democratic feel to it. There used to be a saying about not arguing with folks who bought ink by the barrel, meaning reporters always got the last word. Perhaps that day has passed. Is anyone still using ink?


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