What's the definition of "insane optimist"? A first-time novelist.
But seriously, if a new fiction writer spent years taking workshops, being published by literary journals, and placing in competitions, then agents and publishers should give them consideration, right? Well, no.
To be clear, I'm talking about commercial publishing here, not the small regional presses printing books of a rare or experimental tone. In Canada, a system of government grants subsidizes these elevated outfits, and other countries promote their own artists and culture with similar programs. These firms have their own criteria and networks. What follows below doesn't, broadly speaking, apply to them.
Every artistic field is difficult to break into, with gatekeepers and every level. But over the last two decades -- with the advent of e-books, author "brands," and two-second attention spans -- getting a first novel traditionally published has gotten harder and harder. Which explains, in part, why so many debut novelists are turning to the indie-author model (aka self publishing). The other half of the equation is that technology now allows writers to self-publish without going into debt or falling into technical rabbit holes; and, by hiring a freelance editor and book-cover designer, an independent author can produce a quality result.
So, great! Slick and affordable self-publishing is a reality. But there's a catch. Stigma. Why does the prejudice persist that all indie books must suck? By contrast, for decades, audiences have praised independent music and film for their high artistic value? That's a logical fallacy, and I aim to show that the indie-author stigma persists from ignorance of the facts.
Elephant in the Reading Room
Yes, before you tell me, many self-published books are bad. Sometimes badly conceived, sometimes badly written. Often, they haven't been professionally edited and are hence structured like a three-legged stool with two legs; for the same reason, often full of typos and clunky style.
Speaking of which -- and with respect -- efforts like E.L. James's Fifty Shades of Grey give ammunition to the naysayers. That book is as famous for its bad writing as for its naughty content. But, firstly, it's just one book. Secondly, as I believe the composer Steve Reich has said, "Ninety percent of everything is crap." A lot of novels just aren't very good, whether published by the author or one of the "big 5" New York firms.
I don't claim that my debut novel, Crimes of Disrespect, is a masterpiece, but I did hire a professional freelance editor. Working with her was absolutely essential to producing a quality book. If more indie authors do the same, our collective reputation will rise.
And indeed, many novelists shut out by gatekeepers are using online literary marketplaces like Reedsy to hire editors. I used Reedsy myself, and I saw many impressive CVs: like other "streamlined" corporations, large publishing houses have shed a lot of staff in the last several decades.
"But Indie Music Is Cool!"
Independent authors often look to music and film, and they drool in envy, especially at the former. Why are indie bands deemed cool and respectable, but indie authors receive sneers?
According to Mathew Gasda writing for IndieReader, two reasons explain the disparity. First, while there's a large army of music bloggers and journalists who review independent albums, only a tiny guerrilla force exists to critique indie authors. Hence, "indie publishing is stuck asking potential readers to buy books on faith."
Second -- in contrast to book buyers, who worship at the altar of big publishing -- many musicians and listeners consciously reject major record labels. Because of this situation, authors hungrily pursue literary agents to land them a publishing contract, ideally with one of the "Big 5."
Death of the Mid-List
Big publishing has not only shed editing staff relative to its total workforce: it has been shedding authors. "Mid-list" ones in particular. Who is mid-list? These days, that includes any novelist who isn't J.K. Rowling, Hilary Mantel, or Margaret Atwood. Okay, that's hyperbole. But what's happening is so significant that, according to journalist Simon Owens, "Midlist authors have been burned once, and now with Amazon and their own marketing abilities they can ensure they’ll never be burned again." Owens surmises that, in focusing on a few blockbuster "brands," the giant publishing corporations are sowing the seeds of their demise.
New or struggling authors and musicians all bear the lack of a mid-list, with publishers unwilling to take chances on new or steady-but-unspectacular artists. Certainly not the way they did in the twentieth-century's second half, when a writer's or a band's first several releases were bankrolled by publishers, who were building the careers that in turn brought in major revenue.
Fast-forward to 2021, and the publishing giants are playing a neo-liberal version of "go big or go home." A 2014 article in The Guardian quotes Andrew Franklin, founder of Profile Books: "The large bestselling authors are taking a bigger and bigger share of the market. Just as in every branch of late post-industrial capitalism, the rich are getting richer. New authors and struggling authors and mid-list authors are finding it harder."
The Good and Great Have Self-Published
You don't have to rely on my word alone. Listen to Brianne Alphonso, who wrote a wonderfully-titled essay in Electric Literature, "11 Books That Prove There's Nothing Wrong with Self-Publishing." She points out: "Many of the big names that float around now got their start with self-published literature. They are proof that going the self-published route now can lead to greater things."
Those 11 books represent some of the best-known novelists working today. For example, Alphonso reveals that Lisa Genova published Still Alice (2007) using iUniverse's print-on-demand service.
And none other than Margaret Atwood, back in 1961, produced 220 copies of her poetry volume Double Persephone, which she "set herself with a flatbed press and a cover she designed with lino blocks."
"How Did This Book Get Published?"
Anyone who says, "All self-published books are junk," is plainly wrong. Granted, versus an untutored scribbler who refuses to hire an editor, a first-time novelist with an MFA in creative writing (and an editor) will produce the better book.
But caveat emptor. Brian Henry, a Toronto-area editor and workshop director, revealed a shocking secret during an event I attended. He said that to get published (traditionally) you need only two of three things: a good book, persistence, and luck. So, if you persistently query agents and publishers, and you catch some luck, you'll land a publishing contract. Notice: in that case, your book doesn't have to be any good.
That situation explains the times I've tossed a novel aside and thought, "How did that thing get published? Surely, [insert big-5 publisher name] has higher standards?"
A Call to Action
It's time for more -- or some -- high profile reviews of indie authors' books. I'm talking about radio, literary blogs, podcasts, and major news outlets. Literary journalism needs to catch up to the music-review ecosystem.
One reason I'm pessimistic of such catch-up happening is the Twitter-brain attention spans of even the snobbiest literary snobs. Bookworms are increasingly affected by addictive-technology-by-design, aka smartphones. Also, many people (and I'm not excluded) scroll through random opinions on websites like Amazon and Goodreads. Ideally, I prefer a considered review by someone with literary cred, but the Books section of many news outlets has become so thin lately it will soon disappear. That situation, however, is the subject for another essay.
Copyright © R.B. Young
R.B. Young is the author of the novel Crimes of Disrespect and of short stories in Canadian and American literary journals. He lives in Kingston, Ontario.