“Independent” is one of those loaded words. Everybody likes to be independent, right? We fought a war for independence, right? And celebrate Independence Day as a result. Dependence, on the other hand, is a downer. Who wants to be dependent on someone, something, somebody else’s charity? Blecch. And what do you call those diapers for incontinence? Depends. Who wants to wear those? Not me, man. And don’t even get me going on co-dependent.
It’s funny though—when we talk about independent movies, independent record labels, indie rock bands and, increasingly, indie authors and publishers, I rarely stop to think about the other side. What is Random House, then—a dependent publisher? Does Warner Bros make dependent movies? Or maybe dependable ones? (Hell no!) Are bands like Led Zeppelin dependent and therefore less desirable than indie bands like The Coathangers? (Don’t worry—I pulled a completely obscure band out of the darkest recesses of my memory.) My point is, are indie things better just for being indie?
Obviously, the answer is no.
Let me make something clear: I love publishers. Big, New York- or London-based, high-rise-inhabiting, 300-books-a-year publishing, ridiculously-inflated-advances-offering publishing houses like HarperCollins and Knopf and Simon & Schuster have published tons of books—literally tons, as in thousands and thousands of pounds, if you stacked them all on a scale—that I have read and loved over the years. Until this recent small-press and e-publishing wave of the past few years, I could probably have said that every book I ever read (apart from some small-press poetry and theatre stuff in college) was published by a big-name publisher. These are the folks who published the books that made me want to be a writer in the first place. Genre specialists like Del Rey and Tor put out the fantasy/sci-fi stuff I inhaled like oxygen as a teenager, while my mainstream heroes—Flannery O’Connor, Langston Hughes, John Steinbeck—were ably supported by devoted editors at publishing houses like Farrar Strauss.
But times change. These days, publishers are being squeezed from all sides—fewer people read books every year, even as the number of wannabe writers graduating from MFA programs swells. The internet offers plenty of reading matter free of charge, while movies and TV have been joined by video games, social media sites and the likes of YouTube in clamoring for the time and attention of potential book-buyers. Amazon, of course, slashes prices and margins.
From what I can see—and this is only one guy’s perspective—all this has led to an sort of entrenchment in the publishign industry. Years ago, screenwriter William Goldman (Marathon Man, Butch Cassity and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride) told a bunch of us students at Oberlin that the movie industry was predicated on fear. Everybody in Hollywood—I’m paraphrasing, but this was the gist—was motivated primarily by a desire to not lose his or her job. This meant that the movies that got greenlighted were the ones most similar to the previous year’s hits. If a movie bombed even though it was a carbon copy of the previous disaster hit or rom-com, well, no one could be blamed. On the other hand, if a movie bombed and it was a unique, one-of-a-kind production with a quirky worldview and a demanding storyline that the audience had to pay attention to—well, that failure could be ascribed to the studio exec who had given the go-ahead. That exec wouldn’t be around long enough to repeat the mistake.
From what I can see, the publishing industrty is moving toward this studio-movie model. If The Da Vinci Code is one year’s surprise hit, you can be sure to see a string of books about Knights Templar and lost prophecies and whatnot. If you like Harry Potter, don’t sweat the end of the series—we’ve got Percy Jackson lined up. If Twilight is your thing, you’ll be happy to peruse through several thousand vampire boks in this aisle over here…
Of course this has been true for a long time, but the pattern is accelerating now, or so it seems.
The reason to support indie publishing, then, is the same as the reason to support any writer, anywhere, who is telling a story that you think deserves to be heard: because someone has taken the time to tell you something that you could not hear from anyone else. This is not some blanket admonition to go read obscure self-published books that you don’t like, or to ignore great novels being published these days by traditional publishers (David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was the best book I read last year, and it was put out by Random House). It’s just a gentle reminder that not all stories follow the same route to publication, that some take a little longer than others, or require a little more sweat than others to see the light of day, or maybe demand a little more of their readers than others.
For my own part, I started The Gamble of the Godless over fifteen years ago, and wrote an early version of the sequel three years later. In the intervening years I’ve moved intercontinentally twice, written a bunch of stuff that never got published and then a few books that did—books that inadvertantly got me catergorized in a particular way, as a particular kind of literary writer. Being the short-attention-span kind of guy I am, I knew I wasn’t going to stay happy writing Bible lit forever, but I was surprised at the resistance I found in the industry when I tried to move to another genre. This is a shame, because epic fantasy is what I grew up on, and I humbly submit that The Gamble of the Godless is a pretty great one.
I guess that’s the last reason to throw some support behind indie writers from time to time: because maybe, just maybe, they can be trusted to know their own work, and their own talents, and their own strengths as storytellers, as well as or even better than the editors and marketers in the publishing industry. Are some of us deluded in that regarded? You betcha. Are there editors out there who do good work? Absolutely. As I said before, indie authors aren’t better just because they’re indie. But that said, there are writers out there doing good work, and the indie movement is an unprecedented opportunity in the history of publishing—an opportunity for readers to directly support those authors who are doing work worthy of their attention.
That sounds like the kind of movement I could get behind.