Friday, August 12, 2011

Steve Himmer on "Being Indie"

On "Being Indie" is a monthly feature that will be hosted here on TNBBC. It is my hope that we will meet a wide variety of independent authors, publishers, and booksellers as they discuss what being indie means to them.

Meet Steve Himmer, author of exceptional indie hermit tale The Bee-Loud Glade, and quite possibly the most tea-drinking-finger-etiquettely correct man I have ever tweeted with.

His short stories can be found all over the internet, which he has quite neatly collected here for your reading pleasure.

And it is my pleasure to share this essay Steve that has written for us, discussing his take on the term "Indie" and how it is comparable to... skateboarding?? Read on, loyal TNBBCer's. All will become clear. I promise!

After I wondered aloud on Twitter recently if it matters that “indie” has come to describe both small press publishing and self-publishing, Lori invited to think it through here at TNBCC. I said I’d be glad to, but warned it wouldn’t be a polemic — I’m not interested in pitting one group of writers against another or laying claim to words in exclusive ways, and flexibility is more compelling to me than lexical purity.

The truth is, what first comes to mind when I hear the word “independent” is a company that makes skateboard trucks, the metal axles mounted under the board to hold the wheels. There’s no reason for it, because I was a lousy, cowardly skater. I couldn’t convince myself to risk more than an ollie and was persuaded away from rail slides and half-pipes by injuries I could imagine too well. Sure, I might have learned a decent trick or two given time, after plenty of practice guaranteed to be painful, but even the mildest mastery would be hard won, never mind the level of mastery that might interest anyone else. Call it an intuitive risk/reward assessment. Still, my feeble attempts at skateboarding have their legacy, because while I might like to say “independent” calls up something noble like patriotic feelings or romantic notions of art, no, it’s skateboards... and not even skateboards, but the less glamorous hardware that lets the deck get the attention. The delivery system for something ultimately more interesting.

A word like independent and its shortened form “indie” (which of course conjures the archaeologist with his whip and hat) aren’t so different from skateboard trucks. Calling yourself independent isn’t an end but a means, a way of describing the approach a writer takes to delivering their work, albeit a means lacking an agreed upon meaning. In the circles where I’ve done most of my publishing, webjournals and small-run print magazines, indie isn’t a single aesthetic, exactly, but a DIY attitude that often goes hand-in-hand with embracing styles and subjects assumed unlikely to catch the attention of large publishers or audiences. There’s a community ethos, even if that community is fragmented and contentious and multivocal, as the most productive communities are; what better demonstration of that than the group blog HTMLGiant, where posts range from erudite to juvenile to creepy to brilliant often in the course of a couple of hours, and though the comment threads almost always scare me off before I add anything, they’re full of diverse, rewarding ideas. Still, as much as I value the excitement of a community under constant construction, I’ve resisted applying the indie label to my own work because there’s an uncomfortable sense of being judged by the guys at the record store inherent in the term, and perhaps an assumption of eschewing a focus on storytelling in favor of linguistic and formal experimentation that doesn’t quite fit my goals as a writer.

Now that other use I mentioned above seems to be catching on: “indie” as interchangeable with “self-published.” First it was Kirkus Indie, a section devoted to reviewing self-published books. Then IndieReader, which describes itself as “a venue for discriminating book-lovers to find and purchase books published by the people who wrote them,” which seems called for when according to TeleRead, as of April 2011, “28 out of 100 top e-books in Kindle Store are self-published; 11 are in top 50,” and for the most part that’s happened independently of major reviewers. Yet James Frey, about as visible an author as there is and one whose Full Fathom Five fiction factory is as corporate-minded as literature gets, self-published his latest book with international media attention that is anything but indie.

Perhaps because of that flexibility, the question of how much the difference between one definition and another matters seems a non-starter: if someone says they are indie, whether they self-publish or publish with a micropress distributed by hand or an autonomous imprint distributed by Random House, well... how can you prove otherwise? It’s like trying to convince someone they aren’t a nice person. Maybe there’s only one thing being independent requires: something to be independent of, and asking what that something is raises much more interesting questions.

In the small press world, there’s often a degree of pride in not being driven by commercial taste and by the horrifying notion that books are products equivalent to crackers and widgets. That pride is shared in self-publishing, where authors commit to getting their personal vision of literature in front of readers exactly the way they want it to be read, for better or worse, without letting other voices dictate their vision. At their best, self-published books are as carefully edited, designed, and produced as the best of small presses, and the worst of both groups are equally bad. Independence from syntax and spelling and attention to design and detail don’t strike me as freedoms worth fighting for. And as much as I love radical, experimental work that breaks with the canon — and breaks with the assumption there could or should ever be a single canon — it’s awfully hard to read something that makes a total break with traditions of literature and culture and thought. That’s where scary manifestos come from.

What no writer wants to be independent of is audience, whether you aim for wide distribution to general readers or focus on readers (often fellow writers) most likely to get what you’re doing and enter a conversation about it. I worry sometimes that small press writers, myself included, don’t always reach for an audience beyond other writers, the same writers we’re publishing stories beside in journals and on websites and who are already inclined to know where we’re coming from and support it. I worry that having such a community ethos, such an assumption of buying each others books and supporting each other regardless, mitigates the risk of sharing the work at the time it reinforces or normalizes certain types of writing, creating less room for risk and surprise — less room, in other words, for voices independent of the existing conversation.

On the other hand, novelist Ron Tanner wrote recently of what happened when Amazon accidentally offered not the intended sample of his novel Kiss Me, Stranger as a free download, but the whole novel: the book was rated and reviewed at Amazon and Goodreads by readers unlikely to have read it without the error. Readers perhaps unfamiliar with the literary traditions Kiss Me, Stranger is part of, and not necessarily those author and publisher expected. That doesn’t mean those readers should feel unwelcome — far from it — but the risk of reaching unlikely readers when their reviews carry such weight is that those ratings impact the decisions of readers otherwise more inclined to pick up the novel. Not to mention the inevitable flattening of ratings toward the meaningless middle as more reader reviews appear for a book. And if you’re telling stories that are inherently risky, about lives often menaced by mainstream culture, why would you reach out to readers who don’t even acknowledge your right to speak?

Whatever readership you’re aiming at, if being indie is only about style and content and purity of vision, it doesn’t much matter how a book gets distributed as long as it does. But if your version of being indie is political, too — if you’re more Dead Kennedys than Green Day — how you get the book to your readers matters a lot. It’s no secret the big, commercial publishers are tentacles of much larger corporations involved in everything from lightbulbs to biscuits to atomic rayguns (okay, maybe not rayguns), and there are a few writers who refuse to work with big houses because of those things. Would that we all had the choice. Yet the financial ramifications of that choice might mean those writers teach, as I do, at colleges and universities dependent on research funding and institutional support from those same corporations or others like them.

If you do stay away from big houses, online bookstores — Amazon chief among them — are great levellers of access to small and large press books, but how independent is it possible to be when you sell or even publish your books through one of the world’s most powerful companies, one with corporate practices destructive of or indifferent to writers and publishers alike? Yet Kickstarter, one of the most popular tools for requesting financial support to make bigger, bolder projects possible by shifting the financial risk from publisher to would-be reader, invokes that community ethos while using Amazon to accept payments. For that matter, several of the most popular self-publishing options seem to be owned by a single private equity investment firm, and another company refused, at one point, to reveal the name of its CEO. To be clear, my point isn’t that these companies are all up to nefarious things, just that most of the available options for publishing and selling a book inevitably leave you independent of more or less nothing.

A small press or self-published author might choose to avoid bookstores altogether, because as Engine Books noted recently publishers benefit far more from direct sales to readers than from sales via Amazon or even brick and mortar stores, making it easier to remain independent. But if being locally- and community-minded are important aspects of your own indie ethos, as they are mine, you’ll want to shop at a community bookstore. Perhaps through Indiebound, which does terrific work to support and connect those stores. Yet even Indiebound doesn’t extend that focus to independent publishers and writers — not that they don’t sell small press or independent books, but only the biggest of small presses get on the radar of their monthly Next lists or earn a prominent place on their website. Despite decrying behemoths like Amazon, Borders, and Barnes and Noble, Indiebound doesn’t appear so concerned about the even larger behemoths publishing books (though individual Indiebound member stores, in my experience, can be incredibly supportive of small presses and local writers). They decide what being independent means to them, as we all do, to avoid getting paralyzed in that lexical, ethical snarl. And unless you’re printing books with your own press, binding them in the garage, and selling them all hand-to-hand, you’re probably equally tangled in all these overlapping, contradictory choices of what independence is and what you’re willing to do, or not do, to maintain it.

Being indie is like the fear that drove my early abandonment of skateboarding: an assessment of what risks are required to attain what reward. Are you willing to break an arm or a leg to master that trick? Are you willing to wait years or even decades to have that novel published, maybe, by a big house? Writing, like all art, requires risk, whether it’s fearing your story won’t speak to anyone else but telling it anyway, or stripping away the safe, comfortable elements of language to make the mundane become new. Maybe it’s spending your personal savings to publish books you believe in without knowing there’s an audience for them, or spending thousands of a company’s dollars and risking dozens of jobs on a book you sincerely hope and believe will speak to the culture at large. It all requires risk, but it doesn’t require all of us to take the same risks in the same ways.

Small press, big house, or self-published, I don’t think it helps one camp to diminish the others, or to insist on indie meaning only one thing. I’m suspicious of outright dismissals that tell us anything reviewed in the New York Times is automatically bad, or anything not reviewed there isn’t worth reading, or anything self-published is trash. It’s a big tent, literature, with plenty of room, so why not have more conversation across the corners? With all the flexibility and opportunity afforded us by innovations (and collapses) in publishing and distribution, there’s no reason for a one-size-fits-all approach to being a writer or reader. What could be more indie-minded than everyone deciding individually what indie means? And besides, every writer worth reading — every person worth listening to, for that matter — is independent by definition, while sycophants can only be boring.

A few weeks ago, I went to a cocktail party thrown by one of the biggest of the big publishers to promote an upcoming novel. Months before its release the author is traveling the country, meeting booksellers, and building buzz. At first glance I was envious, considering how hard I’ve been working to promote my own small press novel; as enormously supportive and dedicated as my own publisher is, I wondered what I could do with those deeper resources. But I’m not sure I’d want it, not at this stage in my “career,” because the pressure must be intense: if a book that big doesn’t sell right away, it’s a flop, whereas a small book like mine, with no expectations, can build momentum slowly (I hope) while I ease my shy self into the world of promotion. Or it can fail, if it’s going to, in a quiet way hardly noticed by most of the world. It’s a level of risk, and a definition of “writer,” I’m comfortable with at this point, and I’m glad to be working in a cultural moment that gives me any number of options for self-definition and self-direction, and gives those to other writers, to publishers, and to bookstores, too. Some of us shoot for high risk artistic stakes, while others aim for large audiences and big royalty checks. Some want to be the voice of a generation and others just claim the right to have a voice. Like I did on my skateboard — though more bravely, I hope — we can decide for ourselves how much we want to risk and what we value most, and can make our decisions accordingly.

Publishing a book, or just writing one, is a lot like dropping the nose of a skateboard over the lip of a pool or a pipe without knowing if you’ll roll or wreck, trusting that your experience and practice have prepared you for the height of that particular ramp and the risk of the trick you’re attempting, and that you’ve assembled the right hardware beneath you for support. But once you’re ever the edge it’s all up to you and it’s too late for changing your mind. What could be more independent than that?


  1. What a great post. As an "indie" writer, I fully embrace the independent publishing model, but as a librarian in a farily traditional library system, I find my collection development policies prevent me from purchasing much independent work. I inhabit both worlds, am not fully comfortable in either, and this article really resonated with me. Thanks so much!

  2. Great thought-provoker for someone like me who is shifting from corporate publishing to indie publishing. Thanks for the insights and perspective.

  3. This is seriously one of the best posts I've read in ages. Part of me fears that "indie" has become so widely used as to become meaningless. The other part of me fears that it is the "anti" term, meaning that it's defined not by what it "is," but rather what it "isn't."

    As you said, we're all searching for something new, something wildly innovative, but it's really impossible to step wholly outside one tradition or another. Yet by consciously trying to step outside of tradition, we're also creating our own traditions. Which alone is worthwhile.

  4. I just blogged about something similar, though not half so well, at the Huffington Post. The blog is titled "Sweet Humility."

    NIck: you are right about creating new traditions.