Self publishers – the Nine Inch Nails* of the literary world?

Self-publishers are now giving the industry a serious run for its money, challenging preconceptions and business models. Unlike their counterparts in the behemoths of the publishing industry, they are all-rounders; IT literate, technically-skilled and both business and media savvy.

So says T. Thurai in a blog about a recent self-publishing conference held by Matador. Why then does it still feel slightly inferior, second rate; more likely than traditional publishing to feature the product of barely literate, ego-driven wannabes?

Let’s contrast this with the music scene: if you write songs – the music and the lyrics – record the album in your bedroom, play all the instruments, multi-track yourself, make a video and upload it to YouTube, maybe design a logo or some kind of visual ID for your work; that’s talent. You subverted the big players, you’re independent, you did your own thing and you’re a creative genius. Now try that with a novel. Couldn’t you get a publisher? Vanity project is it? Self-published – ah. Had to make your own cover too? Better luck next time.

What is this about? Obviously some of it is about editorial control or at least insight; an outside eye that endeavours to improve the quality of the product. Record producers know their stuff as do editors and publishers. But that can also be creatively restrictive – those people have an eye to the market and increasingly that’s driven by a more-of-the-same mentality. Traditionally published authors have spoken about being on a treadmill, contracted to deliver a novel a year in the same format as the one that turned in a good profit; and musicians have described a similarly suffocating process of appearances and gigs, followed by being corralled in a retreat of some kind to come up with more tracks.

Sometimes self-publishing is driven simply by the wish to get a piece of work into print no matter the quality. The response of some such authors to valid criticism has been documented and used as a model for how never to treat reviewers. Those people weren’t ever going to listen but they will keep churning out garbage and it will appear on sites such as Amazon.

Other times the choice is driven by the material – it’s niche, it’s unusual, it’s never going to make a fortune, it doesn’t fit the market. But it’s good and it will work for its target audience if they ever get to see it. That too is likely to find its way to Amazon where it will sit alongside everything else, including the best and the worst.

We’ve all seen the ghost-written autobiographies of celebrities, the ease with which a ‘name’ can translate into a publishing deal that one suspects might never have come about without that initial leg up. We’ve also seen the high status material that is often lauded but, some say, rarely read; and the likes of Fifty Shades that seems to have been read by almost everyone if you can get them to admit it.

What I’m saying is that traditional publishing may no longer be the arbiter of quality it has held itself to be, and that the need for creative outlet by authors with perfectly sound and sometimes astonishingly good material means self publishers may be the indie musicians of the literary scene. On Amazon, these products will sit alongside each other and who will look through the details to identify the publisher? There, at least, is a measure of equality which may be one of the reasons people choose to place their books on the site.

But Amazon skims a great deal off the revenue so it’s a choice between the mask of perceived comparability and a decent return on your investment. Given the arguments regarding quality and in the context of the subjective nature of preference, I’d say it’s about time indie authors were out and proud about their Lulus and Createspaces and the rest. When people can attract millions to vlogs about cooking or fixing things, young women can make millions demonstrating fashion items and make-up, kids in bedrooms can stream out original music from their computers, being shy about self publishing seems about as anachronistic as the traditional publishing industry already seems to be. As Thurai observes, we’re IT and internet savvy; we know about layouts and graphics, we’re connected, and we learn on the hoof. That’s dynamism, that’s 2016.


 *According to Wikipedia, Trent Reznor (who is effectively the whole Nine Inch of the Nails) “… is an outspoken critic of the music industry, particularly the influence that music businesses have exerted upon his creative freedom. Nine Inch Nails has clashed with several music industry corporations, culminating in Reznor’s decision to proceed as an independent artist who does not employ the financial backing of the music industry to fund his creative output.”

Self-publishing can make you behave like a fool“. Ros Barber on self publishing in The Guardian March 21st 2016


3 thoughts on “Self publishers – the Nine Inch Nails* of the literary world?

  1. Well said, maybe we’re entering the age of Aquarius 😉 the need for self-expression not tradition – to be in control of our creative output from beginning to end.

  2. Thank you, Avalina. I think there’s a place for tradition but not where it’s synonymous with a kind of elitist exclusivity because eventually it will stifle itself out of business and we’ll lose all the good things about it. I’d like to see ‘traditional’ publishers show a little more openness to difference, be a little less market-driven, a little less influenced by what seems sometimes to be the emperor’s new clothes of high art fiction, a bit less risk-averse. Agents too – all the scrabbling to get their attention is undignified and places writers in the position of supplicants which I don’t believe is good for anyone. Power, absolute power, and all that.

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