An online discussion I’ve been having recently has given me cause to think more about the place that independent (self) publishing and small press publishing has in the greater world of the arts. The online discussion I’m referring to can be pretty much summed up as:

Me: Self-publishing and independent publishing is a viable alternative to the path of agents and traditional publishing houses, and possibly another route to them.

Stubborn old man: No. The only way is to get published traditionally because only then can you know that your writing has merit.

Me: But regardless of ability, it’s very hard to get published traditionally.

Stubborn old man: No. The only way is to get published traditionally because only then can you know that your writing has merit.

Me: But good quality, well edited, professionally produced books published independently can be excellent reads, get great reviews, sell a reasonable amount and give a new writer valuable exposure.

Stubborn old man: No. The only way is to get published traditionally because only then can you know that your writing has merit.

Me: But isn’t it better to sell a few books self-published than never sell any because you always wait for a traditional deal?

Stubborn old man: No. The only way is to get published traditionally because only then can you know that your writing has merit.

And so on. You can see that the person in question is stuck in a very old way of thinking, where the only way to get published was the traditional route. Self-publishing back then was very expensive and difficult and very few people succeeded. These days the technology exists to enable pretty much anyone to self-publish pretty much anything. And sure, the large majority of it is terrible. But not all of it. Have you ever watched Australian Idol (or your country’s equivalent) auditions? For all those truly atrocious singers, they turn up a few absolute gems.

I’ve often drawn the comparison between indie music and indie publishing. Bands that aren’t being noticed by the big labels make their own CD, sell it at pub gigs, build a following and sometimes get picked up by the majors. Sometimes they just continue on their own and never amount to much. Sometimes they grow their own indie label and take other bands along with them.

There are numerous bands out there that really stink. They’re playing small pub gigs to very few people and desperately trying to sell their CDs with very little success. They’re not any good yet and may never be. But they’re out there, they’re doing it, they’re learning as they go along. They may never amount to anything or they may end up improving and gaining some level of success. Even if their CD sales only pay back their expenses in making the record, that’s pretty good. They’ve made something, achieved something, and people out there are listening to their stuff. For an artist that in itself is the first level of success. No one says that they’re fools for doing it or that they’re obviously no good because they didn’t wait for a major label to pick them up.

Why does this elitism exist in the publishing world?

My wife is an artist (a painter) and we were talking about this today. The conversation brought up another comparison. Visual artists like my wife really struggle to get noticed and make any kind of career. Usually the determined artist will keep making their work, keep improving their skills and show in artist run spaces. These are small galleries, run by artists, that charge the exhibiting artist a rental fee to put on an exhibition. It’s the equivalent of a writer marketing a self-published a book or a band selling their self-produced CD at pub gigs. If the artist is any good their work starts to generate more interest. They might sell a few works. They might even make back the expense of renting the space or even turn a small profit.

Eventually they could be good enough to be noticed by bigger galleries and signed, and subsequently enjoy the representation of a gallery that will greatly improve their career. That’s exactly what my wife has done and many other artists like her. In truth, the vast majority of artists develop their careers this way. They don’t continually take works to major galleries and say, “Look how good I am, please represent me!” and show nothing and sell nothing in the meantime. They get out there, get noticed and build a career. The big galleries watch an artist’s career grow through the small spaces and they do pick up artists from them. That’s what happened to my wife. It doesn’t happen much with publishing right now, but it happens very occasionally and will hopefully happen more as indie publishing grows.

Of course, some bands do get noticed right away by the big labels. Some artists do successfully shop their work to major galleries having never shown in an artist run space. But not many. The majority work hard at getting their stuff out there and building a name. Why is the same activity in writing and publishing so frowned upon?

One route often touted for getting your novel published is to get short stories and articles published in reputable magazines, to prove you write well enough to be taken seriously. These successes can be taken to an agent and used to leverage their representation of your novel. It’s certainly one way to go and has worked for a number of people. There are also numerous people out there that have had lots of short stories published in a variety of places and still can’t get their novel length work picked up.

But getting short stories published can also help a writer with his indie career. What better marketing than to have a tag line after a published short story that says where the author’s latest novel is available? If the person reading the short story enjoyed the yarn and is inclined to read more of that author’s work, what do they care what publishing process was used to make the book available?

With the technology that exists now, writers can make and market their novels on their own. They can use the internet and online booksellers to get their work out there. They can approach independent bookstores (there’s that ‘indie’ word again) and have a handful of their books stocked on consignment.

If they’re prepared to take the chance and put their stuff out there, why shouldn’t they?

Some of the essentials involved, to give yourself the best shot of success, are things like honest, unbiased manuscript critique, decent editing, decent proof-reading and formatting, and quality cover design. Some people can do a lot of these things themselves, but no one should think that they can critique and edit their own work. It’s impossible to have an unbiased eye. But there are peer groups out there that can be of enormous help with stuff like this. There are all sorts of opportunities to get help, including paying professionals if you can afford it (although many so called professionals are no better than members of your local writers’ group, and that includes professionals at big publishing houses).

The truth is that a writer needs to put his or her work through a rigorous appraisal process before they take the plunge and self-publish. Ideally they should be doing the same before they approach traditional publishers too, but, when self-publishing, there’s no safety net before publication. By comparison, bands don’t record their first practice session and try to sell that CD. Artists don’t take their first paintings to an artist run space and put on an exhibition.

Once an indie author takes the plunge and puts their work out there they need to vigorously market it and try to get as many people as possible to notice it. They’re not likely to sell in the thousands and they may not even make a hundred, but they’ve got the work out there. With hard work and smart communication they’re getting reviews from people other than family and friends, they’re building a fan base and they’re learning and improving. There are writers out there that have been very successful at it. I hope to be one of them; so far I’m doing okay. I could be doing a lot better, but it’s early days yet.

And indie authors can still approach traditional publishers if they want to. Most publishers are coming out of the dark ages and recognising that the face of publishing is changing, such as Harper Collins and their Authonomy project.

People that go the route of being an indie author might never have huge mass market success. But they might enjoy a few sales, some good reviews and the pleasure that comes from knowing that people out there are reading and enjoying their books. That has to be better than their work sitting on a shelf gathering dust while they desperately hope to get caught in the tiny percentage of authors that score a traditional publishing deal. And who knows, they may sell millions – it’s always possible.

And before anyone pulls out the old “self-publishing is the kiss of death if you want a traditional deal” line, have a read about Matthew Reilly and Simon Haynes. With a little research you’ll find plenty more.