What’s an Indie?

Lately, there’s been some hard talks and consternation floating around the net decrying the chip on some self publishers’ shoulders. The self versus traditional publishing conflict is juvenile, counter productive and mostly pointless, we’ve been told. And you know what? In many ways, those folks are right.

Just as an aside, given that I did it right there in that last sentence, I read an interview with a supposed prominent book reviewer who said one of the things he hates is when writers use conjunctions to start a sentence. I say “supposed” because I’ve never heard of him and, frankly, I care about as much for the pet peeves of critics as I do for the pie in the sky throwback dreams of publishing executives, which is to say, I don’t. I love starting sentences with conjunctions! If used judiciously, they can add pace to a narrative flow. Is it grammatically correct or technically proper? Absolutely not! But you know what? (there, I did it again) About 99.9% of readers aren’t sitting there with your novel in one hand and the little green style book from a college grammar course in the other. Narrative writing is about rhythm and pacing much more than technical perfection and, if the voice is compelling, most readers don’t care if your work would be thrashed with a red pen by an English teacher.  Besides, I don’t see anyone quibbling about the grammar in a Bob Dylan song. This is art, folks, not a technical writing essay. The rules don’t always apply.

Anyway, back to my original point, those people who tell us to knock off the hatin’ war of words between self and traditional publishers are right. There’s no percentage in it, as an old boss of mine used to say. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t criticize. Traditional publishing and its defenders do an ample job of providing fodder for criticism. And I’m sure self pubbed writers provide ample grounds for the traditional folks to attack. In saying that, however, there’s one point of contention I just can’t get past. (By the way, I could’ve started that sentence “But there’s one point…” Quicker, more concise, makes the same point without the roundabout language and punctuation…sorry, I’m just carping now. Bastard! Disparaging my use of conjunctions! Who does he think he is?)

The reason I can’t simply say enough is enough with the self-trad conflict is that traditional publishers would, by and large, wipe us out if they could, and roll back all the progress, freedom and leverage writers have gained over the past few years. There’s no question that self publishing is a threat to their established business models, which have long been built upon an exploitative relationship with writers. It’s kind of difficult to play nice and polite with someone who you know would kill you and all you stand for if they had their druthers. While many self pubbed writers, myself included on occasion, have voiced opinions to the effect of hoping the traditional dinosaurs die off and quickly, I don’t hesitate to say most of us really only want some modicum of freedom and equitable treatment. I believe most of us would happily work with publishers offering those attributes. They, on the other hand, would sooner see us rot on the vine before they deign to offer more favorable terms to writers. Admittedly, they’re not going to have a choice in the matter before much longer, but that doesn’t mean I have to accept or turn a blind eye to mistreatment. Hopefully, someday soon, these conditions won’t be as they are today, and the giant pissing contest will well and truly be over with. But today, too many publishers still don’t respect writers and would still rather put us back in the cubby holes they’d carved out for us than to welcome us to the table as partners or equals. That’s barely grounds to form a mutually beneficial business relationship, let alone a lasting friendship. Show us some respect, and you’ll have it returned in kind. Keep dissing us, and the battle will rage on unabated.

There’s one issue I’d specifically like to address because its been on my mind since I read this missive by literary agent Sarah LaPolla. In it, she does seem very supportive of self publishing in some ways, although a bit condescending in places. Then again, that could be my biases showing, reading a slight where none was intended. Like this line, for instance:

Now, self-publishing really can be the way toward a career in writing, albeit a modest one.

Did she have to toss that “albeit” qualifier in there? I read that and felt like a little kid being patted on the head by his kindergarten teacher. “Sure you can be anything you want. You might even grow up to be a baseball star. Or President of the United States.” Really felt dismissive. Like I said, though, her piece read much more supportive of self publishers than most coming from that side, so I’m willing to accept my biases as my own and not take offense.

However, I will take on one particular statement she made:

AND STOP CALLING YOURSELVES INDIE. You’re not that either. Using “indie” interchangeably with “self” only confuses people who want to self-publish and pisses off actual independent publishers. There is a clear difference between publishing with a small press (“indie”) and using a vendor (“self”). Misusing/stealing pre-existing terms doesn’t give you credibility; it makes you look unprofessional.

To begin, she started her sentence with a conjunction. Some people hate that, so I hear. Plus, ALL CAPS? Really? Why are you yelling? Let’s use our inside voices, please. My problem with this is that, just like the traditional publisher side no longer gets to tell us how high to jump unless we allow it, they also don’t get to tell us what we can call ourselves.

“Real” indie publishers are pissed? Aw, now I feel bad. Some self publishers are confused? “I want to self publish. But wait, that guy there said it was indie publishing. But this guy over here calls it self publishing. I’m so confused! I give up!” The way I look at it, when small presses started co-opting the term indie, self publishing wasn’t a viable or realistic path. Hell, it wasn’t even called self publishing, it was given the dismissive moniker of “vanity publishing.” In that environment, the small presses unaffiliated with the giant conglomerates were the independents.

Today, however, that dynamic has changed. The giants still roam the Earth. The small presses are still small presses but the independents have changed. The individual self published authors have become that. The problem isn’t that self publishers have stolen a label from someone else, it’s that the circumstances where it made sense to call a small press “indie” have changed. Logically, it makes much more sense to label the independently published author indie than a small publisher. One is clearly more “independent” than the other.

Ultimately, I don’t care for labels on the whole. I’m a writer. I’m also a publisher. I’ve worked for small publishers, large publishers and myself through self publishing. If you put a gun to my head and forced me to label one of those “indie” it would have to be self publishing. This opinion comes not from pre-existing terms, but from genuine first hand experience. And maybe some of us wouldn’t try so hard to escape stigmas if there weren’t people out there equating self publishing with a giant steaming pile of unreadable crap.

Ultimately, labels, whatever they happen to be, are limiting. We’re not self publishers or indie, we’re just publishers. The end process is the same: produce work, refine work, sell work. That’s what publishers do. Traditional, small press, indie, self, what have you, all are publishers. A label, even one as seemingly cool or edgy like indie, eventually becomes a defined ceiling for what you are. Personally, I much prefer not having that ceiling, certainly not giving it to myself. So, if I were to re-word her point, I’d do it thusly:

AND STOP CALLING YOURSELVES ANYTHING. Labels are meaningless and self-limiting. The work is what’s important. After all, what’s to be gained by having to listen to a bitter rep from some small press somewhere bitching and moaning about you stealing their term “indie”? Nothing, I tell you, nothing at all.

And stop using all caps. Using all caps doesn’t provide added emphasis to get your point across. It make you look screechy, angry and unprofessional. Conjunctions to start a sentence, however? I’m totally cool with that.

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