The Need To Be Indie

(Originally a guest post, May 5th, 2016 on the Ragnarok Publications Blog)

I am enormously privileged as an artist. Not due to race or age or gender or even where I was born, though those factors can help or hurt, depending on the circumstances. In fact, the privilege I refer to largely erases those factors—the emergence of independent publishing.

A writer would have to be a true hermit to not be aware that the landscape for authors has changed dramatically. The paradigm shift brought by the advent of digital and online publishing is no less profound than the one brought by (in large part) Gutenberg and movable type.

And I believe this shift brings (creative) writing back to its true roots as a storytelling medium.

Storytelling by its nature is a one-to-many experience shared by the teller and the audience. The magic of writing captures and preserves that experience in a uniquely ethereal way (the subject of another post). But prior to the introduction of movable typesetting, writing was essentially a one-to-one relationship, frequently dissociated by distance and/or time.

Whether the writing was on clay, papyrus, scrolls or vellum books, each work had to be made by one person (either the original author or a copyist acting as a proxy for the author) and went to one person. This intensive process of copying limited both the creation and the dissemination of written content, in all its forms.

The advent of printing presses transformed written content into a one-to-many relationship, with an impact on both readers and authors which can hardly be overstated. An author could reach an enormous number of readers, who were no longer limited to an elite few.

But at a cost.

Having worked in the printing industry, I know full well what is required to turn a manuscript from author copy into a stack of books, not to mention the subsequent marketing, distributing and selling to the mass market which gets it to readers’ bookshelves. The traditional publishing industry emerged to bridge this labyrinth between the author and readers, but the complex nature of the process itself became an impediment which turned both authors and readers into relatively passive participants.

Yes, an author could choose what and whether to write, but the publisher decided what to accept. And readers could decide whether to purchase or not, but the publisher decided what to offer.

Don’t get me wrong, my intent is not to disparage traditional publishing, per se. The reality is that publishers have finite resources and must be highly selective about which authors they expend those resources and expertise on. Technology enables traditional publishing to deliver far more titles per year than a century ago, but compared to the overall population the ratio is still fairly small.

All this to say that, up until recently, dissemination of the written word remained relatively restricted. Now those barriers have fallen with the advent of the internet, the development of print-on-demand and e-commerce.

Which has profound implications for me as an artist.

Unlike publishers, I can create art unconstrained by how commercially viable it might be, without compromising on quality. Firefly is proof that artistic excellence does not ensure commercial success. Being ‘indie’ means I can (and do) experiment with creative formats of storytelling that don’t fit into neat, marketable niches. For instance, my latest project, The Malhutan Chronicles is what I call a novella-novel—a series of SF murder-mystery novellas which together form a complete, cohesive novel-length arc.

But the real metamorphosis, which I believe has not yet fully emerged, is the other side of the author-reader relationship with impacts to both traditional and independent publishing on multiple levels.

I found myself pondering this during a recent class given by Cat Rambo on Creating An Online Presence. Along with freedom comes responsibility, which in the case of indie publishing includes the process of promotion, marketing, distribution, sales, etc. The challenge of course, is how to accomplish this without requiring authors to stop authoring—a goal that is in the best interest of author and reader alike. And marketing is something that most authors dread, with good reason.

As an unknown indie author, I’m still at that point where I directly connect with many of the readers who are enthusiastic about my work. I really feel it is a privilege when a reader lets my voice into their inner world for a period of time. The author in me doesn’t want to market, I want to connect with readers and share my work with them—not because I want to make money, but because I want to tell them stories. It is why I love to do readings, and it makes me an awful marketer.

Perhaps it seems immodest but I’m certain that in time I will become, if not famous, certainly much better known than I am now. Enough so, that I will not have the same direct connection with most of my readers that I currently have. Which is what makes being an indie author so important—the reason I need to be an indie author—because I believe this encourages that more synergistic, dynamic relationship between author-and-reader, that of a storyteller-and-listener.

And I don’t want to lose that.

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