Here in Portland, Oregon, there’s a strong independent culture. It may be our Out West mind set, it may be our stubborn determination to stay weird, or we may just be a bunch of creative souls. Whatever the reason, you can’t pass from one independently-owned coffee shop to the next independently-owned coffee shop without seeing an ad for some type of independent art event (for your reference that distance between coffee shops is about ten steps).
All around you see posters advertising indie film festivals, indie art shows, indie bands ready to jam out in an indie microbrew pub. And, from traveling around, I know it’s not just Portland that celebrates these folks. In fact, indie film makers are lauded by the press and critics and film snobs around the world.
So why the hate for indie authors? Why do authors who try to make it without signing over their creative lives to a publisher get treated as if they aren’t “real” writers?
I call it the Indie Conundrum and I wish it could be solved.
Examples of the Conundrum
Plenty of bookstores shun self-published books, many reviewers (both big and small) refuse to even consider reviewing self-published books, and libraries can be loathe to offer shelf space to indie titles. These same bookstore owners, reviewers and librarians probably all have enjoyed an indie film at a local theater or an indie artist’s paintings at the farmer’s market. Sigh.
And when I tell someone I’m an writer, one of the first questions is: Have you been published? Unfortunately, I fall into the Indie Conundrum and say, “Only self-published.”
Only? Why am I saying “only?” Self-publishing is hard work. There’s no editor forcing a deadline on me, there’s no publisher laying out money for advertising, there’s no agent making sure I get my books into certain stores. Everything is on my shoulders and I should be proud to have run the circles and jumped through the hoops to get my books published.
The Cause of the Conundrum
I think indie authors have every right to blame other indie authors for the Indie Conundrum. Whenever I see the cringe-worthy covers (Seriously people, sunsets over lakes and Comic Sans font? Stop it!), hear about someone who wrote and published their 300-page novel in only six weeks (or less), or read a book full of grammatical and punctuation errors, I want to yell, “I AM NOT ONE OF THOSE INDIE AUTHORS!”
To stop the Indie Conundrum, indie authors need to take their art form more seriously. I don’t care how little you spend on your self-publishing budget, but please do not treat writing a book like a race to the finish line. Develop your writing skills, strengthen your voice, and take your time.
Stopping the Conundrum
I wish there could be a contract for all self-published authors to sign in which they promise to not put out crappy products. In the meantime, try to follow these guidelines and maybe we can slow, if not completely end the Indie Conundrum:
Take your time: Unless you are publishing a 20-page pamphlet, you cannot write, edit, revise, format, promote, and publish a quality book in a few weeks. When you get to that “final” draft, ignore your book for several weeks (preferably a couple months) before you do another read-through. Believe me, you will catch errors – hopefully only minor ones, but errors nonetheless.
Learn how to design a professional-looking cover: You can use design software, but you can also create some great covers using Word. What you use to design with isn’t as important as knowing what should go into your design. Above all, avoid choosing overdone images (sunsets over lakes) and avoid loopy or overused fonts. If your book cover resembles a cheesy/sappy greeting card, you need to rethink your design skills.
Edit, Edit, Edit: This goes back to taking your time. Your first draft should and will suck. Your second draft may suck. Hopefully, your third draft will be much better. The point is, you need to keep reworking your book to nail down characterization, thread plot lines together and develop setting. You also need to continually keep an eye out for grammar/punctuation issues. Never be afraid to edit one more time.
Learn grammar, learn punctuation, learn the rules of good writing: I don’t care how experimental you want to get, but if readers have to struggle through your horrid grammar and sentence structure, you will lose readers. Also, I don’t care how emphatically a character is speaking, you do not need to end every sentence of dialogue with an exclamation point (yes, I read a book where almost every time the characters spoke there was an exclamation mark at the end of the sentence. Sigh.).
Be critical: Yes, I believe you can edit your own book especially if you’re on a tight budget. But you can only do this if you are very critical of your own work (and have a strong knowledge of English grammar). There are numerous places in the margins of my drafts where I call myself an idiot for forgetting a detail or where I scrawl “LAME” across an entire page. If you read through your early drafts and think they’re fabulous, get an editor.
Someone else needs to read your book: Yes, your mom or spouse or friend should read your book. They’ve been watching you work away at it and will be curious. However, unless your friends and relatives are brutally honest, you won’t get a true sense of how people will react to your book. Put up an advance copy for review (Goodreads is a great place for this) and see what people say. You may get some great insight on what needs fixed, or you may get some very encouraging responses.
Be professional: This is the most important aspect of breaking the Indie Conundrum. Acting as if you were a professional publisher will do wonders for how people perceive your self-published books. Do not snap back at bad reviews (if truly malicious, contact the website and ask for the review to be removed); do not pester bookstores or librarians to carry your book (ask politely once or twice); do not post 15 times a day on Twitter, Facebook, or wherever that your book is for sale or on sale or available now; do put out a quality product; do learn how to write a business letter and press release; do continually improve your skills as a writer and marketer.