September 28, 2011

Indie Author Discrimination

I thought I'd write about some of the issues that led to the creation of my popular video The Indie-Author Lament. By "popular," I don't mean viral or anything, I just mean it hit a nerve with a lot of self-published authors like myself – you know that nerve in your elbow when you bonk it that hurts like hell but makes you laugh helplessly like a loon? Yeah, that one.

From the feedback I got on the video, it's pretty clear that just about every self-published author out there has a story similar to mine. I decided to write the song after two weeks of intensive marketing that left me feeling like a dog that couldn't quite catch its tail. The video was never overtly intended as a marketing tool, even though I did have it in the back of my mind that almost anything that gets me attention can be used to direct people to my product. So in that respect, I accidently stumbled upon a unique marketing tool in itself. People have asked whether the song is true; it mostly is, but I exaggerated some parts to make it funnier - and to make a point. The song is a composite of what the average indie-author goes through.

For those of you who aren't writers, you may be wondering what all the fuss is about.

There are two roads to getting a book published these days, the long road and the shortcut. A simplistic description of the long road is that it's the traditional route where your book has to pass muster with first an agent and then an editor at a publishing house. The shortcut, referred to by its detractors as "vanity publishing" is where writers self-publish their manuscripts. Usually they attempted to take the traditional route, but roadblocks and detours prevented them from reaching their destination. So they chose to self-publish, which on the surface might appear to be a smart move to shave off time in their journey, but more often, like many promising shortcuts, leads them through alligator-infested swamps.

I know I'm pushing the metaphors, but in the war against bad books, agents have traditionally held the front line. They function as the roadblocks; well-armed with opinions on what the reading public wants, and they only allow a chosen few books to get past them. Those that do, must detour on to another set of roadblocks set up by the editor. In this way, books that eventually reach the public are supposed to be error-free and high-quality.

The books that don't get past the agent are a mixed bag. Some are good, some are bad, some are very bad – but some are excellent, because agents aren't perfect and sometimes they reject based on what's hot in the market at the moment, etcetera. There're a lot of subjective reasons why an excellent novel wouldn't get traditionally published, but on the other hand, there's no vetting system in place to prevent the very bad self-published books from stinking up the shelves. Anyone who wants to publish a book can do so, but the bad books erode public perception of indies as a whole. If someone reads a traditionally published author's book and hates it, they aren't likely to give that author's next book a chance, but they probably won't boycott the publisher. If someone reads a badly written or poorly edited self-published book, there's a danger that they will lump all indie-authors into the same category and avoid them altogether.

The marketing advice most indie-authors are given is twofold: establish an internet presence in forums and on social networking sites, and solicit book bloggers to review their book. So whereas publishing houses can provide advertising and obtain reviews from professional book reviewers for their stable of authors, indie authors are on their own - and unfortunately, some do a piss poor job of promoting themselves.

In a certain subset of self-published authors, I'll refer to them as the Spammers (because that's what they are), there's a decided lack of professionalism as far as marketing is concerned. Spammers are not subtle. They are the ones who tweet the link to their book every hour on the hour. They are the ones with seventeen links in their signature line. They dive-bomb forum threads, comment off-topic on blog posts and generally make a nuisance of themselves – and a bad name for indie authors in general.

While the forum and book blogger advice has worked in some cases really well for authors who didn't abuse it in the past, there's been a recent backlash. Some forum administrators purportedly fielded so many complaints about spam that they were forced to create separate groups within the forums, effectively segregating self-published authors – who can now spam each other to their hearts' content – because you can bet readers won't venture to the back of the bus. Amazon UK, in a move they have yet to explain to their customers, has just banned indie promotion on their forums altogether.

Major book review publications like the New York Times actually have policies in place that exclude self-published books. Whether this is a result of pressure from publishing conglomerates who advertise with them or an unwillingness to dedicate the manpower necessary to sift through the chaff: they won't touch them. So indie-authors are forced to seek out alternative ways to get reviews, which are essential to sales. Indie-authors' family, friends and peers often volunteer, but what they need most in order to avoid the appearance of dishonesty is unbiased opinions, and that's where book bloggers come in.

The majority of book bloggers don't accept self-published books, but those that do have unwittingly taken on the road-blocking role of agent. They get the exact same kind of queries agents do and perform the same basic function of filtering out poorly written or badly edited books. This is ironic to the author given that taking the shortcut to publication was supposed to bypass these sorts of roadblocks in the first place. Book bloggers have popped up everywhere and some have become extremely popular: they weather a steady deluge of requests from indie-authors. Many are backlogged several months or even years, so even if they agree to read your book, it won't be any time soon. Many also have a policy of only posting reviews on books they liked. Some do that because they don't like negativism, but in others it's a defense mechanism to avoid confrontations with disgruntled authors. There have been cases of self-published authors engaging in very public and embarrassing flame-wars with reviewers.

So you can see how the aggressive, unrelenting actions of a few have severely curtailed the already limited marketing options of the many.

This anti-indie shift is understandable, but very very frustrating for most of us. My song was a spoof – it didn't offer advice on how avoid these minefields because even though in general indie-authors stick together and support each other, at the end of the day, marketing is a very personal commitment. Each of us has to budget our time and resources as best we can and something that works for one won't necessarily work for the other. But just because things look dire right now for indies doesn't mean it will always be that way. Public opinion swings back and forth, and indie-authors themselves are scrambling to think up unique ways to market themselves and their books. The majority of us keep tight rein on our marketing efforts so we don't humiliate ourselves or compromise our integrity. It's not hopeless, just another challenge. Until someone comes up with a viable solution to the lack of a cost-free, unbiased vetting system for self-published books, the best defense is to have a solid product and to maintain decorum. And it looks like the best offense in today's climate is to think up a unique, non-spam generating marketing platform to wow your potential audience.