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.


  1. I have learned so much and realize I have so much more to learn...but thanks to folks like you, I'm getting there. Wonderful post!

  2. Amazing. You must have been rummaging around my frustrated indie thoughts! I am an indie writer, and I'm committed to reading mostly indie books. Yes, I've read some really bad ones (usually horrible editing is the curse). But, I've read some incredible ones.

    I stay away from the indie spammers because you can see them a mile away. I've learned so much from the others and feel honored to work side by side with them.

    I hope readers have a desire to weed through the rubbish and decide for themselves what makes a book valuable.

    Thanks for the excellent and so true musings.

  3. Thanks!

    The learning never stops and the only thing we can count on is change... :o)

  4. Thanks Tia!

    And you're right about the transparency of spammers. But there's this advice out there, too, for authors to participate in forums to passively attract readers (with the idea in mind that if they like the cut of our jib, they'll seek out more info on us and discover our books). But the advice itself has gone around so much that it's gotten back to the forums and now indie-authors are suspected of only being there to woo readers no matter how well they behave! LOL Needless to say, I don't hang out in forums much. :op

  5. I have been laughing at writer-snobs all of my life. When some of my fellow Creative Writing students saw that I was getting stories published in college, they decided that publication didn't "count" if it was in Other Voices or Pulpsmith. Only if you were published in The Paris Review could you have anything important to say. Of course, THEY were not published in The Paris Review--and as it turns out, they NEVER were--but they were sure they would be, and that made them better than me.

    This is the insecurity of borderline talent. Mediocre writers hang on to what they perceive as legitimacy, and they won't let go. The truly great writers don't give a damn who else gets published, or how. They're busy. WRITING.

    When I received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship for short fiction I found out who my friends were: the writers who congratulated me without the need for snarky remarks and without asking, with a gobsmacked expression, how I "got" one of those. (Their eyes glazed over when I began to describe the months and years of writing and revision. Not glamorous and not what they wanted to hear.)

    Since then I've had many stories published in small press journals, newspapers, magazines and indie zines. I valued every one, but I found that some writers and readers were impressed by certain publications and not others. Some people like highbrow journals, some respect the DIY ethic.

    More than two decades after my first publication, I face the same old snobbishness from people who have not taken time to glance at my bio note and credits. My agent and I decided to gradually build an audience for my horror novel (and its planned sequel) after several publishers passed because they didn't know which marketing category to use. I now understand their dilemma.

    It is still a challenge to get my work to readers, but I am still laughing at the make-it-up-as-you-go class system. There are people with no experience, who got lucky with one book, who sniff at the idea of reviewing my horror novel when they have far fewer pub credits than I do. That doesn't make me feel bad. It makes me lose respect for those individuals, because they don't know what they're talking about.

    Yes, a lot of self-pub is crap. Most traditionally published and marketed books are also crap. You have to dig for good work. You have to sample. Always. Some people are too busy or too lazy to sample a chapter, or even a page. What can I say? If the need to be elite is more powerful than the desire to read good work wherever you can find it, well, bye-bye!

    Rock on, Melissa. I love to see what you're doing, and as a writer who knows the score, I appreciate it.

  6. I not only loved your video but I feel your pain so poignantly, Melissa! I'm coming up on my first real release (the first one I want/plan on promoting) and I know it's going to be a brutal uphill battle.

    My Monday Marketing blog has been focused on the "Bible" written by Ries and Trout years ago because I wanted to be sure to review it -- engrain it into my blood -- before I needed to call upon it as my own personal strategy. I can't figure out what indies can do to battle the intense hatred applied to us as a group when we're all so unique, so different from each other. To borrow my Webbiegrrl slogan a moment, we Indie Authors may be a "blizzard" but we are each and everyone of us a unique and special snowflake, to be taken and admired alone. Sadly, we all get ploughed together.

    Sarah, the Webbiegrrl Writer

  7. S.P. ~ your agent sounds totally cool. I think the smart ones are willing to step away from the way things have been traditionally done to take advantage (for their client's benefit) of the new publishing opportunities. Just because publishing houses like manuscripts that are easily categorized doesn't mean the good ones should be abandoned on our virtual shelves! ;o)

  8. Sarah ~ Don't despair! ;o)

    You've got a leg up on the competition because you're out there edumacating yourself on what you're up against!

  9. As a book blogger I can appreciate some of what you have said. I was actually surprised the first time I heard that so many other book bloggers reject indie authors. I honestly don't get many requests to review books because I think that so many have been rejected that they are afraid to ask. I've actually had to approach a few indie authors myself to get a copy. The few that have contacted me I found I've loved their books and have always given them high ratings. I'm always honest in my reviews. I say what I don't like and do like. If I cant get through a book I set it to the side. But again I have yet to read an indie book/short story I have not enjoyed. I have unfortunately read too many mainstream ones that I felt I wasted money on. I think that indie publishing is seeing a revolution. So many people are realizing that so many good books are out there that mainstream publishing houses just wont print. Look at Amanda Hocking and her huge success with all of her books. Anyway don't despair. There are those of us out there that are reading and picking the indie author! Also if any indpendant author that reads this would like me to do a review on my blog all you have to do is ask. I'll be honest but never cruel!

  10. Thanks for the book blogger perspective, Melissa! If not for awesome, open-minded readers like you, we indies would be SOL. ;o)

  11. Hi Melissa,
    Found you via MyWritingNook's blog.

    I think the basic issue is simply and sadly that there are more would-be writers (and artists and singers) than the the public can consume.

    Hmm, maybe there's a market opportunity: set up a site, and take a hunnert bucks to read a book and write a short review. The price does not vary, to avoid bribery, and there's no guarantee given against a bad review.


  12. I concur, Eolake - too many of us muddying the waters. They say the good ones float to the top, but the reality is: many really good books languish in obscurity because they never reach the mysterious tipping point.

    And the (big) problem with charging $$ for reviews is credibility. There are plenty of review sites that already do charge, but are the reviews unbiased..?

  13. Thanks. Can you point me to a couple of such review sites?
    (Basically I've never really read any book blogs or review sites yet, odd for a big reader like me.)

  14. Seriously, just Google "paid book reviews" and you'll get an avalanche. But these sites don't post the reviews on their site necessarily; they pay readers to post them on Amazon. There's an interesting article about one such site at writersweekly(dot com) at /the_latest_from_angelahoycom/006508_01192011.html.

    For a legitimate book blog site, where the blogger posts honest reviews (there are thousands and thousands of them out there), you can find those by browsing through a book blogger directory like bookbloggerdirectory.wordpress(dot com).

    Or you could check out our own Booksquawk! :o)

  15. Thanks, Melissa, very helpful.
    I'll look at Booksquawk.

    (I wonder why you leave out .com from addresses? Will Blogger filter a comment if there're several links in one?)

  16. Do you know The Kindle Chronicles podcast? It's excellent. You could be interviewed on it.

  17. I have never heard of them before, but will be sure to check them out, thanks! M.

  18. Excellent post! I found your blog after enjoying Xenofreak Nation, which I found more or less by coincidence on Amazon... but that was after years and years of assuming that all self-published novels were bound to be shining examples of vanity, poor editing, and self-insertion. It took reading a friend's indie novel to change my mind... hers was AMAZING, and that was the wakeup call I needed. It made sense that if she was out there as a wonderful but undiscovered writer, there would be other undiscovered writers out there with equally brilliant works just waiting to be found.

    I'm not choosing books entirely at random, usually going my Amazon's suggestions for me or online reviews, but I must say I've been pleasantly surprised with the quality of most of the indie books I've read so far. It's a shame that I didn't get my wakeup call a little earlier!

    1. Thanks for commenting Hikari no tsubasa!

      First of all, it's encouraging to know you found XN on Amazon - they have the power to make or break a book by its browse availability - so yay!

      I'm so glad to hear your friend's novel made you realize that undiscovered quality indies abound. I've had the honor of reading some excellent work this year - books that simply don't fit into one of the narrow niches trad-pub are looking for...


  19. Well said, Hikari.
    I must admit I haven't gotten entirely over my prejudgment about indie authors. But then I haven't yet found a really good place to find the good indie books. (I like SF, and anything with humor. Quiirky things. Not the usual murder mysteries.)