So, here I am, staring at my screen, fingers tapping away at my keyboard. This isn’t an unfamiliar sensation—my day job involves the continual use of a computer, each and every part of this website was created on a computer, and the draft that I should be editing right now was written on a computer. As I just mentioned, I should be editing.
But I’m not.
Instead, thanks to a wonderful blog post by R.L. Parker commenting on my review of Bathed in the Blood of Ravens, I am writing this post instead. Which is more work than it seems, because I now need to add a section for opinion pieces, something I was loath to commit to, because every minute I spend working on this site is a minute I’m not working on my book.
Feel free to click the link to Mr. Parker’s article and bask in my glory, but while you’re there, check out my comment: in it, I mentioned the importance of highlighting independent books and leading readers to something they likely wouldn’t see, as independent books don’t have the same marketing budgets as those from the Big Four publishers.
Leaving this comment drew my mind to independent books, and my love of these. When I refer to “independent” books, I am talking about those outside of the major publishers, whether they be self-published, published by a small press, by a hybrid press, or by a vanity publisher.
Perhaps my declaration that I am a proud Gen Xer tells you a little too much about what an old man I am, but this has imbued me with an affinity for the 90s. For every Spice Girls we had, the decade gifted us an independent Nirvana. For every Joel Schumacher Batman movie, we got a Kevin Smith Jersey Trilogy film. Absolutely, Nirvana sold millions of albums and sure, Kevin Smith will put his face on anything that earns him enough cash, but these guys all started out without budgets, without connections. And they presented, in their own ways, stories, themes and genres that would go on to influence people, while not adhering to the norms of their respective industries.
But we’re no longer in the 1990s. The internet’s better, and we’re now using it to listen to our music, and watch our movies, and read a lot of our books. How is the surge in independent music and movies relevant to the beauty of independent books in the 2020s?
For those unaware, the Big Four publishers are Macmillan, Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, and Penguin Random House (who grew massively thanks to their acquisition of, and merger with, Simon and Schuster—if you’re interested in the business side of publishing, The New York Times featured a great article about this). Outside of these four names, most publishers people recognise are owned and operated by one of them.
While four major publishers controlling the bulk of known imprints is not quite gregarious enough to be classified as a monopoly, it’s not entirely far off. Essentially, four corporations with four CEOs publish the bulk of mass market books. In the vast majority of bookstores you walk into, you would be hard-pressed to find an independent book without them.
While less money exchanges hands in the publishing industry than the film or music industries, it is still big business. People planning to write for a living find themselves at the mercy of these outfits, hoping for an advance that will let them finish their manuscript, and then, hoping for a small commission on copies sold after bookstores, printers and corporations get their cut, and only after the corporation has made back their investment.
The average book sells roughly 300 copies in a year, and that includes those published by the Big Four. Corporations don’t like to lose money (and yet, to avoid paying their taxes, they will do everything to appear to be operating on a loss), and while the big name authors they’ve signed contracts with subsidise those losses, it leaves the corporations not wanting to engage with the authors either not making back the advance, or not making as much money as someone with built-in brand recognition.
This approach is good for the corporations. But it is bad for creativity, it is bad for the arts, and it is bad for the reader. While the Big Four will happily tell anyone who listens that they’re looking for the “next big thing,” they are not. They are looking for “clones of the current big thing,” books that they can market to their existing audience, providing something “safe” (but not necessarily “good”) for their audience to digest. The Harry Potter series has sold over 500 million copies, the most successful of which was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (or the Sorcerer’s Stone, for those of you in the US, because Scholastic—a rare example of a successful publisher outside of the Big Four, doesn’t trust readers to know what a philosopher is) which has sold 120 million copies. At 400,000 times as many copies sold as the average book, these corporations are naturally going to gravitate towards something with 120 million potential customers.
I entitled this little article “The Beauty of Independent Books,” not “The Shittiness of Mass Market Books,” so I should really stop waffling about said shittiness. While several independent authors write their books in an endeavour to attract crowds to their work, as is their right, a number are writing books from their own unique perspective, with their own unique takes on the world. Like mass market books, some are great and some are terrible.
But often, these are stories that the corporations won’t touch with a twelve-foot pole. Hell, even J.K. Rowling’s pitch for Harry Potter was passed up by many publishers before someone agreed to publish it, earning themselves a lot of money. These are not the “safe bets” that corporations and those working for them are chasing. There is no guarantee that with all the marketing in the world, they will exceed 300 copies sold, at least before entering the bargain bin at the local bookstore.
That minor fact doesn’t mean they are less worthy of your attention. Working outside of corporations gives authors the chance to tell the stories they want to tell, outside of a system determined to replicate success at the expense of something that’s a little different. “Different” doesn’t mean it’s worse than the books on the shelves at your bookstore. It doesn’t mean it’s better, either. It just means that it may offer a little something you won’t find more easily.
Independent authors have a lot more control over the final product, whether it be the editor, changes the editor has made, the title of the book, the cover, the entire package. Naturally, it means there’s more work involved as the author needs to be across these aspects, as well as ensuring the book sees print, and can be found by audiences.
While independent movies and music exploded in the 90s, creators are now finding themselves hamstrung. Why put a smaller film on cinema screens when your studio could release another movie? Thankfully, Netflix and its ilk are there to pick up these movies, brand them as their own, and leave them to drown amongst the rest. As music piracy ran rampant throughout the previous decade, Spotify and its ilk have taken over individual sales, reducing the amount that artists earn even further.
While I am not one to sing the virtues of Jeff Bezos and his evil empire, Amazon, the Kindle revolutionised reading, making it easier than ever before to find a book to read. And because of the ease that it lets people publish a book, if you’re looking for something to read, it will be there. It might even be on any other digital bookstore, but it will definitely be on Amazon.
All you need to do is look.
And look you should, because you never know what gems you might find. Gems that publishers didn’t want, gems that the author wanted control over, gems that the author was simply too impatient with querying to pitch.
Once Till Death Do Us Party is released, I guarantee that it will be an independent release. Not because it isn’t worthy of a publisher, but because when I release it, I will be releasing my vision.
So why not look at some independent books? If you’re stuck for ideas, check out the Reviews section here, which could help you out. And then look some more, find some books that are up your alley, and discover the classics you simply haven’t heard of yet.