Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
I keep waiting to hear about a self-published literary novel that makes waves. For that matter, I’d like to hear of a whole raft of self-published literary novels other than my own! Maybe they’re out there, but they need our help to get noticed.
Because most writers still crave traditional publication, I suppose that any significant work that might change the game to any extent would get plucked out of self-publication and hyped by one of the big houses. It’s like the boxer or ballplayer who claims he’ll never forget his old neighborhood, but once the big money comes along his buds never hear from him again. Most of us were groomed to pursue traditional publication. We can’t get it out of our heads, so that the idea of being offered a contract by one of the Big Five is an agreed-upon measure of success. It’s hard to replace it with something like “Hey, I have 50 reviews on Amazon!” The truth is, most writers who take their craft seriously are longing to see that hardback with their name on it, displayed on the front New Releases table at the best independent bookstore in town. We can’t help it. The money’s not that great, but prestige goes a long way.
But since traditional publishing is fossilized, writers with tenacity and unique imagination need an outlet for their work. They need to take the spirit of samizdat and the commitment of chapbook poets and get their stuff into the hands of people who will appreciate it — readers looking for something new, something different and exciting that breaks through the limits of genre and print publishing and punches a hole in the effing roof.
This presupposes, obviously, that Amazon and the other major indie platforms keep things as they are now. It’s not hard to picture Jeff Bezos concocting a way to extract more profits from his multitude of self-publishers, most likely by introducing a new fee structure, cutting royalty rates, or requiring authors to use Amazon design and marketing packages in order to access the wide audience available. It would be bad news if that happened, because the freedom afforded by the current system and the modest costs of it are the high-octane fuel of the indie movement. Better if it becomes even easier to publish. But also if there evolves a better way to rate and review self-published books so readers can trust the content. It would help if big-name critics and national publications would review indie books occasionally. Their seal of approval would elevate some indie writers to a level that catches the attention of mid-list and literary readers. A well-publicized movie deal would be colossal.
Once it sheds the stigma, self-publishing can become a launching pad for authors who don’t want to write what the publishers are selling. Plenty of us are out there. We don’t want to write inside the confines of a particular niche or category; we don’t want to use stock formulas that offer no opportunity for experimentation or true self-expression; we don’t think catering to a large readership by giving them nothing but what they want is productive or satisfying; and we don’t want to play the same old game anymore. As Hugh Howey, self-publishing advocate extraordinaire, has suggested, writers who were raised on digital technology (“digital natives”) are coming of age and trying new things that would either intimidate or trouble the old-school types. They’re going to create new things, and they’re going to seek out readers wherever they can find them. It’s not something that can be corralled. It’s happening.
Says Howey: “Digital natives… might post the entire work on a blog. They might text the entire work to strangers, one line at a time. They could craft these works on WattPad for public purview. They might typeset the work at a book crafting workshop and bind the pages into a jewel of stitched leather to be read by no more than one person at a time. They might distribute their masterpiece on thumbdrives. But they will write. It’s what we must do.”
Watch Ursula K. Le Guin’s speech at the 2014 National Book Awards. She sings the truth. We need a revolution, and the profit motive doesn’t usually produce revolutions. The spark often comes from — writers.
Exciting work can be produced with the tools we have at hand today. It can, and must, have a massive effect on the culture and the direction of our literary evolution.
Why wait for permission from the Big Five?
Write your creative truth and put it out there to be discovered.
Read the full series, “Gatecrash: Liberating creativity in the age of boilerplate fiction” here.
You can also download the complete essay as a pdf.