Where There's a Cloud, There's a Silver Lining

There have been a lot of changes this year which affect authors, particularly indie authors. Two of the biggest were the announcement that Goodreads (owned by Amazon) will be charging for book giveaways as of 2018, and the FCC’s recent vote to repeal net neutrality. While I’d love to get on my soapbox about both these decisions from an Internet access perspective, that’s not why I’m here.

I’m here to talk about when and why people seem to have developed the idea that writing and publishing a book should be easy (and inexpensive) in the first place.

When I went to work at The Editorial Department in February of 2009, the word “indie” when applied to publishing referred to smaller, independent presses and publishers. “Self-publishing” was still a dirty word, and POD was still in its infancy. LightningSource hadn’t yet closed its doors to individual, self-pubbing authors, and e-readers had only recently begun to take off. Most of the authors we worked with still believed the only goal for a “real” writer was traditional publication.

That was only eight years ago.

In that short span of time, the writing world has done a 180. Now the vast majority of writers opt to self-publish. Reasons cited usually have something to do with creative control and author empowerment, both of which are totally legit as far as I’m concerned. I strongly believe authors and readers don’t need middlemen getting in the way of their collaborative experiences.

But that doesn’t mean I believe everyone who decides to write a manuscript should have equal access to readers, or be clogging up the Internet and making it impossible for quality books to be found by the people who would enjoy them. Call me a snob, but I also don’t believe an author who publishes a book more frequently than once a year is writing anything I’d ever want to read – and frankly, even once a year is pushing it. Writing a good book should take time. So should editing it, designing it, and publishing it.

Where did we get the idea all or even any of those things should be accessible and affordable just because we want them? Since when does the world work that way? Accomplishing anything meaningful requires passion, determination, work, and sacrifice.

Doesn’t it?

If books were still primarily sold in brick-and-mortar stores I wouldn’t get so worked up about this, because browsing is different in person: we see an intriguing cover or title, pick the book up, read some of it, smell the ink and paper, and make a decision to read or not to read. But in the Digital Age, we don’t browse the same way. In fact, we don’t browse much at all. Algorithms and past purchases dictate what’s shown to us, on social media or online retailers. That means we either already need to know what we want so we can go straight to it, or be prepared to have our choices influenced by what someone else wants us to see, and that means we’re exposed to a lot of absolute and utter junk.

Sure, agents, publishers, and booksellers influence what we see as well, but at least they put thought into it. They sit around boardroom tables and shout into telephones and send emails and network with other people in the business, rather than merely plugging numbers into a computer or signing up for a paid service.

Far too many indie authors believe they can (and not only can but deserve to) go straight from idea to computer to Amazon to fame and fortune rivaling Stephen King’s, and because there are so many of them it’s virtually impossible for any single one to get heard above the sheer volume of NOISE they create.

And now we’re at the point where almost as many people write books as read them, which doesn’t work out well for anybody.

The cold truth is not everyone who wants to publish should publish. Books aren’t commodities. They’re doorways to other worlds, other perspectives, other cultures, and other insights. They should exist to provide a unique experience for the reader, not just because the person who wrote it always wanted to write a book.

This is why I’m looking on some of the seemingly harsh new policies that have come about in recent months as potentially positive: they may help cut down on the number of dilettantes and wannabes who rush to release every word they write, and allow authors who take the act of creation seriously – putting in time, effort, and passion – to be discovered by readers who will genuinely appreciate them. We need to make room for the people who actually have something to say.

Somehow, the boom in indie publishing inadvertently sent a lot of people the very wrong message that success as an author should or even could be easy. Good books are an art form, and art comes from a deep, often painful place in the human soul.

The opposite of easy.