Yup, an opinion piece. Kind of an odd one, too. But why not? After all, I finished the first draft of Jungle yesterday. I’m in a good mood. It’s been a while since the last one. And this topic has been on my mind for a good week or so; seems as good a time as any to bring it up.
Last week I had an interesting encounter. I was on a forum devoted to discussing video games (bear with me, this gets back to books fairly quickly) when something unexpected happened. In a thread discussing indie games and how great they were (games that are built and published without the oversight of a game publisher, just as indie books are written and published without the oversight of a book publisher), a group of posters started going off against indie books.
It was the usual argument. How could any book be good if it hadn’t been “approved” by some publisher. Publishers “only approved” good stories so anyone who wasn’t publishing through them was clearly not good enough to bother looking at. Publishers had all the editors, so an indie book would be rife with errors. You know, the usual junk that gets spouted off.
But what really made this whole chain jarring was the fact that this was in a thread devoted to discussing how great indie games were, games that did the exact same thing indie authors did—eschew a publisher in favor of their own efforts to bring a game to the world. So what it had boiled down to was “Indie games are great, indie books are horrible” and the same reasons for one being great were being espoused as reasons for the other being terrible.
This got me thinking about indie books and indie markets in general. It’s not hard to find someone slamming indie books on the internet. In fact, it’s just about the standard reaction. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, at least from what I’ve seen, indie books are the only place that this happens. Everywhere else, indie is embraced by the majority.
And that doesn’t add up.
Let’s go back to games. Indie games have become the darling the games industry, with console platform developers such as Microsoft, Sony, and even Nintendo touting the accessibility of their respective systems to indie developers. Indie developers are often showered with recognition and awards, and have been for years. Indie games are praised and seen as the creative, daring side of the industry opposite the big publishers, who tend to make long-term, safe bets on what they know will sell. And in the last decade, indie games have become booms. Heard of Minecraft? That’s an indie title. 2017’s hit Cuphead was indie as well. In fact, last year alone something like 7000 indie games were released on Steam alone. 7000. And many of these gathered critical acclaim.
Point being is that the gaming industry has embraced indie. Games like FTL, Subnautica, Terraria, Stardew Valley, Cave Story, Braid, Papers Please, Spelunky, Axiom Verge, Freedom Planet, even juggernauts like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. I could fill this post to bursting with hundreds of indie titles beloved by the industry. More. People love indie games, and, as I mentioned earlier, even the big game publishers point out that the experimentation of the indies helps the industry and adds variety where they have to play it safe. Even non-gaming news outlets will cover indie games. They’re beloved for what they bring to the industry.
Still not convinced? I started thinking about music next. “Indie” labels are huge. Driven by the internet, indie music and independent bands have become to music what indie games have become to the game industry. Indie bands sell their music on their own website, or through distributors like iTunes without ever touching a record label. They put their songs on Youtube and attend Indie-only music festivals (which is a huge scene in and of itself, as I understand it). They even have their own radio channels on satellite radio. No joke, you can load up a satellite radio and listen to channels that are 100% dedicated to the indie bands. I’ve done it with my dad while working. One of these channels has a show that just goes to different cities each week and asks around for new indie bands that no one’s discovered, and sets them up to record a set for the show and talk about where you can find them. Free exposure, and as the show host points out, they don’t let anyone on that’s had more than a set number of album sales or has a record deal, since it’s indie all the way.
Now, there’s a caveat here I’ll come back to, but later. Just, you know, stick a mental marker along here somewhere and we’ll come back to it later. But for now … what about movies?
No, wait, indie is huge there too. There are whole festivals dedicated to showcasing indie films, and every year there’s at least one or two that “go mainstream” enough to be shown in theaters, win awards, and make tons of money. Even before films like The Blair Witch Project blew Hollywood’s doors off, indie films were a thing, but these days they’re as common as, well, big-budget Hollywood studio flicks. People rent them at Redbox, watch them on Netflix, or see them in theaters.
Again, it’s the same thing. They’re accepted, welcomed even. Directors and producers talk about how much they enjoy the indie scene and how they’re a needed part of cinema for experimentation, etc etc etc.
Movies. Music. Games. Indie has flourished in all of these areas.
And yet, somehow, with books, indie is “the bad guy.” The downfall of the reading public. The leper that no one should have contact with. The only place where being indie, even a successful indie, is treated as a brand of shame. I have spoken with people who actively refuse to acknowledge that The Martian was an indie title. Because ‘all indie is bad.’
That’s the real kicker too. It’s not that indie isn’t a success. It is. With each of these other industries, from music to games, one could make an argument that it took a titanic success of an indie to finally cast the sector as a whole forward into the public spotlight.
But that already happened with indie books. Crud, has happened, multiple times, again and again. If anything, the success of The Martian getting a movie deal as an indie book, and not just any movie deal, but a movie deal that was one of the biggest movies of the year, should be evidence that this has already happened.
And yet indie is still ‘the enemy of “good” books everywhere.’ Worse, indie books are ‘bad’ for the same reason that indie games, music, and films are acknowledged as ‘good.’ It doesn’t make sense. But for some reason, this idea has permeated the public mind when it comes to books, but not any other area with indie creations. Just books.
Okay, actually, it does make a bit of sense from one angle. That caveat I mentioned earlier, in relation to music? Now’s the time to bring that one back. So here’s a theory for you.
See, indie music had a much harder job making a go of it than games and movies, and almost stagnated for a while. Why?
Record labels. Prior to the rise of the internet, the record labels were all there were for music. You wanted something to listen to? You got it from them.
Then the indie movement came along, and tipped over the table on them. And the record labels did not like it. They had 100% of the market sewn up, which meant that any indie attention, any at all, meant less money for them. So they fought it.
Problem was, as tight as their control was, it wasn’t that tight. There were magazines and stores aplenty that had no problem stocking indie music. Oh, and iTunes, which had become for music what Amazon has become for bookstores. And iTunes had no problems letting indie bands onto their store.
So while the record labels could moan and groan, they couldn’t stop indie, only delay it for a short time. And things settled, and the record labels learned to coexist with indie music that didn’t just borrow their own sales, but brought whole new swaths of listeners.
With me so far? Because now we’re getting into pure speculation on my part. Again, it doesn’t make sense, at least that I see it, that indie books are the only indie market to be seen as “bad” when other indie markets are seen as good for the same reason indie books are “bad.” There’s no logic there. Hypocrisy? Sure. But logic? No.
But you know, I can still venture a guess as to why. And again, this is all theory, but … The big book publishers. The ones who are dead-set against indie existing at all. Except unlike the music industry, where the record labels had areas outside of their control … the large book publishers seem to have a lot more influence.
For starters, they can exude pressure on bookstores everywhere. The big publishers are so big, and control so much of the market, that even one of them threatening to withhold titles or even bump prices to a bookstore would be murderously effective. Plus, these publishers are often connected, quite closely, to places doing reviews, publicity, etc, etc. It doesn’t take a large leap of logic (more of a step sideways, really), to see that with such close ties between areas of the industry, if one particularly powerful party wanted to exude a little negative publicity on a rival for their market, it wouldn’t be difficult at all to do. Which could explain the constant barrage of editorials, articles, and even just one-off lines “reminding” people how terrible indie books are, or just disparaging them in general.
Again, that, as I said, is all just a theory. I can’t say for certain that’s what’s going on. There’s a chain of connecting threads there, but … I could be completely off.
What is definitely completely off, though, is that the public mindset concerning indie books just doesn’t make sense, and in many cases seems to outright contradict itself. Being an indie game developer is good for the industry and the consumer because the game can shake off the same-old, same-old and do something clever and unique. But being an indie author and doing the same, shaking off the same old and doing something new and clever is … bad? For … reasons?
I do not have answers. Crud, I barely have data. This is an opinion piece, not a study. But at the end of it all, something stinks about all this. Of the various industries out there, books are the only one where indie is seen as a brand of shame, no matter how successful it becomes, and indie authors derided. Even board games have embraced indie, with games being funded through kickstarter and becoming huge, successful hits.
I don’t have a concrete answer. All I can say is that there’s something rotten here. Especially when the same things heralded as strengths of indie and reasons to want them around in other areas are held up as weaknesses where indie books are considered.
Oh, and there’s one more thing. The “solution” to these weaknesses? It’s always the same answer. Every. Single. Time.
“Get a publisher.”
That’s it. The “solution” to these “problems” and “flaws” (that again, are seen as strengths in other mediums) people parrot are “don’t be indie” and “sign with a big publisher.”
I don’t know about you, but that stinks to the high heavens.
Do I have an answer? No. Well, outside of going “hey, this is hypocritical?” Still no. Like I said, this is just an observation I’ve made of something that doesn’t add up at all. Books seem to be a final holdout against independent creators, for reasons that aren’t clear and don’t add up. Especially as the reasons given as to why they’re ‘bad’ are also given as examples of why indie is good for other mediums.
I can think of a couple of different approaches to answering this conundrum … but none of them add up. For example, one could argue that the poorly-made indie titles have given the well-made a bad reputation by proxy … but that hasn’t at all stopped other mediums, and you’d better bet there’s an indie artist’s not-so-great song on iTunes for every poor book found on Amazon or Smashwords. But for some reason, indie music still thrives, while people turn up their nose at The Martian.
Like I said, I can’t find a satisfactory answer. Is the book industry missing something that these other industries have? Is it media attention? Critical thought?
I have no idea. I just know that somewhere along the lines, things have gone sideways, and a lot of people denouncing indie books become complete hypocrites once they turn around and praise another mediums indies for the same “sins” as indie books.
Thoughts? Ideas? This one’s an open book, guys. Is the book industry missing something? Are readers just massive hypocrites? What do you think?
23 thoughts on “Op-Ed: The Indie Hypocrisy”
Indie books dominate in many genres – at low prices – and the big publishers have responded by keeping ‘the good stuff’ and selling it at high prices (14.99 or more for an ebook???).
But if you write in the same niche as the big publisher’s books, you find their READERS are trained to only go to them. Via bookstores, as long as bookstores exist (B&N has an interesting business model – crappy website, stores with some books, no backlog, lots of other ‘stuff’).
It’s going to take some dedicated writers who write literary and mainstream and big books and historical novels like McCullough, Follett, Eco and the remaining mainstream mystery novelists (RIP Sue Grafton), and can get enough exposure on the sites which normally feature only the product of the Big 5 (but will sometimes hand out scraps to indies – Kirkus, Netgalley, etc.), but this is an ongoing and uphill battle.
Some of us think we can satisfy those readers – but it takes longer to write a book of sterling quality, so our output doesn’t keep up with the prolific genre writers – but if we’re that bad, why not give some of us a chance?
Interesting point on how a lot of readers are conditioned to go to one source. Hadn’t thought of it that way, but I can’t deny that it certainly feels like there’s some truth there.
The whole “output VS quality” debate is a tough one, too. That stigma, as others have pointed out, has been built, and it’s hard to counter.
Awards and accolades for well-written indie work would be nice. Too often, the publishers go after someone who has a lot of readers in indie for something that is, ah, energetic? rather than written with care and panache. And they reward these writers by publishing said, ah, work? after filing off some of the serial numbers that indicate the work started life as fan fiction (indie by definition in most cases except Amazon’s Worlds).
Right now it is ‘get it to market as quickly as possible.’ New writers on some of the groups I belong to say things like, “I just finished writing my first novel ever, and it’s up on Amazon, but it isn’t selling very well.” And no one asks anything about the quality of the writing/plotting/characterization… – only about how much they’re advertising, and whether they have a newsletter, and how their mailing list is converting.
As you have mentioned the lack of research, part of that is because research takes time during which you are not pounding words into the keyboard at 5000 an hour. So, no payback. I can’t help but think the cart is being pushed by the nose of a very bored horse.
Too bad, because many of those stories might be good – energetic and new and different from what the big publishers dare publish – if there were more quality being built into the writers. By themselves, of course.
The main reason for reading fiction is to live other lives. I wish some of those were better lives. Heinlein was capable of it, as was Frank Herbert, and many others. It can be done.
Great observation. I’m embarrassed now I didn’t think of it myself. Why only books? Hell, mainstream short stories barely even /exist/ anymore. Top literary magazines publish 10-20 short stories a year now, and most of them get read by about a thousand people in the world. Yet they’re considered mainstream, while fanfictions that have /their own fan communities/ are not.
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That’s another good point and comparison. Granted, shy of a few exceptions you can’t make money with fanfiction, but still …
Also… you forgot to mention Undertale.
Perhaps I will forgive you. Someday.
Somewhat curious of you opinion of Kindle Unlimited. I would guess that most of what I read on there is indie, based purely on the need for a little more proofreading, let alone editing. Although, most of what I read is science fiction and fantasy, which as genres have never been served as well by the major publishers anyhow. (I don’t know. Does Baen count as a major publisher?) Maybe some book genres are more tolerant of indie stories, in the same way that some music genres are more tolerant of garage or bar bands. (Although now I’m trying to shake the mental image of a garage orchestra.)
My Opinion: Kindle Unlimited has great potential to be the Netflix of books … but the big publishers aren’t interested in that kind of monetary stream, hence why they’ve pulled all their books from it. Which in turn has left the offerings lopsided and, IMO, damaged the reputation of Kindle Unlimited.
Hence why all of my books are on KU: To make the platform more attractive, and give readers something good to experience on there. Unfortunately, it’s still an oddity, because my books are long enough that I make more off of someone reading them on KU most of the time, or at least about the same, as to what I make if someone simply buys a title up front.
But a lot of the decent indie authors are also trying to min-max profits, and writing shorter, more expensive books. Which would mean a mass loss if their books were on KU. So they pulled them from KU when the page-count system went into play.
If enough authors offer serious works there, however, KU could be a great platform. I’ve done what I can to help, at least.
I know of at least one author who has stated that he sets the prices of his shorter stories artificially high, and makes up the difference in the comparatively lower priced collected works. Seems to be working for him.
Think it might be not completely about the industry so much as it is the medium. Experimentation in games has huge value, in that independence truly allows the creation of experiences publishers could never create. Undertale, The Stanley Parable, dozens more realistically couldn’t have been made by large corporations. They are fundamentally different. An indie team looks nothing like a AAA developer with large publisher.
But maybe not so with books. I haven’t read the Martian (might have included more examples of ‘titanic success’ in indie books), but was it really something that an author with a publisher couldn’t have written? . It appears that in the other industries publishers exert a lot of control, the absence of which has value. Maybe it’s similar for book publishing, but probably the perception is that all publishers do is quality control, so nothing is gained by not having it.
Possibly there’s a lot of potentially popular books that could only have been made without a publisher. But if so I either don’t know of them or it isn’t obvious to me why they couldn’t have been made by the mainstream system (not knowing all that much of the industry). So that truth or perception might be part of the difference in the book industry.
Non Ame: This is a really good point, but I think there are /lots/ of stories that publishers will not sell. One notable class is stories that take consequentialist ethics seriously, like Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.
Could The Martian have been published? Well, it’s very old-school SF–a story about engineers solving technical problems. Publishers still publish a handful of these stories, but only by authors who’ve been publishing for 30 years and already have an audience, like Kim Stanley Robinson or Allen Steele. I don’t think any major publisher has taken on a new author of hard SF stories in 20 years. They’re like Westerns–seen as behind the times, an embarrassing reminder of SF stereotypes, and kept on only until their readers die out. So, no, I don’t think it would have been published except as an indie.
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I take the point, those as I am familiar with Yudkowsky’s works I would have to point out that HPMOR was not written to sell, and is for such a niche community that a marketing budget would likely not have helped it spread much further. I doubt it is a very central example of works which are held in disdain largely for lack of publisher, nor those missing the benefit of publication. (aside from the copyright issues of fanfiction I just remembered, but the same would apply to the same class of story with original characters and setting). Those it occurs that if publishers only sell a select few types of story, there may be no central mass of ‘everything else’ that might benefit.
In any case, regarding stories that publishers refuse to sell that would definitely benefit from it, my analysis continued under your commend regarding ‘market failure’.
Written? Yes. Published? No.
I still have the first rejection letter I ever got back from a publisher. It was for a Sci-Fi story. The response, personalized, boiled down to ‘This was really good, well-written, and creative. Unfortunately, it is not one of the three types of Sci-Fi stories we believe the market will buy right now. If you happen to write one of these types, please send it in, but other than that, we do not want to try and sell something we don’t know the market for.’
In a nutshell. Point being, publishers and editors are more concerned with what they believe will sell rather than what will be a good book. And any time something does surprise them or plays to their expectations, there will follow a flood of near-identical books trying to capitalize on that trend while it lasts.
Point being that there are authors writing for publishers who could have written a book like The Martian, but they would have found the book rejected by those same publishers because there “wasn’t a market for it.” As the publisher saw it. When The Martian became a hit, I’ll bet if one looked there was a sudden “shift” in the types of Hard Sci-Fi published as publishers reacted to it.
Sadly, this perception is very true, and reinforced by the publishers themselves in press releases and marketing, despite being about as far from the truth as physically possible.
Crud, look no further than Andy Wier’s second book, Artemis, which was published with a publisher rather than self-pub like The Martian (which you really should read). Consensus is that Artemis is a wholly weaker book that needs more editing and work, which The Martian got but Artemis apparently did not in the publisher’s haste to push it out and make a buck.
I think the fact that publishers want to sell things is all that has saved publishing from becoming a hellhole of social signalling devoid of artistic interest, as painting and modern orchestral composition is today. Publishing makes *better* art than the other arts do *because* it wants to make money.
The problem I perceive in publishing is simply a market failure, caused by the extent to which publishers *aren’t* in the business for the money. Nobody goes into publishing to make money. They go into publishing because they have views they want to express. It takes a lot of ideological brainwashing for publishers to convince themselves that hard SF or action-adventure sci-fi can’t sell. But old-school SF is stigmatized; it’s “not socially relevant”; it won’t win a Nebula; you lose status in the publishing community for publishing it.
If they were really in it for the money, they wouldn’t have the luxury of convincing themselves that those nasty reactionary hard SF books can’t sell.
This too is a great point. Publishing a moderately successful book might be a net positive financially, but would be seen as a failure to be massively successful so any individual person in the industry is not incentivized to be associated with it. A certain games industry commentator puts this as a refusal to be happy with *some money*, only wanting games that make *all the money*. Even accounting for opportunity cost, this is likely not the way to make the most total money in the long term.
But if that were the case, why hasn’t there been a publisher that truly does publish any type of story, and really only applies some degree of quality control. If it’s possible and would be very profitable, why hasn’t it happened? I understand there are many smaller publishers. My conclusion at this point is that it either is not possible to make a company that really does run this way, or that doing so does not actually work in the sense of making enough money to continue.
Is my logic of capitalism and markets correct here? If so it looks like we are back to the problem of people not being interested in books without publishers. I can’t think of a solution better than trying to make indies have their own prestige, with some sort of large awards thing exclusively for the best indie books. Celebrate the freedom and creativity loudly. Max mentioned that Andy Wier got a publisher for his second book. That kind of thing seems like a big part of the problem. If the most successful indie authors immediately get publishers it sends the message that even they don’t value independence, that the goal is to get big enough to get a publisher. If they don’t send the message that they can be their own brands, why would anyone else value indies?
“Crud, look no further than Andy Wier’s second book, Artemis, which was published with a publisher rather than self-pub like The Martian (which you really should read). Consensus is that Artemis is a wholly weaker book that needs more editing and work, which The Martian got but Artemis apparently did not in the publisher’s haste to push it out and make a buck.”
I very much appreciate your insight into the industry, though i am compelled to point out that this is not strong evidence of publishers not knowing how to make high quality books. The principle of regression to the mean implies that even if it had been published in the same way, the followup to an extremely highly rated book should be on average less well rated. The initial quality would have been at least somewhat due to luck that can not be reproduced at will. And of course that it is only one data point.
If this seems unlikely to be enough cause, I ask if there are many ‘one hit wonders’ historically in the writing industry. It might be hard to see as ‘popularity’ would not show this pattern as it benefits from the hype of previous work. But it should be visible in reviews of the second works of new authors. Or in cases where the author never released another book, realizing they couldn’t match the first.
Ended up coming back to this post today and reading through the responses, but this comment caught my attention as now that Weir’s third book has released to critical acclaim, it’s become clear that he wasn’t a one-hit wonder, but that the publisher played a large part in shoving the book out well before it should have been. His newest book took twice as long as Artemis did, much like The Martian, as a result of the backlash against the first, and as a result is quite well received.
So time has shown that the publisher and a lack of time and editing were at fault.
I think the difference lies in the secondary value of the different arts in question. Games are about fun, play, they’re very close to the pleasure center. There’s relatively little pretense involved in enjoying a game. Movies are a little more rarefied, there’s more social pretense involved in saying “oh, I went to see My Dinner With Andre, don’t you know, it was so sophisticated!” Music is both more visceral, and more tied into identity, and in that sense, the ‘punk’ authenticity cult cuts in favor of rough and ‘garage’ art, so perversely, the bumpier the ride, the higher the cachet of the ‘indie’ product.
But books? Books are tied directly into intellectual pretense, about the virtue of the life of the mind. They’re supposed to be superior, elevated, refined – this is why social strivers used to fill their carefully designed and decorated showpiece homes with the sort of books that all intellectuals were *known* to read. There is a very large audience for *having been known to have read*, one which is perhaps larger than the actual reading audience. And to that crowd, the ‘garage aesthetic’ is absolutely toxic. They don’t get any mileage out of having The Martian on their shelves, let alone, say, some random superhero novel, or a space opera nobody’s ever heard of. They want today’s version of Gödel, Escher, Bach – something that’s been *approved by tastemakers*. And that means something that’s passed through the right doors first.
I think this goes hand-in-hand with the public perception that it takes no special skill to be a writer. Indie music and game development are seen as skilled trades pursued by people with wisdom and training unavailable to the common folk, and this bar to entry gives the public the idea that these artists have already paid their dues. Writers? Pfft. Everyone can WRITE. When I’m in a light social setting and I mention that I’m a writer, I keep hearing a similar response: “I should write a book someday!” Or, “The crazy stuff that happens in this office would make a great book!” Or some shade of that. If I were a composer, would these people immediately tell me of the symphony they’ve always wanted to write? No, they would not.
And yet, and yet, we instinctively KNOW the fact that some writing is good and some writing is bad; but we have no instinctive benchmark to distinguish between a well-crafted story and the book reports most of us were forced to do as a matter of public education. We needed a symbolic gatekeeper of that quality. That role fell to the professional press.
Who have, fittingly, abused that position to death. Personally, they’re no longer worthy of being the “sole proprietor.”
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I think there are multiple reasons for this.
The first is, like you noted, the major publishing houses have a fairly solid lock on the industry. Not so much with the retail side of it, independent bookstores have never been locked in the way that the theatre industry used to, and major retailers like Amazon and Walmart can to a very large extent dictate prices and availability to a publisher (no publisher in their right mind is going to pull their books from Amazon over a fit of pique).
No, the problem is publishing is expensive. Very very expensive. In a way that music recording and game development is not. All that is required for game development is a computer. A couple thousand dollars for a really good one. For music recording, a computer, a small amount of interface hardware, and instruments. Again, two or three thousand and you’ll have yourself a decent little home sound studio (unless you’re into modular synthesizers like me, in which case get used to eating instant ramen for most of the rest of your life). Printing presses cost in the “there is no way any individual is ever going to have the money or space for these, even in their dreams); and the dead tree parts needed to feed them are not cheap either. Plus, you then have to sell those books, which is also very, very hard. And unlike music or games, if you don’t sell books, you’re stuck with a whole lot more than a few digital files on an Internet server somewhere.
Now, some of the expense is mitigated by going to a strictly ebook format, but then you’re looking at a much smaller market — most readers still prefer dead tree editions — and for every copy sold, there will be dozen pirated (also a problem with music and games). Print on demand services also reduce the cost while still providing a dead tree edition, but the quality of the resulting books is fairly low, and the price to the end user fairly high compared to the major publishers.
Writing books is also very, very hard to do well. Yes, one can say the same thing about music and games, but books are harder. One has to have a strong grasp of language, of the craft of writing, of putting words together in forms that are intelligible and entertaining. That takes a lot of study. One can be a good musician without understanding a thing about musical theory; and a game developer without knowing a scrap of game theory. Not so much with writing, writing well requires far more education.
Game dev and music recording have a lot of tools available that greatly streamline and simplify the process. No indie game developer needs to develop their own engine anymore, there are many available for small fees, or even for free. Likewise, there are a lot of tools available for creating game art, also simplifying the process considerably. Music is similar, with entire suites of software for creating and recording music, and products like Autotune, which served to substantially lower the bar for talent and ability. There are no tools or other shortcuts for writing. Writing well is a constant, nearly endless grind.
The other problem is that the market is far smaller. Lot of people play games. Lots of people listen to music. Far fewer people read books. And in the US at least, the number of people who read books is slowly but steadily shrinking. So the market is smaller, and the big publishers are less willing to take a risk on something that may or may not sell well, leaving the small indie authors to indie presses that rarely last long, print on demand, ebook-only, or, and this is where things really get ugly, vanity publishing.
And, naturally, people who don’t read good books, don’t write good book.
Self-publishing at all has an unfortunate, but well-deserved, reputation for being utter crap, especially vanity publishers, who prey on such authors with egos larger than their abilities, and screw them over with huge fees. With the big publishing houses, there’s a filter that ostensibly results in at least a minimum level of competence in the writers that they publish; editors that work with writers to ensure that their work is readable by the majority of the few remaining people who still read. Self-publishing does not have that filter, and the results are little better than the average fan-fiction website or ‘zine.
Along with all of the above, reading requires a much greater investment of time on the part of the reader. While one might spend an half-hour or so listening to a new band, or an hour or two playing a new game, before deciding whether they like it enough to stick with it; getting into a new book takes days, or weeks. So readers are less likely to try something new and unfamiliar, especially if they have to pay for it. Big publishers have a reputation for the types of books they produce, and the reader has some idea of what to expect from them; expectations that either do not exist with indie publishers, or which start out negative.
Writing is always going to be the hardest thing to do, the hardest to sell, and the hardest to develop a reputation for.
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