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?