Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Is "Indie" Publishing Destructive to Literature in General?


Zoe Winters has a blog post up today about indie publishing where she writes:

Some readers see indie authors as immature writers who are going through a “rebellious phase”. Some have even called us “lazy narcissists.” If you can’t look at a book cover and a short sample of a work before judging it, perhaps it isn’t the indie author who is lazy.

I find this very interesting because it’s a problem inherent only in publishing. Entrepreneurs who start businesses in other industries, even other creative industries, are not thought of as acting out in rebellion. They are simply choosing to be captain of their own ship by starting a business.

Freedom is the one thing nearly every human being will seek in one way or another. Whether it’s freedom of religion, freedom from oppressive governments, or freedom from working as a wage slave in someone else’s cubicle. Why should writing be any different?

I’ve wondered about this same question. I’m going to put on my devil’s advocate hat and try, for a change, to put a good face on the anti-indie argument out there.

Most people are familiar with the concept of a "network effect" from the world of computers. There are many technology examples of products or services where a part of the value to the consumer is the fact that everyone else is using that product or service. The Windows operating system, for example, is valuable precisely because it is ubiquitous. When you buy Windows and learn how to use it, you gain access to all the products that work with that operating system. Facebook is another good example. Facebook is valuable because everyone is on it. If you were the only user of Facebook, it wouldn’t matter if it was the best product ever.

So one question we have to ask ourselves is: Are there "network effects" in literature?

Is a book a product where the only transaction is between the author and the reader? If so, then all that matters is if the individual reader enjoys the individual book that they buy. Or are there other transactions going on whenever a reader buys and reads a book?

It may be that part of the value in some literary works is the fact that everyone else has read them. There can never be another Shakespeare, for example, because even if someone came along with the same verbal and dramatic talent, Shakespeare’s works have a four hundred year head start on getting integrated into our cultural landscape. A "new Shakespeare" would not have all of his plots recycled in a million other stories and movies. He would not have the vast academic infrastructure devoted to the study of every layer of meaning in his works. You would not be able to go to his birthplace and take part in dozens of tourist attractions based on his name. Shakespeare is just more useful to us, because we’ve all read him, than he would be if he was a niche interest known only to a few specialists.

This pretty straightforward fact makes it at least possible that something will be lost if the mass-interest world of publishing is demolished and replaced with long-tail independent niche publishing. We might all still be able to find individual authors whose work we enjoy, but might not be able to participate in large-scale communities of shared literary experience, for the simple reason that those no longer exist.

Maybe the problem won’t be that indie publishers suck – but that they don’t. If indie work is all garbage, it will just be filtered out and people will still construct communities around Authors Who Matter. But if indie work is good, then the entire concept of a literary community will disintegrate, because there will be no quality mechanism by which to select Authors Who Matter. Maybe the artificial limits placed on the "supply of authors" by traditional publishing was actually beneficial, because that limit made it possible for Authors Who Matter to exist in the first place.

I’m not saying I believe this. I’m offering it, as I said, as the devil’s advocate in Zoe’s discussion. As I’ve said elsewhere, I’d keep publishing even if I was, in fact, going to be responsible for the Death of Literature. But I’m interested in the discussion anyway.