Indie Publishing: More Like American Idol Than Braveheart

by Rich on April 8, 2011

The debate between indie vs. traditional publishing often sounds like a Braveheart monolog. “You may take away my extraneous commas, but you’ll never take away my freedom!” Frequently, the discussion revolves around an author’s ability to retain control of his work. Freedom and control are important, but they mean something very different for established writers like Barry Eisler or Amanda Hocking than they do for newbies and aspirants. Eisler is a traditional publishing best seller, Hocking an indie/self publishing phenomenon. Both have demonstrated an ability to write what people want to buy and read. Both have received a lot of feedback from editors, readers and reviews on what works and what doesn’t. Their experience puts them in a better position to produce a better book each time they sit down to write.

An aspirant is more like someone auditioning for American Idol. We show up with the personal conviction that we have what it takes to channel Sam Cooke or Carole King. We’re dying to get in front of the judges and make it. We want everyone to hear us sing.

But, we’ve also seen the poor schlubs whose performances are so bad they give you chest pains. The people who sing like a cat in a clothes dryer. The people who keep singing even after a judge throws them a lifeline by telling them to stop.

The people who have no idea they shouldn’t impose their voices on the public.

Now, I’m sure you’re not one of those people. I’m doubly sure I’m not one of those people. Really. I’m certain, I think.

Traditional publishers can protect unprepared aspirants from themselves through guidance and validation. Anyone in a creative field needs to deal with rejection and at least temporary failures and setbacks. Even with that in mind, no one wants their failures to be any more public than necessary. Submitting a manuscript is a fairly private way to risk rejection. Privacy is helpful for the ego, but just as importantly, it’s helpful for you brand. Fail too publicly too often, that’s what people come to expect from you.

Guidance is essential. Writers, and creatives generally, can be blind to our own shortcomings and the weaknesses in our work. Editors put the shortcomings right in your face and get you to fix them.

Certainly, there are other places to get that kind of help. Critiques, beta readers, hired expertise. What a traditional publisher has that none of those has is a willingness to say “I believe in this, and I’m willing to take a financial risk on it being successful.” Anybody can deliver the first half of that, but the second half is important. Ultimately, most writers seeking publication also want commercial success. A willingness to take financial risk on a work is an excellent in-kind predictor.

Validation and guidance are by no means the only value traditional publishing can provide, and, as I said, they’re not unique to traditional publishing. But especially for the aspirant, I think those services are essential to get from somewhere. A unique advantage of traditional publishers vs. indie/self publishing is that it’s very hard to ignore their guidance. Publishers are gatekeepers. They can always not publish. Your critique group is great. If you’re lucky, they’re experienced, and their advice is sound. But you have to be willing to listen if they tell you that you sound like this guy:

I’m by no means telling you which way is right. I don’t know which path I want for myself. But I think the shift under way in publishing is going to demand a lot more maturity and self awareness from writers, particularly newer ones.

I’d love to hear what you have to say. Is it too easy to believe you’re Carrie Underwood when you’re really a dork with a power mullet and a voice like an asthmatic bulldog?

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