The film industry and the music industry long ago responded to technological advances that put production power in the hands of the artist. When video quality became comparable to film quality, Indie videographers could afford to make their own movies. If at first these looked a bit “low-budget,” that changed soon enough. And in 2009 the Academy Award for Best Cinematography went to a digitally-shot picture: Anthony Dod Mantle for Slumdog Millionaire. “Indie Film” is now its own genre, much in the way that “literary fiction” is a genre, whose only defining characteristics are its artfulness.
In the music industry, the self-produced cassette tape, CD, or jpeg were never frowned upon the way a self-published book was/is. Musicians used them like business cards. By 2004 http://www.garageband.com and http://www.live365.com had developed viable communities of independent artists and listeners. In 2005, I looked on with Indie artist-envy when my friend Fredo Viola produced a YouTube hit The Sad Song using, mainly, an Apple computer and a cool pics camera. Gradually, iTunes made it possible and respectable for artists to release and sell their own music. “Indie music” is of course its own genre, and designates, in my opinion, the cool music.
Some may think that print-on-demand publishing (POD), e-books and online distributors like Amazon.com offer similar opportunities for aspiring writers. And there are some similarities, but every industry has its differences that affect the possibilities for success. Indie books still aren’t cool. Even Indie bookstores don’t want them.
The initial problem the Indie publishing industry has, as I see it, is the fact that books are written by individuals and are not the product of a concerted effort such as a film is or an album is. If a project requires a number of people (at least a handful), then the project is deemed a worthy one to at least those few people. But a lone, untalented scribbler can print a book for about $100.
There is often much more of an investment in producing a movie than producing an e-book or a POD. Indie filmmakers have to convince dozens of actors, crew members, and production people to invest their time (and sometimes money) in the project. Music can be made in home studios, if you have fairly sophisticated equipment. But with music as with film, a group of people are needed, generally, to produce a product. All this means that the Indie films and music have to go through some pretty demanding quality-control filters just to get started and the finished products tend to be produced with some degree of professionalism.
Can authors learn from these examples? Perhaps literary self-publishing is destined to go through its own “low-budget” stage, as film did, before it can blossom. Is it possible for groups of writers to work together forming production groups? I think that’s possible, but perhaps a bit artificial.
The nearest conceptual relative of a film crew or band might be a writing “workshop” of some kind. The various MFA creative writing programs throughout the country are a bit like production companies. They offer editing support, networking, maybe a little funding. But the work that comes out of these groups doesn’t seem very Indie to me. That’s just my prejudice based on limited experience. Please correct me if you disagree. I think the problem might be due to the fact that these are students writing in workshops.
I have another idea: peer-review websites and awards. I’ve been developing two programs for the Dactyl Foundation which would help build an Indie literary fiction community of professionals. Based on what I feel I need as a reader looking for new book, I’ve designed a Web 2.0 website for the literary fiction community, www.dactylreview.com. While it promotes literary fiction — Dactyl Foundation’s own preference for stylized writing and weighty topics — it could also serve as a model for other groups or organizations with different values and opinions. Like the community-based websites used by Indie musicians, this site will offer a flexible system for categorizing and comparing works and artists, but a bit differently this site will feature reviews of literary fiction written only by published literary fiction authors.
It is not a site specifically for self-published work. That would be lame. But it gives self-published writers an equal opportunity among traditionally published writers to voice their opinions. All Indie works reviewed on the website can be submitted for considered for Dactyl Foundation’s undersung literary fiction award, a prize of $1000. This, we hope, will perform a similar role for Indie fiction that the film festival has played for Indie film.
The website isn’t designed just to help writers get their work out there. It’s designed primarily to help readers find what they want. In my experience as a reader, I have been frustrated by small press websites and online bookstores that don’t offer a way to filter the “literary fiction” category, which is too amorphous to be really helpful. I seldom buy novels based on subject or number of glowing reviews. I buy based on the style of the writing itself, and too few sites offer samples of the writing, much less try to define a style. Although authors themselves may be reluctant to categorize their work or compare themselves to other writers, reviewers are usually quite willing and happy to do so. The author and publisher quite rightly don’t want to pigeon-hole the work, but reviewers and readers are likely to provide a range of categories and tags, some may be quite off, but most will probably be near the mark. I think community categorizing will be essential to the success of a self-organized literary fiction review site that is actually helpful to readers.
We launched the site a month ago (March 2010). It’s available to search engines and it gets the occasional visitor stumbling on the Martin Amis review I put up. We sent invitations to half a dozen small presses that we particularly like, asking them to tell their authors about the site. We announced it to Amazon.com’s “literary fiction” community. I contacted the five literary fiction novelists whom I know personally (it’s pathetic, yes, but I don’t know that many writers). We were hoping to get a number of “seed” reviews up in this way before going fully public.
This is a bit of an embarrassment, but so far, I am the only one who has posted any reviews. Now, I know writing reviews is hard work, and we’re all overworked and underpaid as it is. But I also know that writing and publishing reviews is the best form self-promotion a struggling writer can undertake. It isn’t like going round to various other writer’s websites and plugging your own novel. Signing your review “So-and-so, author of This or That Book” is a legitimate way to recommend your own work to the public. People can judge what kind of writer you are by the way you write about other writers. While it’s not a site where an author can post a review of his or her own work — that would be super lame — it is a place where any author can make meaningful contributions to the field of literary fiction. And that’s important, I think. Writers must contribute before they can expect some sort of recognition in return.
So I encourage others to get online at dactylreview.com and get to work building your community of readers.
Peer review would give Indie publishing some inherent quality control mechanisms and filters like those that exist in the film and music industry. A selection process based on types and styles, as well as quality, can replace the traditional publisher and reviewer, help the book find readers and vice versa. And I don’t want to forget to stress that peer review would also help any literary fiction work, self-published, published by a small press or a traditional press, because all literary fiction works these days are lost amid a sea of undistinguished fiction. I see groups of writers emerging out of this process whose members would be in conversation, which would be a healthy thing for publishing generally.
Personally, I’d like to self-publish my next book, because Indie POD seems part of a natural development in the arts. But I am afraid to if there no are filtering mechanisms for my novel to pass through, no one to review it, no one to award it, which would mean no one to read it. As long as writers don’t try to self-organize in the way that filmmakers and musicians have, works of Indie fiction will sit in an unstructured heap that no sane reader is willing to sift through.