” If you have a good story to tell and if you write it well, the Universe will come to your aid. Don’t self-publish. That’s as good as admitting you’re too lazy to do the hard work….taking the rejection, learning the lessons, and mastering the craft over a period of time….This is not an [sic] quick do-it-yourself home project. Self-publishing is a short cut….I compare self-publishing to a student managing to conquer Five Easy Pieces on the piano and then wondering if s/he’s ready to be booked into Carnegie Hall.” Sue Grafton interviewed for Louisvilleky.com (7th August 2012)
While this quote from Sue Grafton will surely have many a temperature rising in indignation across the indie-publishing world, it raises a really critical question about the challenges faced by the electronic bookstore in terms of categorisation, not only of value and quality but also of genre. One of the factors I often come across as influential for indie-published authors is the opportunity to publish outside genres, across them or at minutely precise intersections of genres. It’s certainly been one of the key factors for allonymbooks in choosing to independently publish a wide range of different novels in different styles and genres. Yet putting the first two Evie Woolmore books into circulation on Amazon immediately highlighted how narrow the vision still is of how fiction in particular can be labelled. On Amazon two categories of fiction wereavailable, plus tagwords: I was surprised at there only being two and also that magical realism was not itself a category given how often it is used generically. This is not discrimination against KDP as opposed to printed books – only two categories are available in either case – but surely such an approach can’t benefit Amazon either. Wouldn’t it be more commercially productive to enable people to search more precisely? Wouldn’t it be interesting, for example, to create a visual aid designed by the author to represent how several different genres or themes are represented in a book? Don’t they know best?
The argument one hears from both sides – indie publishers and print-published authors alike – is that quality will simply rise to the surface, regardless of genre. Certainly Brad Thor believes this, quoted in David Vinjamuri’s interesting piece for Forbes magazine last week. “If you’re a good writer and have a great book you should be able to get a publishing contract.“ But this is to over-simplify radically the process of getting into print. allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore‘s novel Equilibrium was extremely well-received by several editors of major print-publishing houses in London and New York. Their reason for rejecting it? Not quality, but an issue of marketing. Individual editors really liked the book, rating its writing and content. But heads of marketing teams could not perceive a generic pigeonhole for the book to underpin a strategy of promotion or bookshop placement. The result? Rejection. The marketing machine is much more powerful than the quality sieve. The Universe, to quote Sue Grafton, did not come to Evie’s aid. So Evie has had to go to the Universe and learn her way around it, a constellation at a time.
Independent publishing is often begins with writing a book that other people will want to read because you yourself want to read it. That audience may be very small, marginalised or quiet in social media terms, but the existence of that audience is just as important as quality of writing in defining that book’s appeal. Some people like to read novels that are fast, easy on the eye, and comfortably moulded to generic models that give them exactly what they want. Other people like books that challenge them, that explode ways of writing that we take for granted, or cover difficult themes. Irvine Welsh recently made a searing attack on the Booker Prize for upholding what he sees as a very limited view of what constitutes quality. Perhaps neither Sue Grafton nor Brad Thor would agree with what that is, nor with Welsh’s point of view. Every genre, print or independently published, includes good books and bad books – like many people, I have given away plenty of what I thought were terrible novels to charity shops over the years. But to evaluate quality by point-of-publication-origin ignores the complexity independently-publishing writers are often addressing with their writing. And it also pretends that the over-simplified print-publication model doesn’t exist.