I think I know what indie book publishing is going to look like

Over on the Writers Digest website, someone named Jane writes a series called There Are No Rules.

Her most recent post is “My Big Rant on Self-Publishing”. It starts out like this:

I can’t tell you how tired I am of hearing people bash self-publishing. The things I hear usually fall into two categories:

  • Most self-published books aren’t quality
  • Some self-publishing services are unethical

If you agree with one of the above statements, let me lay it out real clear for you: The landscape is changing, and if you haven’t noticed, you’re behind the times.

Now, before you dismiss this as yet-another rant from yet-another scheming self-publishing ne’er-do-well, I should point out that this particular “Jane” is Jane Friedman. Jane Friedman was the President and Chief Executive Officer of HarperCollins Publishers Worldwide, one of the world’s leading English-language publishers, for eleven years. She came to HarperCollins from Random House, where she was the Executive Vice President of Random House, Inc., Executive Vice President of the Knopf Publishing Group, Publisher of Vintage Books, and founder and President of Random House Audio Publishing.

It’s fair to say she knows a few things about the publishing industry as it exists today. When someone like that talks about what’s true about publishing today, I feel fairly safe believing them.

In her post, she writes:

  • Distribution models are changing. With advancements in technology, and the power now within an average writer’s hands, it’s not necessary to have physical bookstore distribution to achieve success.
  • Traditional publishers now rely on authors to do the marketing and promotion.
  • Communities will decide what books are worthwhile.

And I think “this sounds really familiar to me. Where have I seen this before?”

Oh yeah: the indie game industry.

Once upon a time, there were about a half-dozen major game companies who published their games, and about the only way you could ‘make it’ in the industry was by writing for those games and getting published by those companies. You might see the rare, rare bird out there — some guy who’d written his own game that got a little bit of play in his local cons and had some support, but that was damned uncommon, and the products that the guy turned out were obviously substandard to the quality of the products produced by the big boys.

Then came the internet. With it (and usenet) you had a flurry of homebrew games and creations that actually got farther than your home. Some of the early and long-time successes from that time were games like FUDGE (with a still-bustling community almost two decades after it showed up on usenet, and at least two major spinoff games that have themselves created spinoffs), RISUS, and Sorcerer (notable for not being in all-caps, I guess).

Still most of these internet-distributed games were just that – internet distributed. Nothing but bits and bytes. There was no final product; no book to hold in your hand.

Then the guy behind Sorcerer (who I believe had experience in publishing through his academic background) printed real live copies of the ‘final’ version of his game. High-quality copies. Copies that were easily as good as any other book you’d see in your local gaming store. That the game itself was good was more important, but the big deal was “holy crap, someone outside the Big Boys made a book, and sold it, and made it work, and has a big group of people playing it and reading it. HOW CAN WE DO THIS?

And the answer at the time was “well, you can’t – not easily – but it can be done, and until then, you can sell PDFs of your games for cheap.”

And then, very slowly (to the indie gaming industry, that is — where lifespans are measured in dog-years and evolution occurs at a rate not seen outside a mad scientist’s lab in the basement of a nuclear reactor), the self-publishing industry started to catch up to what the indie game designers wanted to do, and they could make their own games and print them and SELL THEM TO PEOPLE OH MY GOD.

There was a glut of publication, let me tell you.

Maybe one in every ten games that came out were good. The rest were crap and died a quick, possibly painful, and justified death. There was a lot of recrimination on the boards that supported the indie-game publishing effort (indie-rpgs.com and story-games.com), along the lines of “why did you release this when it wasn’t more than half-baked?” and “we need some quality control up in here, or we’re going to become a laughingstock”.

And that has happened, and the products you can get today are better and better – the crap-to-quality ratio moving into a favorable zone with every day.

Here’s what it looks like today:

  • Distribution models changed. Lulu.com and Indie Press Revolution has made publishing books financially and logistically possible for people who have Real Jobs, Real Lives, and Other Things to do.
  • Traditional publishers now rely on authors to do all the marketing and promotion. Pff. It’s not like there’s ever been much in the way of marketing in the gaming industry. RPGs only predate the internet by about a decade, so a huge amount of what the industry does in the way of ‘marketing’ is done via the internet — there is very little that the Big Boys can do in the way of marketing that *I* cannot likewise accomplish do. Google adsense is affordable, and reaches most people right where they live – their Inbox.
  • Communities will decide what books are worthwhile, and communities won’t have ego-filled judgments. I have seen this happen firsthand in the indie game design world. Story-games and Indie-rpgs.com are the crap-filter that Independent Fiction Publishing needs in order to thrive.Not a service. Not a business. A community of people who all want to accomplish pretty much the same thing, and are committed to making sure that the whole bloody thing doesn’t become a laughingstock.And they don’t do it for money. They do it for love of doing it — for love of reaching people and knowing they enjoyed their game.

That’s where indie publishing is going. That’s where (and how) it will succeed.

Does such a community already exist? Maybe. Publetariat has a forum. I plan to check it out. Maybe it already is what it needs to be.

Maybe it can evolve.

One Reply to “I think I know what indie book publishing is going to look like”

  1. Hi Doyce – I’m a publetariat contributer as well, and am currently creating a program
    “author 2.0” . I want to do a segment on writing in new media – would you be able to do an interview?
    I’m in Australia so we could schedule a good time – it would be 30-45 mins. I ‘ll send the questions by email if you agree! Thanks so much, Joanna

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