Thursday, 1 November 2012

How self-publishers are in danger of losing the high ground to small presses

I read an interesting piece from indie publishing legend Talli Roland this week. She made a very good case as to why she doesn't want to be called indie. Now, we can argue all we like over terminology, but whilst I respect her hugely, and her reasons for saying this, her position is so far from mine that I had to write this response.

Talli's argument, as I understand it, is twofold - first, that she just wants to be seen as an author so that her books aren't prejudged; and second, because, at the quality end, there is no real point of difference between self- and trade publishers. 

I understand both those positions, and in many cases, for many groups of readers, and many authors' goals, they are spot on. But there are some huge points of differentiation, and those points are precisely what makes self-publishing so exciting. As self-publishers, aren’t we supposed to be in the vanguard of innovation, and driving rather than responding to what people want – doing the things big publishers won’t, which is why we didn’t want them to start with? Here are some of those points of differentiation

Blackheath Books, one of the most exciting micro presses run out of the front room of Offbeat pioneer Geraint Hughes, and Zingaro Books, self-publishing imprint of the UK’s leading performance poet, Kate Tempest, make their physical production stand out, using ethically sourced papers and inks, recycled card for their covers, hand-printed end papers, and the highest quality artisanship
- refusing to deal with corporations – when I started the micro-imprint eight cuts gallery press and told people I would be refusing to give my books ISBNs so that Amazon, Borders, and Barnes and Noble wouldn’t be able to stock them, people thought I was nuts. But the publicity I got – big articles in Writers’ Digest and 3:am among others, I’d never have achieved without doing that.
- creating a “house feel” – that’s what made/makes so many independent record labels *so* hot – labels like Stiff and Rough Trade are still legends, and head into the Rough Trade store in Brick Lane and that ethos is still there, right down to the graffiti-friendly loo. They got that because they set out to create it. This is one area I really think in the past two or three years self-publishers have let themselves be overtaken by small trade presses (a species that back in 2007/8 was standing on the edge) who have created exciting, independent, individual, cleverly thought out and skilfully executed worlds around their books – Peirene with their exquisite covers and cult literary salons, And Other Stories – covers again and the unique subscription-ownership model (Peirene also have a great subscription and bundle offer, another area where self-publishers have lost innovative ground to small presses because they’ve started following rather than setting trends), Bluemoose and their combination of fiercely guarded niche (Northern writing) and anarchic marketing; Philistine Press and their “only free” policy combined with the pursuit of books in formats that would otherwise be unpublishable; Melville House’s “art of the novella”. Each of these was started, and at least three of them are still run, by one person with another full-time job who had a great idea and did it from their front room.

A few years ago, self-publishers were the ones doing these innovative, exciting things. When I started, the icons were people like MCM who was live-streaming his keystrokes as he wrote a novel in three days whilst a team of bloggers interacted with readers on twitter to feed him plot points. Now, I rarely see that. Self-publishing has grown up. And that’s great for many because it’s a solid, respectable business model for people to follow. But it is no longer the unequivocal artistic frontier it was, and it is losing out on the chance to be recognised as such as the media increasingly looks for innovation and uniqueness and again and again fails to find it in self-publishing but finds it in small trade presses. I know there are as many positives as negatives about that but I still find it sad, because for me the go it aloners should be the cultural agenda-setters.

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