Indie Publishing as Cyclic History
Countless blogs trumpet indie writers and self-publishing as new and unprecedented, a revolution in publishing. It is and it isn’t. What’s new is that writers are selling their books directly to the public through a licensed online bookstore instead of to a publisher. In many other respects indie ebook publishing is surprisingly similar to past formats for mass market publishing.
Through the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century the “dime novel” genres provided affordable reading for budget conscious readers with a taste for adventure. The serialized British equivalent, the “penny dreadful,” often targeted male adolescents. Although it has gone out of fashion, the term “dime novel” became a pejorative to describe hastily produced potboilers with no literary value. Nowadays indie publishing conveys similar connotations for people espousing traditional literary values.
The paper bound dime novel was the forerunner of modern paperbacks, introduced, successfully, just before the Second World War: Penguin to the English-speaking world in 1935, and Pocket Books to America in 1938/1939. Both companies acquired the paperback rights to hardcover books, ordered large runs to keep costs and prices low, and marketed their paperback editions to mass audiences through non-traditional markets. Penguin’s first success was with the department store Woolworths, and Pocket Books tapped in the distribution network for newspapers and magazines. Penguin and Pocket Books became almost synonymous with paperbacks, but many other companies entered the market. After early experiments, the Canadian publisher Harlequin became one of the largest publishers in the world by specializing in inexpensive romances, for a predominantly female audience.
Penguin’s association with paperbacks may explain the angry tirades on the internet in 2010 when it announced it had reached an agreement with Apple to charge higher prices for ebooks than paperbacks. The general consensus of the market was that ebooks should be cheaper because the cost of printing is eliminated. At the time, some online retailers required publishers to set ebook prices lower than print editions as a condition for listing in their catalogues. Some of those retailers also sold print editions and they wanted to use cheaper ebooks to attract new customers rather than compete with print editions. Both arguments are valid. As the price of paperbacks rose higher and higher, many customers, myself included, stopped buying books or curtailed their purchases. Eliminating printing costs, which are maybe 30% of the total, should be reflected in the end price, and lower prices could encourage people to read again, or buy more books. But that is just my opinion.
The essential point is that for the first time writers set their own prices. They can even give their books away free of charge, if they want to. The price of indie ebooks is typically lower than the price of ebooks from traditional publishers. The reasons for that are complex, but it is generally accepted by even the most successful and talented indie writers, and the rapidly evolving trends in the pricing of indie ebooks hasn’t really affected that basic fact. In that sense, the indie writer at the bottom of the pricing spectrum is the modern equivalent of the dime novel publisher or paperback publisher.
For the most part the production of indie writers has largely been genre novels and the books are often potboilers, to use that old term. One indie writer called them “throwaway novels.” (I suspect that term would also apply to erotica, which has become a popular ebook genre.)
Literary writers still tend to prefer the traditional publishing route, although that is gradually changing, and some traditionally published writers are now using both traditional publishing and self-publishing some of their own titles (the hybrid model).
Indie writers often produce more than one novel a year; they have to in order to earn a living, but some genre writers have always been prolific producers. Both have often been accused of producing hastily written novels, with the implication being that they were poorly written. The same criticism is often made about other aspects of the final product such as editing and proofreading, and the indie writer is responsible for those whether they attempt to do it all themselves or hire professional editors, proofreaders, and cover designers. When a reader sees poorly constructed sentences and typos in traditionally published book it reflects on the publisher almost as much as it does the writer, but in an indie novel there is only one person to blame for any defects: the author. Indie publishing has enabled thousands of inexperienced writers (me included) to publish stories, and the quality of that output has been variable, let’s say. Which may explain why cost versus value discussions within indie publishing more often revolve around the quality of editing and proofreading than storylines, and why some book buyers won’t purchase cheap indie novels or say indie publishing has a bad reputation. Similar complaints were made about dime novels, in their day.
Some things haven’t changed much in the last 150 years regardless of changing formats. It has never been easy to make a living by writing fiction, and indie writers must contend with many of the same challenges and literary prejudices as writers of dime novels or paperback novels for specialist genre publishers.
One thing has changed, though: female writers have a better chance of being successful than male writers. And that is one helluva a big change over earlier eras.