Sunday, July 28, 2013

Indie Fiction And The Garbage Problem : A Non-Political, Non-Outrage Post

I can't do an angry, man-the-battlements post today. I'm wearied out by the developments of the past couple of weeks, so I thought I'd indulge myself a bit and talk about my avocation and its biggest problem.

In case you've spent the past two decades in a diabetic coma, I write fiction "on the side." I maintain correspondences with several other independent writers of whom I think highly. All of us are agreed that the indie-fiction world is in desperate need of a solution to this one giant problem...even though the "above-ground" world of publishing is just as badly afflicted by it and has made almost no attempt to solve it.

E-publishing, the channel through which most indie fiction (including mine) flows, is a double-edged sword. Altogether too many persons think they can write who haven't the slenderest sliver of the technical skills required, much less the storytelling skills. I'm not the only one to have noticed. When Flannery O'Connor was asked her opinion about how universities discourage fledgling writers, she replied "In my opinion, they aren't discouraging enough of them."

I had that very much in mind when I set out, with far more fear and trembling than you might imagine, to write my first fictions. What makes you think you have the chops, eh, hero? ran the censorious little voice in my skull that's endlessly willing to discourage me from any new venture. Pushing past that set of retardants was quite a challenge.

Ten years of unbroken rejection of my short stories by the periodical markets didn't exactly fill me with confidence. Perhaps it hardened my resolve. At any rate, in 1996, when I sat down to begin my first novel-length story, I was already certain that no one in the above-ground world of publishing would be interested. No matter how much I or my friendly test readers might think of it, it was doomed to go straight into that dreaded legendary repository of storytellers' shattered dreams, that Sargasso Sea of stories born to blush unseen: "the trunk." And so it was the case with the three novels that followed it.

Fast-forward to 2009. I'd been writing opinion-editorial pieces for the World Wide Web since about 1997, and had acquired a readership of some thousands of like-minded persons. One of them informed me of the existence of SmashWords, of its openness to all comers, and that his novel had already garnered thousands of readers though that conduit. With four novels already in "the trunk," and stories yet to tell about characters who refused to leave me alone, I had a reaction that, just maybe, every man will have at least once in his life, whether over asking his "crush" for a date, marching into his boss's office to negotiate for a raise, or casting his fictional bread upon the waters in hope of a 0.000001% return on his blood, sweat, toil, and tears:

"What the hell, why not?"

Accordingly, and with (approximately) no fear or trembling, I formatted Which Art In Hope to SmashWords's standards and submitted it for electronic publication. It appeared there early in 2010. Chosen One, On Broken Wings, and The Sledgehammer Concerto followed in the weeks after that. I made those first offerings free, as I simply had to know whether anyone would be willing to read the decidedly odd stuff I write even at no cost.

Within three months those four books had garnered over 50,000 downloads. I said a quick Hail Mary and assigned them the prices they bear today. Nine months after that, the total had broken 75,000.

The "legitimate" publishing houses, which I collectively call Pub World, had never shown me the slightest favor. Yet I'd garnered readers -- and revenue! -- through SmashWords. I was getting fan mail! Actual human beings were taking the time to write thank me for my books and plead for more! From all over the world, at that!

Yes, I was but one more swimmer in the sewer of self-publishing, wherein the only qualification required is a word processor and a lot of brass. But people were reading my work. People were paying to read my work.

Fifty-eight years of self-doubt dissolved in those plaudits. I was a new man.

It seems an age ago that I set out on this path, though it's been a mere three and a half years. I was overwhelmed from the first by the approval, the revenue, and the sheer joy of acceptance. I wanted everyone to share in it. So, in my desire to help other would-be writers, many of whom had undoubtedly struggled with their confidence and their technical failings, to experience the rewards I'd enjoyed, I resolved to read and review as many SmashWords stories as I could stand.

That turned out not to be as many stories as I'd originally thought.

The late Theodore Sturgeon, when a snooty journalist said to him that "Ninety percent of science fiction is crud," replied, "Well, ninety percent of everything is crud." If we take Sturgeon's Law to be a statistical average of everything Mankind produces, that 90% figure might be pretty close. But as we know, there are channels through which flows a slurry of much more concentrated crud. Indie publishing, at this time, is one such channel.

To date, I've read about 800 SmashWords publications. The ones I've reviewed are the ones that aren't utterly hopeless: about 10% of the stories I've read from there. Perhaps a fifth of the ones I've reviewed -- about 2% of the overall total -- display real creativity and storytelling power, even in potential. The rest are, to put it as kindly as possible, charity cases: their authors' mothers might love them, but the rest of us would prefer to watch test patterns on the television.

There's a real need for a garbage filter if indie publishing is to garner a modicum of respect.

Now is the time to act. Method is the unsolved problem.

The best hint might lie in the existing writers' associations -- the ones that cater to writers whose works have been published by conventional publishing houses. There are a number of them in America: the Science Fiction Writers of America, the Romance Writers of America, the Horror Writers of America, the Zombie-Apocalypse-and-Interspecies-Orgy Writers of America, and so on. (Yes, yes, I made that last one up.) Such associations provide various forms of assistance to their members, such as critique circles, mutual-editing arrangements, lists of recommended cover artists, referrals to other established writers who might be inclined to provide a laudatory back-cover blurb, and so forth. The major difference between those groups and the sort of group I've contemplated is that their members must already have succeeded in getting through Pub World's high and forbidding gates, whereas we would be the gate: a new applicant would have to be approved by a committee of the existing membership.

The implication is that the members would have to accept an obligation to read at least some of the applicants' fiction and pass judgment on it.

Indie publishing being what it is, such an association would lack any real power. It would be unable to prevent an applicant from publishing his garbage. It could only endorse, or decline to endorse, the works it reviews. So there would still be a no-doubt-copious flow of crud in the indie-publishing channel. But the Worldwide Independent Fiction Writers Association's notoriously picky Seal of Approval:

...would bark joyfully from the covers of the books we endorse. That, plus "networking effects" and whatever mutual-aid services a copious membership could provide, just might be enough inducement to earn some respect for our mutual undertaking.

Inasmuch as there's a perceptible hunger for good fiction of varieties Pub World isn't willing to touch, perhaps the iron is sufficiently hot to strike.

In case you haven't yet noticed, I'm getting old. (They say it can happen to anyone. I'd hoped an exception would be made in my case, but...) That has both positive and negative aspects. For one, in less than two years I'll be retiring from my "day job," and will presumedly have more free time than I do today. For another, I'm getting pretty cranky, I have less energy than I once did, and the C.S.O. has taken to composing ever-longer and more taxing "Honey-Do" lists. So I can't do this alone...and I've yet to encounter anyone willing to share the burdens of getting it off the ground.

Hint, hint.

So? Thoughts? Volunteers? Bronx cheers?

C'mon! Help brighten up a curmudgeon's Sunday. Or do you really want to discuss politics?


Peter said...

Unfortunately, this would inevitably become yet another case of "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?"

If we make ourselves the gatekeepers, we'll rapidly begin to inflict on others the same indignities and closed-minded blinkers that we've encountered in the previous gatekeepers - i.e. traditional publishers.

I fear the old saying is still true: "You've got to kiss a lot of frogs before you meet your prince".

Francis W. Porretto said...

"Inevitably" is too strong an evaluation, Peter. That could happen; it certainly has before. But there are ways to avert it, if we retain enough humility, and embrace a sufficiently wide range of genres and themes.

Remember that Pub World once sneered at science fiction, fantasy, and horror fiction...until each of those genres started to outsell the "legitimate" stuff that Pub World thought so highly of. It opened its gates, belatedly, only to find that it had missed the crest of the wave, and that "upstart" publishers like TOR and Baen had established unassailable bastions they could not hope to overcome.

If we're open as to genre and theme, but demand technical quality -- i.e., good grammar, spelling, and punctuation; proper attention to the rules of effective storytelling; the exclusion of unnecessary tawdriness and obscenity -- indies can refine their field and become their own "power in the land."

We don't need to be "gatekeepers;" that's a Pub World sort of approach. We need only to be respected as a standard for quality, that endorses only books its own members have read and enjoyed. If the emblem of the association develops that reputation, all else will follow -- and though the garbage will still flow copiously, the attentive readerw will know how to avoid it.

AuricTech said...

You seem to be describing an organization along the lines of Underwriters Laboratories ("Indie-writers Laboratories"?), the purpose of which would be to certify that indie fiction meets certain technical standards.

Francis W. Porretto said...

Yes, Auric, that's a very good comparison. Reviewers would be concerned with technical competence rather than "message." If the rules of grammar, spelling, punctuation, formatting, and the basics of storytelling are all respected, the book would pass. I intend to make all this clear in a "rules for submissions" post.

To keep the irritation quotient down, reviewers would self-classify according to which genres they're willing to review. For example, some wouldn't go near SF, but would willingly read romances; others, the reverse.

I'm not sure whether we would charge a fee, but if we did, it would have to come with the caveat that the submitter is not purchasing automatic approval.

Mark Alger said...

I'm not at all certain I could contribute anything of value. I've always been terrible at book reports.

I could cheerlead, I suppose. Go team!

On the other hand, in Sarah Hoyt's Human Wave community, there have been mutterings about some sort of ... something ... along these lines. Ish. Perhaps the two initiatives might converge -- or, at any rate -- run in similar circles.



Francis W. Porretto said...

Come on, Mark, be a mensch. Even you can skim a manuscript to determine whether the author has adequate command of grammar, spelling, punctuation, and the utter basics of storytelling. No book reports are required.

At the very least, you can help me to spread the word. WIFWA will be a going concern by the end of August, or my name isn't Publius Feistersnap!

(Oh, wait...)

san5pedro said...

Count me in as a helper. I would be delighted to review and give such editing assistance as might be desired.
Half a lifetime ago I thought I could tell a good story, but circumstances intervened to quash that impulse. I still have the notes somewhere if my good wife has not tossed them with other detritus of years gone by.
I certainly can be a cheerleader and I'm willing to lend a hand in any way that can move this good work forward.

jed said...

Hello Francis.

I'll mention your endeavor here and there; perhaps it will help.

I'm now reminded of some of the first things of yours that I read, before the time of Eternity Road. Can't bring to mind the name of your older website(s?). You had a collection of short stories, which I much enjoyed. Don't suppose those are up anywhere?

Mark Alger said...

Well, Fran, right this moment, I'm ramping up to publish my first, complete, real, honest-to-God novel -- planning to be in stores September 1. I am working with a pro editor who will, no doubt, demand I make mondo changes, and leave me by mid-month with gears and springs all over the workshop. In addition, my artist (me) is being sehr difficile and has already broken the bank buying source images and wants to enter the thing in a contest or something. But somehow, by hook or (more likely) by crook, I have to get a cover for the thing that doesn't drive the customers away in droves and windrows.

Wanna take second, third, or tenth place to THAT?



Francis W. Porretto said...

Dear Jed,

All my old stories, and quite a few newer ones, are now available at SmashWords, in one collection or another. Get there before 8/1 and you can get quite a lot of them for free!

Francis W. Porretto said...

Well then, Mark, do the least you can do and help me spread the word. You know, a mention of WIFWA at BTB, assuming that wouldn't overly strain your overpacked schedule.

Mark Alger said...


Done. A note at BTB and a mention, with link-pointer on the Human Wave group on Facebook.


Karen Myers said...

I'd be interested in such an organization and could help with the slush pile.

Talitha said...

I used to enjoy slushies from 7-11. I did some editing for a fanzine. I could scrape some time together to hack at Mt. Slushmore.