Monday, July 14, 2014

The Indie Writers' Movement Part 2: Room For Everyone

If anything is likely to promote the independent writers' movement from "promising" to "has hit the big time," it's most likely to be independent publishing's absence of barriers to forms, motifs, and themes disfavored by conventional publishers.

Of course there are no such barriers in indie fiction. Who is there to erect and defend them? Writers won't do so against themselves, while publishers, publishers' editors, and literary agents are completely excluded from the field. So elements and approaches of all sorts that would never be accepted by Pub World will proliferate in indie fiction to the extent the market will bear.

That is: as far as "the market will bear" and no farther. When no one stands between the creator and the consumer, the market is the sole arbiter. Those who attempt to defy the market simply won't sell. Over time they'll cease to try. New entrants, observing what works and what doesn't, will emulate the successful, as is the case in all commercial arenas. And of course, as tastes change, so will the market's winnowing dynamic.

Here's a quick survey of the currently most conspicuous divergences between Pub World fiction and the indie world:

1. Military fiction.

During Tom Clancy's glory years, Pub World grudgingly made room for his sort of military-adventure fiction for a simple reason: it brought millions of men back into the fiction market at a time when all the major publishers were hurting badly. However, it's noteworthy that they had to have their self-inflicted wound rubbed in their faces. Clancy's first, overwhelmingly successful novel of naval adventure, The Hunt For Red October, was rejected by every major publishing house and no small number of lesser ones. Only after it was picked up by the Naval Institute Press and became a multimillion seller were Pub World's major players willing to concede that they might have overlooked a profit opportunity.

But note: since the decline of Clancy's market power -- which preceded his demise by some years, sad to say -- Pub World's attitude toward military fiction has reverted approximately to its previous condition. Whether that's because no one of Clancy's stature has arisen since he, Stephen Coonts, and Dale Brown dominated the field is impossible to say, but with so little military adventure coming from the big houses, we cannot be sure.

2. Masculine protagonists and feminine leading ladies.

Gender-war feminism and Robert Conquest's Second Law have worked upon Pub World's purchasing patterns to eliminate, for practical purposes, traditionally manly men and feminine women from their offerings. This is in part due to the rise of "tough chick lit," in which a heroine with traditionally masculine assets, including physical strength and courage, uses them to prevail in a conflict that would once have centered on a male hero. However, even in stories that lack a "tough chick" protagonist, we seldom see a female Marquee Character who's feminine by the standards that prevailed before the rise of gender-war feminism.

It's not impossible to create a strong, brave heroine who's also feminine in outlook and in her relations with men. I've done so. Indeed, I've done so more than once, not merely to demonstrate that it's possible. But you wouldn't know it from the novels that emerge from the Big Six publishers, nor from most of the smaller establishments.

In this regard, the recent tumult within the Science Fiction Writers of America is highly illustrative. For as I mentioned only yesterday, writers' associations are as subject to Conquest's Second Law as any other kind of organization -- and have the added pressure of assisting their members in marketing their products, as well.

3. Freedom.

Given that freedom has come under attack both rhetorically and in practice, perhaps it shouldn't surprise anyone that novels that celebrate it, or that portray protagonists willing to fight and sacrifice for it, are rare among Pub World's offerings.

Writers to whom freedom is a critical theme get very little shrift from Pub World. Hearken to one such writer, whose cri de coeur just happened, coincidentally or otherwise, to appear on Bastille Day:

Things started changing for so many of us in the publishing industry when there was finally a viable alternative to traditional publishing available to us. No longer did we have to keep our mouths shut about how we felt for fear of having our options dropped or of being blackballed in the industry. Still, it was a slow journey into the light. We’d hidden our political beliefs for so long and had been so indoctrinated with the belief that admitting we were libertarian or – gasp – conservative would lose us readers.

But then events started happening that pushed us to the point where we could no longer hold our tongues. Looking around, authors who had been hiding in the political closet for so long saw the new indie authors saying what they thought in social media and on their blogs. Looking at the best seller lists on Amazon, hearts beat a little faster and a spark of hope flared to see authors who shared the same libertarian values these long-silent authors held not only selling their books but selling well.

Clearly, if we go by population movements, there remains a great hunger for freedom. That hunger extends to entertainment, particularly fiction. Longtime readers will be aware that I have a dear friend named Duyen who risked her life and future on a homemade bamboo raft to escape from North Vietnam and find freedom. You'd expect someone like that to be sensitive to the subject when she encounters it in a story...and she is.

Among recognized publishers, only Baen Books has provided an outlet for freedom-promoting, freedom-celebrating fiction. Baen sells a lot of books. Its roster includes some of the most popular SF and fantasy writers at work today. You'd think that, were profit of great interest to Pub World, it would draw the moral. So far, it hasn't.

4. Christianity and Christian Ethics.

This might be the most tragic of all the exclusions practiced by the major houses, in part because of the way it operates. I don't speak here of "Christian fiction" as such, because, not to put too fine a point on it, most explicitly religious fiction of any kind is narratively abysmal and unbearably preachy. There's another aspect to the thing: conventionally published fiction's treatment of religious clerics and religious characters generally. Protagonists with deep, sincere religious convictions are rare; even honorable Supporting Cast members are exceptional.

As I'm a devout Catholic, I'm particularly sensitive to this, but once again, market indications ought to constitute a corrective force even if simple decency is lacking. Taken together, I've sold over 75,000 copies of Chosen One, On Broken Wings, and Shadow Of A Sword, all of which are explicitly Catholic in protagonist and theme. For that matter, one of the best selling novels of all time, The Lord Of The Rings, is explicitly Christian in theme and treatment -- and J. R. R. Tolkien said so right out in front of God and everybody.

Everything Pub World disdains has flowered in indie fiction, as if it had been waiting for the outlet to emerge. Granted, the indie milieu is equally open to the sort of tale Pub World embraces, but that's only as it should be. The point is that the independent writers' movement has room for everyone, that it spurns no one and no kind of story, and that the success or failure of some new subspecies will depend solely on its progenitors' storytelling ability and the market's reaction to their offerings.

A businessman of acuity knows that the most precious of all things is an underserved market segment. Verbum sat sapienti -- and there are more than 1300 such words here.


Anonymous said...

Can you recommend any other agents or publishers - ones sympathetic to the themes you have outlined? It is for a thriller.

Francis W. Porretto said...

Sadly, no. I've become completely unfamiliar with the world of conventional publishing since I "went indie," five years ago. But I do have a suggestion as to how you could research the matter:
1. Go to Barnes & Noble and pick out a few thrillers comparable to yours in subject matter;
2. Note at the publishers thereof;
3. Check whether the authors thank particular agents in their Acknowledgements sections.

There's a book put out just about every year -- I think it's titled "Writer's Guide to Agents and Publishers" -- that will give you all the necessary details about how to go about approaching an agent, or a publisher. In the usual case it's best to have an agent first, as agents are wise to the ways of Pub World and will get more respect from a publisher than would an unknown writer.

Good Luck!

mexicano said...