Best of ’09: Andy Hunter on Independent Publishing

In English Language by Guest Contributor

As 2009 comes to a close we wanted to celebrate by bringing you a week’s worth of your favorite articles that we’ve run on Publishing Perspectives. We’ll be back on Monday, January 4, with our next new feature. In the meantime, enjoy the best of ’09 and check our news blog for updates and analysis.

Today, Andy Hunter, editor-in-chief of Electric Literature, argues that the economic and other challenges faced by traditional, conglomerate publishers have opened the door for independent publishers to win new readers.

If New Media is a Giant Killer, Will Independent Publishing Get the Golden Eggs?

Editorial by Andy Hunter

Andy Hunter

Andy Hunter

In these stormy times, large publishers are jettisoning everything they can in order to lighten their sinking ships. What are they tossing overboard? Among other things, promising authors who haven’t found an audience, as well as anything too literary, difficult, or narrow in appeal. As Random House clings to the desperately inflated Dan Brown, hoping a 5 million print-run and gargantuan promotional budget will keep its head above the waves, what becomes of the cast-offs? Might some happy-go-lucky independents haul a few brilliant writers into their skiffs? And what steps can independents take to ensure they are able to support the new writers and roles they’ll be taking on?

As Ursula K. Le Guin recently pointed out in Harpers magazine, publishing wasn’t always about profits, and isn’t capable of providing the fiscal growth that anxious shareholders require. Private independents, with their low overhead, small staffs, and narrower missions, are better suited to thrive in an age where profits are smaller, audiences are fragmented, and low-fi marketing can go viral. They can afford to experiment with affordable ebook pricing, iPhone applications, electronic subscriptions, and DRM-free formats. They can directly reach readers through email, blogs, and social networking tools.

Promotionally, the Internet is like the Wild West: boundless, lawless, and full of opportunity for the inventive, the hungry, and the risk takers. Unfortunately, “hungry” and “risk-taker” are not adjectives typically associated with an industry whose end product is best consumed by a reader curled up beside the fire. Books are sedate; they go well with tea. Like knitting.

Yet knitters are actually thriving online, thanks to the platform, advocacy, and community provided by innovator Etsy.com. Good stories, like mittens, will always be welcome in a decent home. The question is, can independent publishers get them there?

Stitching Together a Movement

Etsy has taken handicrafts out of the flea market and into the global market. In doing so, they have exponentially increased the number of customers for craft. By uniting small independent producers, giving them online tools, sponsoring physical and virtual events, emphasizing community above competition, and vastly increasing their exposure, Etsy has been a catalyst for the blooming of craft culture. As in the local farms movement, when awareness is raised and barriers are removed, many customers will eschew the corporate for the individual.

With the right platform, ambition, programs, and marketing, the independent press can fill the vacuum left by the major publishers. Like craft, independent publishing has a great history and tradition. Also like craft, it is typically supported by a small group of informed consumers. Raising awareness, increasing exposure, and creating or leveraging online platforms can inform millions more. Rather than compete for a small group of educated book buyers, independents need to make a coordinated effort to increase the size of the independent publishing market, working together to advocate for the manifold virtues of independent publishing: quality, diversity, and personality.

The crisis in publishing creates an opening, an opportunity for independents to take the middle — the creative space between the avant-garde and the blockbuster — but it will require both virtual and physical activism.

We at the new literary journal Electric Literature have stood in Union Square in New York City in orange tee shirts asking passersby if they read fiction. It is as humbling as it sounds. At our pop-up independent bookstore at the Brooklyn Flea, we sell books and meet readers, building awareness and loyalty. Our goal is for people to think of local indies as “their” presses. You can know an independent in a way you never can a large corporation, no matter how strenuous their marketing efforts.

Still, flea markets and street teams will not ensure a golden future for the independent press. An online platform needs to emerge, something that is to readers, writers and publishers what MySpace is to musicians and Etsy is to craftspeople. Hundreds of thousands of self-published books sit online, but good luck finding the ones worth reading among the virtual stacks at Amazon and the iTunes Store. What new venue emerges, and who creates it, remains to be seen. But the keys to the kingdom are not in Amazon’s hands, nor are they in Apple’s, or Google’s. They are in ours.

The Robots are our Friends

Communications technology is democratizing. It provides tools that empower individuals and disrupt top-down control. Decentralization, in turn, fuels creativity. The information age will not, in the long-run, be bad for literature, despite the pain that many are currently feeling. Since major record labels lost their stranglehold on the market, music has thrived — fewer bands become millionaires, but far more are heard. In television, the proliferation of channels and fragmentation of audiences has allowed smaller programs to find avid niches. In each case, democratizing technology — despite the ever-present cries of doom by established interests — results in a creativity boom. Most importantly, deconsolidation allows an audience once treated as monolithic to reveal its true diversity.

As information proliferates, people need trusted filters, which — from the slushpile to the bookshelf — is a role publishers have always played. Independent presses must foster reputations as curators, with strong identities that readers relate to.

We are the Rule and the Exception

Everything paved over eventually cracks, sprouts weeds, and is overrun. The acquisition and corporatization of publishers was a paving over. Now that the pavers are out of funds, we can see the cracks emerging. Years from now, publishing will be a wild, sprouting, resurgent landscape.

No matter how information changes, or how wildly it flows through new and obscure channels, a person — with a soul, or a neurological simulation thereof — sits at its beginning and end. It is this fact that keeps the world from sinking into the doomsday scenarios so often floated in the popular consciousness. When music became too terrible to bear, punk broke. When Walmart and Target started filling our homes, closets and cupboards, people returned to local farms and crafts. With each trend that threatens to rob us of our culture, a counter-trend emerges that fosters it. So begins the heyday of independent publishing.

Andy Hunter is the Co-Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Electric Literature, a new bi-monthly literary journal.

CONTACT: Andy Hunter directly

About the Author

Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.