DFTBA, John Green: Indie Champion Award and a Rant

I’m a little late to the Indie Champion Award acceptance speech by nerdfighter and wildly successful YA author John Green. If you’ve ever been on Youtube for an extended length of time, you’re probably at least aware of him, or his nerdy-music writer brother, Hank. They run a vlogging channel (Vlogbrothers) and several crowd-sourced educational shows, including Sci Show (my favorite!) and Crash Course (history has never been so entertaining). They have been a part of the Youtube community for over six years now, and have an intense cult following. As one of their avid watchers, I wasn’t at all surprised when John Green’s latest novel, The Fault in Our Stars (2012), hit the #1 best-sellers list on both Amazon and Barnes & Noble a full six months before it was even released. The man knows how to connect with his audience, and they are as loyal as they come.

That’s why, when I happened to stumble across several blog posts condemning him as ‘arrogant’ and ‘ignorant’, I was pretty shocked. What on earth could they be talking about? Well, as it turns out, John Green recently video-recorded an acceptance speech for The American Booksellers Association‘s “Indie Champion Award”. A transcript, as well as a very insightful post regarding the overall ‘issue’ self-publishers are having with the speech, can be found at fallsintowriting.com. For everyone who just wants a brief synopsis, I’ll give a tl;dr below.

The Quotes: “So I am sometimes held up as an example of someone who is, like, changing the publishing paradigm … and I don’t need the value-sucking middle man of bookstores and publishers. And in the future, everyone’s going to be like me, and no one will stand between author and reader except possibly an e-commerce site that takes just a tiny little percentage of each transaction.”

“I wouldn’t have any books to my name without … my editor [ ], my agent [ ], my friends, my family, everyone at Penguin but also the collaboration of thousands of other people – copy editors, warehouse employees, programmers, people who know how to make servers work, librarians, and booksellers.”

“We must strike down the insidious lie that the book is a creation of an individual soul laboring in isolation. We must strike it down because it threatens the overall quality and breadth of American literature. They hold me up as an example, but I am not an example of publishers or bookstores extracting values [rephrasing of above].”

“We need editors and we need publishers and we need booksellers. I am not in the widget-selling business. I am not in the profit-maximization business. I’m in the book business -the idea sharing, consciousness expanding, storytelling business, and I am not going to get out of that business. So f— Ayn Rand and f— any company that profits from pedaling the lie of mere individualism.”

The video was very passionate and direct, with language that is not often heard from the lips of this pizza-loving, giant squid of anger. I’ve personally never seen him so quick to curse, but then again, his wife was due to have a baby the next day; I give some slack for a father who’s stressed out. It is perhaps this sudden shift in personality that got so many people rising out of their seats to slam down on their keyboards, but I think it’s important to remember: what, exactly, is the Indie Champion Award, and who is it given by?

As it turns out, the award is given by the American Booksellers Association. That’s right. Booksellers. Specifically, the award:

… [is] presented to the author or illustrator that has both the best sense of the importance of independent bookstores to their communities at large and the strongest personal commitment to foster and support the mission and passion of independent booksellers. – See more at: [doc]

Suddenly, John Green’s passionate speech about why publishers and booksellers are important starts to make a lot more sense. However, many bloggers have rushed to their blogs, and even the Huffington Post (twice!) to condemn the ‘arrogant’ John Green for his ‘proclamation’ that self-publishers (or indie publishers, depending on the article you read) are stuck in this “insidious lie” that books are the product of one. This still confuses me, because John Green did not mention or allude to self-publishing or indie publishing authors at all in his video. In fact, he even posted on his tumblr that he was specifically talking about Amazon and Jeff Bezos (CEO)’s advertising campaign for Kindle and CreateSpace, which builds up this mythology that YOU and YOU alone* can write, edit, create and market your book, and it can be just as good as anything else in the published market.

*Amazon does offer an extensive line of services, including editing ($160/10k copy-editing, $300/10k for content), interior design ($349-$679), cover art ($1,199 for THIS!), and marketing (reviews starting at $369, press release at $249, publicity kits at $329), among others that are reasonable, but probably too expensive for the average self-publisher [more on that in a moment]. The prices over at Lulu a fair bit higher.

Surprisingly, at Absolute Write, where I expected the debate to remain heated, there was really only head-nodding and agreement. There was the point brought up there, that I saw echoed in the other blogs I visited, that they don’t know who, exactly, believes this lie that self-publishing means to go it alone.

As an indie book reviewer, I feel I am in a unique situation to discuss the apparently non-existent self-publisher who never has another set of professional (or at the very least competent) hands go over their manuscript. They exist. They exist in droves.

There is a whole class of self-published authors who take the title a little too literally. Whether this is through stubbornness or ignorance, I won’t make the call, but I have heard things like “I did it all myself.and “I don’t want anyone’s help.” as a sort of assurance to the listener that they really are indie, because they did it all. They wrote it, edited it, packed it, distributed. Just like a veritable Indie Little Red Hen. And I’ve seen these writers defending that choice as if to need or want outside assistance will somehow strip them of their ‘self-published’ or ‘indie’ title.

I might as well throw in budding authors who don’t (or don’t know how) to do their research, and find the term ‘vanity publishing’ an alien concept. People who have been in the business for a while (and I’m not one of them at all) sometimes forget that the sea of the publishing industry can be really overwhelming for newcomers. There are so many new terms, authors, big names, genres, and processes for a new author to learn, and many, frankly, either don’t care to fight the learning curve, or don’t feel they need to.

Some time ago, Jane Friedman came up with an awesome infographic and blog post that deals with the five general paths to publishing, which I’ll quote here for our tl;dr friends:

[The] five paths are:

  1. Traditional publishing: where you query and submit to agents and editors in an effort to land a contract that pays an advance and royalties (and typically involves nationwide bookstore distribution).
  2. Partnership publishing: one might consider this the evolution of traditional publishing, where authors are positioned more as partners, receive higher royalties, but usually no advance.
  3. Fully-assisted publishing: the old “vanity” self-publishing model, where you write a check and get your book published without lifting a finger. I don’t recommend this, but it’s still a significant part of the self-publishing market, now dominated by Author Solutions.
  4. Do-it-yourself (DIY) publishing with a distributor: while this applies to either print or e-books, today this usually involves e-publishing your work (to reduce financial risk and investment involved with print), and using a service provider or distributor to reach all possible online retailers—and/or to provide some level of assistance.
  5. Do-it-yourself (DIY) direct publishing: when an author doesn’t put any middlemen between him and the retailer selling his books. Often, this option is combined with #4 above; for example, someone might sell direct through Amazon KDP, and complement it with distribution to all other retailers through Smashwords. This is possible because most distributors and online retailers of e-books work on a nonexclusive basis.

To become a writer is one of those weird professions that doesn’t really have a rule book, or even a reliable guidebook. The field is always changing, and for a newcomer who hasn’t even learned how important armadillo skin is, the temptation to just throw it all out there by yourself and not have to worry about rejection, ridicule, or the masses pointing and laughing is pretty high.

Over at Pankhearst Reviews (where I review indie books), Evangeline Jennings just wrote up an editorial review based on some of our group’s comments about books we had to reject. See, we don’t post any reviews under three stars over there, for a variety of reasons. You can read part one, two and three over there if you want.

The_Little_Red_Hen_-_who_will_plantOut of the some dozen books I’ve picked out from the list of author-requested titles, I’ve reviewed one. One! Most of the others I had to give up at 40% (because I really do try to give every book a sporting chance to get out of a clumsy beginning). The rest I would have given less than three stars. I’m not a very picky person. I find inane things highly amusing, and don’t need a book to be classic, artistic or trying to say something about the world for me to enjoy it. Actually, when I recommended that one book I did review to someone else, they emailed me to say that the content editing was atrocious. Go figure. But that is just me, in an entire group of people who want to be reading and reviewing the Little Red Hen of the indie community, and I’m not the only one rejecting books from authors who haven’t bothered or don’t know how to check their work.

Now, I’m not saying that a self-published author isn’t doing it right if they don’t go get assistance from another person. There are a few — mind you, few — authors out there who possess the objectivity to edit their own work spectacularly, and there are others who are so business-minded so as to never need a publicist or agent. And then there are so many books out there on how to do x, y, or z that anyone could conceivably do it all on their own, with enough willpower, patience, and hard work.

My question is not really whether an author can do it all by themselves; it lies in whether an author should.

Forgiveness for the very long rant. In short, I think the reaction to John Green’s speech has been a little off-topic and has jumped on the coattails of the ever popular argument of ‘us vs. them’, even though his speech had (in my opinion) nothing to do with most of what is being complained about. Of course, it’s possible I am just largely ignorant, and I’ll be glad to discuss varying opinions below.

(Congratulations on your new baby, John Green. DFTBA.)

9 thoughts on “DFTBA, John Green: Indie Champion Award and a Rant

  1. Well, I learned a lot here. Lately, I have been considering publishing a collection of essays from my blog, and am reading a bunch of books trying to figure out how to do it. And, no, I wouldn’t trust myself to go it alone.

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    1. I think your essays would make for an awesome book. If you want to see how other authors have done it before, John Scalzi recently released a book of that kind… “The Mallet of Loving Correction” When you get it finished, be sure to send a link my way! I want to read it.

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  2. I think the main barrier to not going it alone is money. I would in no way have done so much of my stuff myself if I could afford to pay someone more competent to do it for me. Fortunately
    1. I’m quite a good editor. (But I still miss stuff, because it’s difficult for one person to catch -everything-.)
    2. I found someone that I could trade services with so that I could get cover work done.

    Effective marketing, though, eludes me, and, as soon as I can afford it, I will certainly be paying someone with greater expertise.

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    1. Oh, also, whereas I don’t mind and even kind of enjoy editing other people’s work, I hate editing my own stuff and would totally pay someone to do that if I had the money.

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      1. D’oh! I knew I forgot to pick up on the thread about cost… Oh well, for another post, I guess.

        It’s cool that you found someone to trade services with. That’s another option. There IS a huge community in the indie/self bracket, and that is an awesome thing to draw on; fact is, a lot of people don’t.

        I know I’m personally looking for some ‘professional’ cover art for something I’m planning on serializing. I could draw it myself; my drawings are fairly decent, but I /want/ a pro-cover. For what I want, (an inked, comic-style drawing of one character with a simple backdrop) prices start at $350! No color…. wooooo. At least I know I can do the coloring myself, as I’m fairly proficient in Photoshop. Not so much with the digital drawing, or inking of traditional works.

        I think there are a lot of resources to GET that funding you need, if you have a good publicist or marketing strategy. I’ve seen dozens of short story anthologies and books get up to 10x the funding they were looking for on Kickstarter and IndieGoGo (without trying to look for them). I’m sure there’s plenty more.

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  3. Thanks for recapping the whole controversy going on here. Very interesting discussion. I think you’ve summed it up quite well. I don’t think any successful person has done it all on their own, whether it’s writers, or CEOs of corporations, or scientists, or politicians. There’s a whole entourage of people who have helped them to reach the top of their professions. And it’s good for us to remind ourselves of that fact.

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    1. Very good points. I’m glad that the post worked for you.

      It’s a funny conundrum, the schools of philosophy that show us that we have never *really* done anything alone (just look at how much we rely on people until we are ‘adults’, and then how much we rely on the people that make our clothes and cars, cook our food, pay our salaries, etc), and the philosophy that says, really, in the end, despite all of that, we ARE alone. I think the latter gets a lot more attention than the former, and maybe our perception of the world, and what we need to do to get to where we want to go. 🙂

      Thanks for the comment Deborah. Always appreciated!

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