amazon or big publishing?

Starting this with a video so you at least have some entertainment before I talk about something most of you don’t care about. Or at least you don’t care what I think about this, and I probably have unpopular views about this. So, yeah, here’s some strange popculture phenomenon.

This debate keeps coming up and I mostly think it’s funny because both are big publishing. Amazon’s just a lot bigger.

We have people on both sides saying the other side is ruining the industry, and they’re absolutely right.

Both are ruining the book industry.

But let’s think about what that means, yeah?

The book industry is a very recent thing to begin with so is it a bad thing for it to disappear?

This is the kind of question I never really see or hear. People act like you need to choose between Big Publishing and Amazon, but both choices are, I think, destructive to literature, so why is this the debate?

It also turns out that most of indie literature is under the same distributor, which sort of defeats a lot of what it means to be indie, I think. And, as far as I can tell, the goal for most indie writers is to get picked up by a Big Publisher, and the goal of a lot of indie presses is to become an imprint of a larger publisher.

I’m speaking in generalities, of course. These aren’t the goals of every single writer and publisher, but it feels like the trend, or hope.

For a long time, industries have consisted of whales and krill. It feels like indie’s want to be swallowed by the whale.

But which whale is the right whale to inhabit?

Do you want to be in Amazon or Big Publishing?

Either way, you’re still krill being consumed and churned over.

There must be a third way, yeah?

A way for indie presses and indie writers to remain indie and reach actual readers. I, obviously, don’t have a solution, but I think this Amazon v Big Publishing is just absurd.

So is the stigma against selfpublishing, which seems to be part of why writers/publishers hate Amazon.

This is just nonsense. Some of the greatest writers selfpublished their novels. For example, Virginia Woolf [she and her husband founded and ran their press] and Edgar Allen Poe and Honore de Balzac and William Blake and almost every writer of the past.

I’ve tried selfpublishing also, and I plan on continuing to do so.

See, I don’t think we should look at literature as a place that needs to fit into industry standards. You don’t need to be an Amazon writer or a traditional publishing writer. You can do both. You can be both.

Often times people castigate selfpublished books for their editing. The simple solution is to hire a professional editor [something that no indie press does] or ask a friend who knows grammar to do it.

My first novel had no editor. There are typos in the novel, or so I’m told. I can’t read my books as books. It feels too weird to look at the words in print when I’m used to seeing them on the screen, where I can rewrite them.

My second novel had a professional editor and proofreader and they were fantastic, though that was through John Hunt Publishing, which isn’t indie in the way that most people think about it. They sell too many books.

My third novel was edited by my friend, who is also the resident editor there.

And that’s sort of the indie standard, so for them to tell selfpublished authors that they need to go through a traditional funnel is pretty amusing to me. I mean, I trust my friends in the indie community with my words and I know they’re great editors, but none of them do that for a living, which is maybe a silly delineation, but there you have it.

Also, I keep hearing that even writers who get through with Big Publishing have to do their own marketing.

So what’s the real difference between indie, selfpublishing, and Big Publishing?

It seems like Big Publishing has name recognition and money on their side, though that money doesn’t seem to go to most authors, just like how most Amazon selfpublished authors don’t make much money. In fact, we’re hearing more and more how no writers are making any money. Probably why most writers I know are also professors of creative writing.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it shows that neither of these models is working for anyone, really. A few outliers in each tract make it work and become millionaires. The rest of us are sharing a tiny sliver of a large pie, because more people are reading now than ever before.

The belief that the opposite is true is just silly, and Amazon is definitely responsible for getting more people to read.

The kindle changed publishing. There’s no going back, and so writers and publishers need to adapt to it.

But there are tons and tons of readers across the globe, across the country, across your state. The problem is that you don’t know how to reach them and, probably, that you’re not writing books they want to read.

This is not a fault of the audience. It’s your fault.

If you’re writing experimental fiction, you need to accept that you’re speaking to a relatively small sliver of an already small sliver of a gigantic pie. The literary genre is a small sliver of that giant pie, and genre fiction is the real person at the table, eating all the pie.

This is not the reader’s fault.

Genre fiction is awesome and a lot of those writers give you everything a big Literary name gives you but they throw in monsters and faster than light travel and robots. It’s sort of the case of giving children a bit of sugar with their medicine. The literary genre, and experimental genre, especially, tend to just want to dose you with medicine. And that’s great. I, personally, love that, but I’m a specific kind of reader, and so is most of the indie community.

And, to be honest, so is most of the audience who reads the new Delillos and Pynchons and Roths. They’re a very specific kind of reader who do not represent the culture. These are the kind of writers who win awards, but they’re not the kind of writers who get lots of readers. I mean, Delillo, Pynchon, and Roth are fine because they’ve been at it forever and have found their real audiences, and those are a lot more people than any of us can hope for. But for newish writers who aren’t at their level, you need to realise that your postmodern retelling of A Midsummer’s Night Dream set on a Haitian plantation isn’t going to register as appealing with most readers.

That’s not their fault, and it’s not your fault.

By all means, go write that! But stop bemoaning the state of literature. Save that for your friends, who will put up with your rants.

I’m looking at you, Will Self.

This year made me realise that I may never make any money as a writer, which is a bummer, and that even hitting a big publisher won’t change that, because, apparently, they don’t help you market.

Which brings me to something about marketing.

Writers are terrible at it. Sure, there are those who make it really work, but most writers are the worst marketers the world has ever seen. It’s not out fault. That’s not the skillset we cultivated.

This is going to be an extremely unpopular opinion, but I think you shouldn’t start a press of any kind if you’re not willing to hire a marketer and/or publicist for your writers. If you don’t hire that person, then you need to make it happen for them. You, as the publisher, need to make sure that your writers are successful.

I get why no one does this. It’s difficult and time consuming, and most indie publishers are also writers who have their own career as a writer to keep in mind. I also understand why they want their writers to do all the promotions themselves. Native content works best. I get that.

But most writers don’t even have the slightest idea how to market. That’s partly probably why they’re writing books. They’re not very good at communicating with people what they feel and what they want. If a love letter takes a writer 300 pages to write, do you really think they’re going to know how to convince other people to read it?

Maybe this sounds ranty or like a complaint. That’s not my intention, and I imagine this will be an unpopular opinion, but I think picking sides between Big Publishing and Amazon is just plain stupid.

Neither of them are your friends. Neither of them care about your art. Neither of them care about you.

Amazon loses nothing by you not selling anything, but they gain from your success.

Big Publishing loses a lot if you’re not selling. For them, the bottom line is the driving force. And they also gain everything from your success.

So let’s do it without them, yeah? Let’s find a way to cut out the executives. Maybe the real first step there is creating an actual distribution channel that works for small presses. Let’s get some syndicalism in publishing, yeah? Let’s help one another move around these whales and find some open water without them.

Or not.

But when you fight for Amazon, don’t pretend like you care about all writers, publishers, and books.

And when you fight for Big Publishing, don’t pretend you care about all writers, publishers, and books.

3 thoughts on “amazon or big publishing?

  1. i admire your feistiness. i ran a small indie for 20 years (trevor’s book is our last, beautiful object). i have also been an indie writer for more than 20 years. i am very good at marketing not only my own work (as a form of social action, not LOOK AT ME! I’M AN AUTHOR! ha…), so my experience doesn’t jive with what you are saying at all, as i’ve been in the art trenches, but i still admire your feisty hope and i hope you kick ass in the world. i hope you topple paradigms. i hope you are the people who invent the NEW PATH. some of us are exhausted from trying. exhausted, but not giving up. NEVER SURRENDER! ha…i’ll let you know how they “hooking up with a bigger publisher” turns out, but don’t worry. i’m sufficiently suspicious, so if it doesn’t work out, miles and i will be on street corners again selling handmade pamphlets by all the writers i love, whether it’s deemed legitimate or not. counter your culture forever!

    for me, the debate is not between amazon and big publishers…it’s between a culture based on economy and commodity and cultures based on art and making it. whenever art is totally subsumed by economy, unfortunate things happen, from my point of view. that’s what’s happening in front of us. the question for me is, what will we do as artists and makers? xoxoxoxo


    1. I agree with you 100%, Lidia! Especially about how the real debate is a cultural one, and that’s why I don’t so the dissolution of Big Publishing as a bad thing. Because it seems to be driven by money rather than being driven by cultural or artistic value. That’s also why I don’t understand the stigma against selfpublishing. Selfpublishing is sort of its own fight against that paradigm.

      Congratulations on moving to a bigger publisher! I hope it works out! I do think simply having your name attached to a bigger publisher helps your sales, because it makes the books much more visible to all audiences, so there are definitely advantages!

      And I’d love to help forge a new path! Not sure if I’m the right person for such a thing, haha, but I’ve been thinking about starting a press a lot over the last year, so maybe it’s worth a shot.


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