A long trailing edge to a very steep bell curve

I don’t play as many video games as I used to. There was a time that I would keep up with all the unusual and interesting games that came along, but now I hardly do. I put my Xbox on from time to time, play about half an hour of something mindless and then switch it off again. It’s a good way to wind down. But thanks to limits on my time playing through new and unusual games has fallen to the wayside. But then recently I reactivated my Steam account and found loads of Indie Games.

I don’t want to go on about video games in a blog that is at least supposed to be about books, (even if it occasionally diverts into all sorts of unexpected territories,) but this Steam Indie Games thing was particularly interesting to me in that it seemed to have some parallels with Indie books. A lot of the Indie Games seemed to have an emphasis on artistic merit, experimental gameplay and esoteric themes. In other words exactly the sort of thing I used to enjoy, but that had seemed to have dried up, at least a little. On Steam I found a number of games that offered a slower pace and thoughtful, interesting content. There is, after all, only so much Call of Duty a person can put himself through.

 Games of niche interest seem a perfect fit somewhere like Steam. Digital distribution offers a solution to the problem of expensive overheads involved in producing a product that would previously have needed to sit on a shelf in a shop. Those niche interest products, which by definition make less money than the big hits, can now exist and find their audience. Which is exciting for those artistic types that want to create games like that, as well as to people like me, who want to play them.

Of course, by extension I am drawing the same conclusion about e-books and indie authors who are doing much the same thing. Every now and then a post turns up on Amazon’s forums discussing all the problems with the Kindle Store and how to fix them. The view that I have seen presented is that self-published indie books are simply not good enough to be published and, therefore not worthy of being read. If they were they would have been traditionally published. I’ve got to admit, for a while I found this to be a pretty compelling argument. I am certain most writers would, if given the choice, take traditional publishing if it were offered. So does this make indie publishing a reluctant second choice? Well, not necessarily. It might just be that some books, weird, unusual, bizarre books, have no home within traditional publishing which has, whether we like it or not, the same bottom line as any other business; money.

Writing novels is not necessarily a good way of making a lot of money. It might seem like it because the exceptions are so visible, but the ratio of millionaires to writers who make only a little money is a wide one. A few months ago when Fifty Shades was occupying the top three slots of the top ten best sellers and selling hundreds of thousands of copies a week the books making up the rest of the top ten were, in some cases, selling only a few thousand. Now a few thousand is still a lot, but this is the top ten bestsellers list we are talking about. How many does the 100th top selling book sell? (I don’t have the answer to that but when I sold a single copy of my ebook the sales rank went from 500,000th to 74,000th. That is a long trailing edge to a very steep bell curve.) But nonetheless authors continue to write, and writers continue to aspire to be authors. It can’t all be about money. 

Quality of writing isn’t the only reason novels fail to be published. It isn’t unreasonable to assume that some very, very good novels fail to find a home with a traditional publisher through not fitting in with their sales plans. Books with very niche audiences might not appeal as their sales potential is quite low. But if the goal isn’t to sell a million copies and become super-rich, if the goal is simply to write what we have inside of us and make it available to anyone that might be interested to see it, then the indie market and digital distribution is a perfect fit. This isn’t to say it is superior to traditional publishing, I would take it if it were offered, but it might not be, and so it makes sense to use what is available.

There are differences between what Steam has done and what Amazon have done. For one, Amazon’s barrier to entry is much, much lower. To make an indie video game available on Steam you first need to make a video game, which is no mean feat, but with Kindle you could fall asleep on your keyboard and publish the result. And the mere fact that someone could do that does, in some ways, undermine the efforts of people who have taken a lot of time and care in their work. I don’t want it to sound like I am saying the the Kindle Store is some hidden panoply of excitingly offbeat literature. I don’t doubt that there is a lot of poor quality stuff on there too. But even this isn’t a serious criticism of indie publishing for two reasons. 1, there is always a sample available that allows us to make more informed decisions about what we buy and 2, the cost is, on the whole very low. Though I do recognise that the real cost of an indie book is in the time spent reading it. The 0.77p is nothing next to that. 

The automatic dismissal of self-published books reminds me of the way some people react to information that has come from Wikipedia. Citing Wikipedia as a reference, to some people, sounds like confessing to getting your information from a taxi driver. But in all probability Wikipedia is, on the whole, a very good source of information, if you treat it right. I remember a spate of Wiki sabotage on Cristiano Ronaldo’s entry following the World Cup where he winked at some after getting Wayne Rooney sent off. (Unless you take the view that Rooney got himself sent off, I’d understand if you did.) But just because a page can be ruined by Wiki saboteurs doesn’t mean you should presume that they all have been. The entry on Euclidean Geometry is much less likely to have been tampered with. The important thing is to treat all information critically, rather than to dismiss or accept everything.

I don’t think I am saying anything new when I say that indie publishing offers something traditional publishing can’t. Not just to writers, who get an outlet for their work. But also to readers, who get the chance to read books that, without it, they would never have been able to read.

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