Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What Is Indie Publishing?

I guess a better question would be "What Was Indie Publishing?"  Short for "Independent Publishing," it signified those publications not coming out of the mainstream publishing houses such as Knopf or Simon and Schuster, who hope to  make money by publishing titles that have a chance of selling huge numbers of copies or winning major awards (and thus selling huge numbers of copies). Independent publishing also did not include the university presses, such as Yale University Press or Pittsburgh University Press, who publish titles that they consider important to the continuation and increase of knowledge.

Indie publishing, then, like  indie records, is performed by small companies (or individuals) operating on a shoestring that have serious, new, unique, avant garde, ideas on what should be published and read rather than what the major publishing houses and universities are publishing. Independent literary magazines are examples, especially those operating outside of the university community. Then there are the small presses. One of the most famous examples of a small press--at least in its infancy--is City Lights books, publishers of Allen Ginsberg and many other beat and avant garde poets and artists. At first, this company was just an offshoot of a California bookstore whose owner, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, wanted to make this new kind of literature available throughout the country and the world.

The fact that one of the poets that Ferlinghetti wanted to make famous was himself suggests another group of writers that should be included in the independent group: self-publishers. A self-publisher, of course, is someone that publishes their own books, paying all expenses. Ferlinghetti was therefore a self-publisher, but so was Walt Whitman. So was Virginia Woolf, whose books were published by her own Hogarth Press. So were many other writers who have become household names.

But with the advent of e-book technology, the definition of "indie" publishing is changing. Smashwords, the ebook publishing giant, used to blatantly flash the motto, "Ebooks from independent authors and publishers." Well, although that message is not as obvious on their site as it was, it's still true; hundreds of never-before-published authors are showing up on Smashwords every day. But that's not everybody that shows up on Smashwords.

If you read my last post, "What Is a Full-Length Book?" you'll remember that I posited two reasons for the recent increase in full-length novels on Smashwords. First, because most authors formatted their smaller stuff first and second, because e-book publishing began to seem a happy alternative to sending out endless queries to agents whose interests are so narrow that it is almost impossible to get them to read even t a small sample of writing.  But there is a third reason.

In another of my earlier posts, I mentioned that Norman Spinrad had joined the ranks of e-book authors on Smashwords.  Popular with both mainstream and cult sci-fi readers, Spinrad was the first really famous author that I spotted on the Smashwords "New Releases" page. Since then I have seen many others. Laurence Shames, for instance, who writes quirky mysteries, many of them set in Florida, should be a hit on Smashwords--I know I plan to download several. They are worth it just for the covers. Are you a fan of fantasy writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch? She has dozens of titles on Smashwords. Robert Daley, author of Prince of the City is there; so is the book. The late best-selling author Irving Wallace has made a comeback due to his children publishing several of his books on Smashwords. Harry Mark Petrakis, A. A. Attanasio, Mike Resnick--they're all there. Any why not? Their old publishers are too busy trying to sell John Grisham books to pay much attention to keeping their old stalwarts in print. This way, not only do we get to read the works of these fine authors, but we only pay what we would pay for a used paperback and the author gets about 70% of the selling price.

So. Indie Publishing?  I'd say it's good for everybody. But with so many authors bringing their back titles from print publishing houses to Smashwords, it is a term whose meaning will continue to change.


What Is a Full-Length Book?

As a Smashwords author, I log into that site several times a day. I look at my own statistics, of course, but I also glance at the latest books to be uploaded. At first, I was put off by many authors uploading stories of 1,000 words or so and calling them books. Or novels of 20,000 words that are short not only on words, but on plot and characterizations. But over the last month or so, I've noticed that the percentage of full-length books is increasing. I'm sure there are many reasons for this, but I can think of two right away. First, it takes an author (or a paid assistant) longer to format 100,000 words than it does to format 1,000. Second, many authors may be tired of being constantly rejected by ever-more-persnickety agents.

Here's some figures. The Old Man and the Sea is about 26,000 words. In my opinion, that is right on the borderline between a short novella and a long short story. The Great Gatsby, on the other hand, at 47,000 words is most definitely a novel. In fact, I had never realized it was so short--not even half the size of Huckleberry Finn, which has about 111,000 words. Treasure Island comes in at 68,000 words and Tom  Sawyer has 78,000. Pride and Prejudice has 121.000 words, while Crime and Punishment has a whopping 208,000.

So let's call a full-length novel anything over 65,000 words. Go to the Smashwords Home page and check out the latest 10 books uploaded. It is rare if you don't find at least one book 65,000-100,000 or more words. What that tells me is that there are a lot of authors out there who have written stuff that has never been picked up by the regular book publishing industry. A more careful scrutiny tells me that many of these novels are parts of trilogies or other multi-volume series. I have purchased and downloaded several of these e-books and have enjoyed them as much as most of the stuff I can get off the racks. And after all, I can almost always read a sample of an e-book--usuually 20% or more. That's enough to let me know if it is something I am interested in.

And here's an interesting question. In asking how long a book is, most of us will turn to the back of a paperback and look at the last page number. That doesn't work for e-books because the page numbers are different for every e-book viewing device. In fact, they are different depending on whether you are reading portrait or landscape--which I do alternately on my iPad.

It is no secret--at least among those who know me--that I have written down every book I have read since I was 17. These are all books I have read from cover to cover, not just passages. I write down the title, the author, and the number of pages. At the end of the year I total up the books (usually at least 52--one for each week) and the number of pages. But what am I to do now when I read an e-book that has never been in an actual printed version?