An Open Letter on Indie Publishing

My name is Justin Patrick Moore and I’m a big fan of speculative literature, just as I am of underground and experimental music. I’ve been engaged with both since I was in grade school. My interest in strange electronic and avant-garde music has led me to hosting my own radio show, “On the Way to the Peak of Normal” on WAIF, 88.3 FM in Cincinnati, in addition to playing in a local band. I’ve also always been a writer (my first trunk story was called “Space Quest” from the third grade). Since the tail end of 2008 I’ve been writing music reviews, and now some book reviews for the independent music website Being on the radio and writing music reviews has put me in a position where I’ve received a lot of free releases of independent music, given to me for airplay, or to review, or both. Some of these are self released titles, and a good many are from small labels. Some is exceptional, some is crap. A fair amount lies in that middle ground. There are so many great bands out there, from the local to the international, that never would have been “discovered”, or “made it” if they had only relied on sending demo tapes to record executives. And our musical culture has been enriched because of their initiative. In the end, the fans of great writing will be the ones to vet the viability of indie publishing. Readers are already discovering new gems out there among the more unpolished works.

I also work at a library and am a voracious reader of literature in general, but the speculative variety in all its fabulous forms has always been my favorite. So I have these twin interests in the independent music world, and in SF. Growing up one of my favorite styles of music was punk. In the SF realm we have cyberpunk, steampunk, and now even mythpunk. I guess subgenres or styles are just as popular in fiction as they are in music. So many labels to call things. After awhile they all tend to bleed and mutate into each other, which I think is a happy state of affairs. One thing the musical punks embraced was the Do It Yourself ethic. I think this is something literature should embrace as well. There will always remain the larger imprints, and the small presses, just as there are big and small labels in the music world. But the DIY ethic has created a more diverse musical ecology where the little fish can swim with the big fish in the same ocean. Music is more diverse and more interesting than ever. One thing that keeps the smaller fish of the music world going though, is a strong and vibrant local scene. The same can be true of the indies of literature.

As a writer I write in as many forms as I can, as I see fit, or as I am invited to: essays, reviews, letters, stories, poetry, manifestos. Putting the written word out on the local front with my friends at Aurore Press, and in the Cincinnati lit rag Milk Money Magazine, has given me the opportunity to go and read and speak at a variety of launches and openings. There are also occasional poetry readings I’ve been invited to attend. All of these types of events help build solidarity for local literature. Which doesn’t mean you still don’t go out and forge deep connections with your global colleagues on the internet. But having a strong local interest in literature could create for it the same kind of resiliency that many local music scenes have. This is a call to action for the SF community outside of even the regional cons. What could it do for our literature if we met up monthly or bimonthly in a favorite pub, tavern or coffeehouse and had short spec fiction readings? Granted, I know this does happen in some places, but it’s not as wide spread as it could be. We need to take some of that DIY punk attitude and put some real steam into things.

Local scenes will foster the independent writer. Small presses, collectives, and new initiatives will be made. Punk attitude and ire was aimed at authority. It is definitely right for authors to question the authority of agents, publishers, editors. By saying this I do not denigrate the larger houses and the larger audiences they can reach, but independent publishing should be seen as one viable option in a matrix of possibility. The savvy writer, as many in the industry will already have observed, will keep her or his options very flexible, and their writing will most likely appear in a wide variety of formats, from the smallest of presses, obscure webzines, to larger venues.

Another thing that has been a boon to indie musicians is the tour, regional, nationwide, or abroad. The places they play in range from packed theatre halls to divy bars. Indie writers are already doing the same thing. The book tour is not just the province of the well established writer. The book tour is a way to spread out from already vibrant local literary scenes.

Rather than dilute the waters of publishing, indie writers will bring new blood into the fold. Indie writers will be able to take greater risks. Where the larger imprints may fret over the viability of a certain book in the marketplace, indies will be able to push the envelope. Think of the success of Scott Sigler’s “The Rookie” and it’s sequel. Though some of his othr novels have already hit the bookstands, his publisher wouldn’t pick up this series. Who in their right mind would want to read about a mafia controlled football league in outer space? Apparently a lot of people. Indie writers will break new ground by listening to the voice of artistic vision instead of the whims of the marketplace.

Now the means of production are finally within an authors own control. Dedicated writers will find a way to prosper, or at least have the satisfaction of getting their work to readers. Sure, there will be a lot of badly edited, crummy stories around, just as there are already are. Readers will find the good stuff, the material that speaks to them. Editors, publishers, and agents will also still have their place. But the field of the written word will be enriched by a more diverse ecology of writings. It was only in the 20th century that literacy rose to its current levels. Writers have always been good readers, and good readers tend to breed even more writers. For lovers of the word, this is a positive trend.

Justin Patrick Moore

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  1. What a cool letter, Justin. Thanks so much for taking the time to write it.

    There’s a lot of concern going around about the lack of gatekeeping with indie publishing, but I’m a lot less worried about it than most people seem to be. Readers will have to work a little harder to find great books, but not too hard. And on the flip side, readers will have a lot more reading material available to them, and at cheaper prices. I’ve read some great, quirky indie novels that NY would probably never publish, but the ebook platforms have made books like this available to me now.

    On the downside, most indie novels I’ve read haven’t been up to that “publishable standard.” But as more people jump in, we’ll get better and better indie works. Plus, the ‘gatekeeping’ will get better, too. Blogs and social media will become effective ways to find out about indie books. Word of mouth, baby.

  2. Another wonderful piece by Cincinnati mainstay Justin Patrick Moore. Who would have thought that our punk ethic DIY would follow us into our 30’s, 40’s, 50′ and 60’s….but it did. So let’s keep the underground rolling and create…

  3. I think you have good points about gatekeepers Moses, and how the community building up around indie writers will act as their (or our) own gatekeepers. Word of mouth will help spread the best writing, as you said. I continue to submit my work to professional publications, while at the same time putting some of it out their on my own, and other things in smaller presses and indie venues. I think each route has its place, and that they all can help each other to create vibrant literary renaissance. Perhaps as more writers go indie, we will see an upsurge of indie editors, designers, etc. who will collaborate with each other to produce enduring books. Initiative, drive, and the ability to work hard will separate the schleps from those with real merit, just as it does in the professional market. So much so that the lines will blur between the DIYers and those who have been picked up by larger imprints.

    I want to personally thank both Shaun and you for posting my letter and giving me the space to chime in on this conversation.

  4. The gatekeepers do exist for Indie publishing. They’re just different. The primary one seems to be general obscurity. To overcome it requires intense media savvy (a skill I’m working on), as well as great cover art and sterling writing (yes, I’ll be working on this, too, until the day I die).

    It’s also exciting. Right now I’m exchanging emails with my cover artist like a giddy kid playing catch with a baseball. I would almost assuredly not be having this conversation if traditionally published. Likewise, I was able to speak directly to a fan, listen to his advice, then use it to alter the sections of my novel that most distracted him from enjoyment. I changed the eBook and print versions in less than three days. That’s some contortionist-level flexibility.


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