Tuesday, December 27, 2005

 

Indie [Press, Fiction, Etc]

Kristine Smith, one of the other participants in sfnovelists, has posted a link to and some discussion about a New York Times Article, The Net Is a Boon for Indie Labels. Kristine draws a parallel between what's happening to midlist recording artists and midlist genre novelists. I can't help but be reminded of a late night WFC conversation with Hal Duncan, which approached the same parallel from a slightly different direction. Hal's contention was that the rise of independent genre presses in recent years (Night Shade Books, Small Beer Press, etc, et al) was having a similar effect to genre publishing that the rise of indie record labels did on music in the 80s. I don't remember all that we said, though Hal was definitely driving the conversational bus, charging ahead with all sorts of brilliant observations (peppered liberally with "Fookin', fookin', fookin', INDIE, man!" naturally). A quick google search shows him opining briefly about his notion of "indie fiction" here on David Moles's blog, but I remember there being more to it than that.

I think I'm having the first hints of an idea, triangulated somewhere between Kristine's and Hal's comments, this NYT article, and something I've been thinking about since I launched MonkeyBrain Books a few years ago. Once we got bookstore distribution, and our titles started showing up in the chains, I realized that the line dividing independent presses from the "majors" was growing more and more indistinct. When outfits like Golden Gryphon or Night Shade or Tachyon can publish books that look every bit as good as anything coming out of New York, and Small Beer's Magic For Beginners breaks Time Magazine's Best Books of 2005 list, and titles from the independent presses with distribution (Night Shade with Diamond Book Distributors, Tachyon and Golden Gryphon with IPG, Small Beer with SCB, MonkeyBrain with NBN) are found on the same chainstore shelves as Tor and Del Rey and Bantam, then what is the difference?

Well, money, really. The bigger imprints are virtually all subsidiaries of larger publishing empires, with all of the marketing and promotional budgets that suggests, while the independent presses are all small, privately owned outfits, most owned and operated by just one or two people each. An independent press with a staff larger than the number of owners is pretty rare, too. But there's an advantage to the economies of scale here, too.
"An established independent like Matador Records - home to acts including Pretty Girls Make Graves and Belle and Sebastian - can turn a profit after selling roughly 25,000 copies of an album; success on a major label release sometimes doesn't kick in until sales of half a million."
The numbers involved are much smaller, of course, but the basic idea is still the same. An independent press that's able to sell just a few thousand copies of a title is in a much better position than a large imprint than sells several times more, because the independent press has a much lower overhead (it comes with only having one or two employees, some of whom often don't draw a salary!). As a result, independents are allowed the freedom to take more risks than big houses, by and large.

We still need to make money, naturally. No publisher is a charity, no matter how large or small, and no one is going to stay in business long if all they publish are books they think won't make money. But with the breakeven point so much lower, what is profitable for an independent and for a large imprint are two entirely different things. If I know I can sell three thousand copies of a tradepaperback, for example, I know I can make a significant profit, so if the book is one I like, I'm going to publish it; if Del Rey is faced with the same formula and variables, I imagine they come up with a much different result.

The result is that there is a different quality to the output of independent presses. By and large, we can't compete with the advance dollars paid by the large imprints for the most commercial projects, so no matter how some of us would like to get the next big bestseller title, our chances are slim. As a result, whether by inclination or by circumstance, independent presses tend to specialize in less commercial material. Now, some of it is really not commercial, and some of it is only a few degrees off of the mainstream, and some of it is borderline-commercial but from writers who have a less-than-sterling track record and who as a result aren't as attractive to the large imprints (having bad Bookscan numbers for a few books in a row tends to impact negatively a writer's chances at getting a good deal on their next manuscript).

Now, I think this is whence comes the connection between independent presses and the "Indie Fiction" Hal talks about. It is as much a marriage of convenience as of shared ideology (though it is both). Where I think this starts to get really interesting is the point where the independents, with their lower sales figures and their lower overheads, manage to become as profitable in their own way as the large imprints are in theirs. And while we won't be able to pay top dollar advances, we just might be able to compete with the kinds of advances paid to midlist writers. And if a writer has a choice between doing something self-consciously commercial to appeal to a large imprint, or something a bit more personal, more idiosyncratic, for an independent press, for essentially the same paycheck, the landscape begins to shift a bit. This is the point where "indie" stops being an economic label and starts to become a description of style and content. (Particularly when, further down the line, the large imprints start publishing "indie" titles to try to recapture the ground lost to independent presses.)

In large part, this was one of the pie-in-the-sky visions I had of Print On Demand, back when I was a naive youngster. The advantage here is that there's an actual business model behind it, complete with distribution channels and revenue streams, which the POD revolution always seemed to lack.

I'm not sure what part the internet-as-content-provider will play in all of this. The NYT article talks quite a bit about the impact of iTunes and the like on the music scene and, aside from online sales and distribution from outfits like Amazon, I don't see an equivalent beast on the publishing side, as such. There are some success stories in building readerships with providing short stories online, novels through Creative Commons licensing, and such like, but I think the jury is still out as to whether these are the rule or the exception. So far as I know, no independent publisher has been able to build an audience for their titles through online marketing tactics of that sort. I know that Gavin and Kelly have released Stranger Things Happen as a free download online, which is a step in the right direction, but I think that tends to expand Kelly's existing audience, rather than starting one from scratch. A true test would be an independent press doing something similar with a complete unknown, taking a writer without a readership or a track record, and building an audience from the ground up using online marketing.

However it develops, there's definitely something interesting going on.

Comments:
I participated in some great conversations at this last WFC, but more than a few of us would have enjoyed getting into this discussion.

No answers here, only lots and lots of off-the-cuff speculation and more than a few questions. I recall one small press publisher telling me a few years ago that editors from large houses sent him books that they knew they couldn't publish but felt deserved to see print. I'm guessing this happens a lot.
 
I so very like the idea of indie fiction. Thanks for bringing this up! I must now think of something intelligent to add to the discussion....
 
Kristine, I don't think I've attended a WFC yet that I didn't hear about six great conversations I wished I'd been in on (this year it was Lou Anders, Garth Nix, and Alan Beatts talking about whether mainstream writers using the tropes and themes of science fiction were writing science fiction or not, with some interesting comments on all sides... sadly, the night before I got to town).

I've definitely had conversations with editors at the larger houses bemoaning the fact that they couldn't publish a book they loved, because it wouldn't sell the kinds of numbers their business model required. It wouldn't surprise me in the least to know that some of those editors handed titles off to friends at the independent presses, just to see the book in print. While MonkeyBrain has never been approached with an editor's much-beloved non-commerical book, on a few occasions we have been contacted by editors at the larger houses to see if we'd be interested in doing limited editions of titles they were publishing in trade, so that kind of exchange between the majors and the independents certainly goes on.

I'm interested, too, in the back and forth that happens with writers' careers, at the moment when their sales (though solid) dip below the threshold the majors require, and they move over to the independent side, where those same solid numbers translate into unqualified success; or the moment where a writer selling solid numbers of independent titles crests that sales threshold and migrates over to a large imprint.
 
Gabe, you've really got Hal Duncan to thank, as it was his concept (or Kristine Smith, whose post sparked my alcohol-soaked memories of Hal's insights).
 
In terms of an indie fiction movement, I can say from firsthand experience here in the UK that the indie small presses have never been in better shape, both as commercial ventures and from the published quality of books and writers. Graham Joyce talked about this 'vibrant scene, a lifeblood to the industry,' at the British Fantasy Awards, and my fellow indie friend, Andrew Hook, over at Elastic Press (who picked up TWO British Fantasy Awards this year) reported that at Worldcon in Glasgow, Orion's Joe Fletcher was talking in terms of the indie press being the new mid-list.

Speaking personally, from a music analogy, I can see parallels but I do NOT see folks out on the street in their tens of thousands. This was most certainly the case during the new wave/punk rock movement in the mid-seventies here in the UK. It was a social uprising, a consciousness shift on a massive scale. I was 17/18 at the time (yes, I'm ancient now, a kind of balding Gandalf, full of archaic wisdom and jokes about the rings we used to wear through our noses and the fires and things oh so precious!)I was part of it - both as a recording artist of an indie record label, and as a fan who in 1976/77/78 witnessed the Clash, The Jam, The Sex Pistols, The Stranglers, The Damned etc etc playing at tiny gigs, and was part of that surreal anti-establishment movement.

Indeed, the indie fiction concept is very interesting, as Gabe rightly points out. By its very nature it will remain on the outskirts of the dead and dying city that is much of mainstream publishing. Like scavengers from some alien place, we wait to pick clean the bones when the giants fall...(hey! just kidding).

Sean Wright, Crowswing Books

PS - You might want to look at the recent Infinity Plus interview on the UK indie fiction spirit. I've pasted a direct link via my name.
 
Sean, I'm intrigued notion of independent presses as being the "new midlist." That's an interesting idea, and it certainly dovetails with a lot of my thinking.

I'll definitely check the infinity plus writeup. I'm afraid that my knowledge of the British small press scene is woefully insufficient, aside from outfits like PS Publishing and old standards like Savoy.

And I certainly agree that I don't see anything like the numbers involved in the indie music scene, involved now in the indie press. That said, I might be a little freaked out to see tens of thousands of Kelly Link fans taking to the streets!
 
It seems that the small presses in the UK continue to fulfil Hal Duncan's vision of a resurgance in the notion of an Indie Press revolution, if the short-list finalists for the British Fantasy Awards are a relevant benchmark. What I notice is out of the 30 finalists in the Best Novel, Best Novella, Best Short Story, Best Collection categories 24 out of the 31 are Small Press!!! Revolution indeed!

The BFS & Fcon are very proud to announce the shortlist for the BFAs.
(nb. Where the list has more than 5 nominations, this is due to voting ties for one or more runner-up places)

Best Novel: The August Derleth Award
Ramsey Campbell, SECRET STORIES (PS Publishing)
Mark Chadbourn, THE HOUNDS OF AVALON (Gollancz)
Hal Duncan, VELLUM: THE BOOK OF ALL HOURS 1 (Macmillan)
Neil Gaiman, ANANSI BOYS (Headline)
George R. R. Martin, A FEAST FOR CROWS (Voyager)
Mark Morris, NOWHERE NEAR AN ANGEL (PS Publishing)

Best Novella
Guy Adams, DEADBEAT (Humdrumming)
Jeffrey Ford, THE COSMOLOGY OF THE WIDER WORLD (PS Publishing)
Joe Hill, VOLUNTARY COMMITTAL (Subterranean Press & PS Publishing)
Paul Kane, SIGNS OF LIFE (Crystal Serenades Publishing)
Paul Meloy, DYING IN THE ARMS OF JEAN HARLOW (THE COMING OF THE AUTOSCOPES) (The Third Alternative #42, TTA Press)
Sean Wright, DARK TALES OF TIME AND SPACE (Crowswing Books)
Stuart Young, THE MASK BEHIND THE FACE (The Mask Behind the Face & Other Stories, Pendragon Press)

Best Anthology
Allen Ashley, THE ELASTIC BOOK OF NUMBERS (Elastic Press)
Peter Crowther, FOURBODINGS (Cemetery Dance)
Gary Fry, POE'S PROGENY (Gray Friar Press)
Stephen Jones, THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST NEW HORROR 16 (Robinson)
Stephen Jones, DON'T TURN OUT THE LIGHT (PS Publishing)

Best Collection
Leigh Brackett, SEA-KINGS OF MARS & OTHER WORLDLY STORIES (Gollancz)
Simon Clark, HOTEL MIDNIGHT (Robert Hale)
Joe Hill, 20TH CENTURY GHOSTS (PS Publishing)
Andrew Hook, BEYOND EACH BLUE HORIZON (Crowswing Books)
Tim Lees, THE LIFE TO COME (Elastic Press)
Stuart Young, THE MASK BEHIND THE FACE AND OTHER STORIES (Pendragon Press)

Best Short Fiction
Ramsey Campbell, JUST BEHIND YOU (Poe's Progeny, Gray Friar Press)
Joe Hill, BEST NEW HORROR (Postscripts #3 & 20th Century Ghosts, PS Publishing)
Paul Kane, HOMELAND (Assembly of Rogues, Rainfall Books)
John Lucas, APPROACHING ZERO (The Elastic Book of Numbers, Elastic Press)
Will McIntosh, SOFT APOCALYPSE (Interzone #200, TTA Press)
Marie O'Regan, CAN YOU SEE ME? (Midnight Street #5, Immediate Direction Publications)
Sean Wright, THE NUMBERIST (New Wave Speculative Fiction, Crowswing Books)

Best Artist
Clive Barker
Randy Broecker
Les Edwards
Dominic Harman
Richard Marchand
Robert Sammelin

Best Small Press
Andy Cox, TTA PRESS
Peter Crowther, PS PUBLISHING
Andrew Hook, ELASTIC PRESS
D. F. Lewis, NEMONYMOUS
Christopher Teague, PENDRAGON PRESS
 
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