Challenging The Indie Imagination
First, please notice I said challenging, not critiquing, the indie imagination — that is, the current growth of Christian-speculative publishers with independent owners and editorial oversight. For this discussion, I have Grace Bridges, founder of Splashdown Books, to thank for the — if you will excuse the word — inspiration.
Here’s what Grace said, on Twitter July 5:
So you want to be an Indie Publisher – Overview of the job, by Grace Bridges http://pinterest.com/pin/9485713587 …
This summarizes how Splashdown Books’ publishing platform works and encourages others about how to replicate this method. Yet I began wondering …
EStephenBurnett: RT @gracebridges: “So you want to be an Indie Publisher … http://bit.ly/NEDKBM ” I must ask: why not instead submit to Splashdown, MLP, etc.?
… Already I keep finding new indie publishers for Christian SF; do we need more, and oughtn’t some combine their resources? @GraceBridges
GraceBridges: @EStephenBurnett Someone looking at the workload might prefer to leave it to us! But the more the merrier. Just gotta know what’s involved.
EStephenBurnett: Well, as a reader, I prefer fewer publishers with more editors at each one. Less to keep track of in a distraction-prone age! @GraceBridges
GraceBridges: @EStephenBurnett Ah, but we all do things so differently. We each have our own vision and pick entirely different stories even in one genre.
EStephenBurnett: @gracebridges Again simply speculating (surprise!): I wonder if that might fit with different imprints under one roof. Better for marketing.
But then one must decide which editor/publisher will Be Boss; that gets tricky. Still, wait 30 years — someone will be anyway.
GraceBridges: @EStephenBurnett Other pubs don’t want my stuff and I don’t want theirs, mostly. A conglomerate smells too traditional to me. Diehard indie!
Come to think of it, I suppose I am not a diehard indie. I must be so independent, I’m even independent of indies. If you say “indie,” I think first of Marion Ravenwood yelling it. Then (fairly or unfairly) I see dark-rimmed glasses, iThings, scarves, and Brian McLaren.
Whoever writes or publishes them, I only desire epic stories — not just for the sake of being “weird,” or to stick it to the shallow moralistic-inspirational complex, but for God’s glory.
Is that contradictory to the indie imagination? Surely not.
Later, editor and writer Cathilyn Dyck offered some necessary facts:
CLDyck: @EStephenBurnett @gracebridges From a writer’s perspective: MLP [Marcher Lord Press] and Splashdown have very busy submission queues.
In the sci-fi Golden Age (1940s-1960s) tons of indies printed from basements. This is a renaissance time.
And here’s how the discussion spun off on my Facebook page. Some of this is inevitable “shop talk” for aspiring authors. But I’m more interested in readers’ reactions to this.
Adam Ross: I agree, resources ought to be combined. But then, MLP [Marcher Lord Press] has been closed to submissions for a while, given the overwhelming amount [founder and editor Jeff Gerke] has had to work through.
E. Stephen Burnett: Again proving there’s a glut of manuscripts.
But doesn’t this make the case that two or three editors, working for MLP (or another group) rather than two or three separate publishers, could sort through the pile more quickly?
Adam Ross: Yeah, having more than just Jeff over at MLP would be great. Could it pay for several editors? Unknown. But we really are scattering our efforts – a sort of divide and fail-to-be-noticed policy, if you will.
E. Stephen Burnett: ”But we really are scattering our efforts – a sort of divide and fail-to-be-noticed policy, if you will.”
That’s what this sort-of outsider notices. And I find it very difficult to keep up with all the different little publishers that have sprung up. Just found a new one the other day: great site, guidelines, and repertoire.
Part of this is that I also don’t understand the “indie” mindset. I’m not a megachurch horde-collector. Still, if “the more the merrier” is true, coordinating little efforts into one great effort can only help the *genre* and thus can give maximum glory to the God of the true Epic Story — that should be the chief end, right?
E. Stephen Burnett: Again I wonder what Rebecca Miller might think about this topic, if she’s willing and able to share. She’s been at this business for much longer than I began seriously thinking about it.
E. Stephen Burnett: … And not only because, if this conversation continues — and with the permission of its FB participants — I’ll cheat for Wednesday’s column and quote its entirety.
Adam Ross: On the one hand I support the diversification of the marketplace (with this many publishers, some of them will start challenging the immensely irritating “no swears” policy – like at MLP – but with the speculative genre so small already in the Christian market we really are going to start fighting over the same scraps and, I fear, dilute the market with such lackluster material that instead of increasing its viability, will push it further to the fringe, niche market.
E. Stephen Burnett: This very conversation is an example of slightly diverse interests coming together to promote a common cause. I believe that already the diverse authors, bloggers, editors, and publishers are doing that well, very well — to each other. The key is marketing. Web designer’s tip: don’t have three or four different blogs or websites. That confuses people. Consolidate. Put it all at one domain name. All under one slogan and logo. That’s why we need fewer publishers and websites: not just to be a bigger, meaner, more-cutthroat Mega-Corporate Operation, but for the sake of serving readers — to cut through readers’ distractions.
Watch this next. Here’s a cyber-friend of mine (we were on the same side during a massive doctrinal discussion), who’s been my friend for months, and still hasn’t yet seen my many Spec-Faith updates and posts about books, authors, and publishers.
[Name]: Who if anyone publishes true sf with a christian bent?
[…] E. Stephen Burnett: Marcher Lord Press, Splashdown Books, Port Yonder Press, and Risen Books, just to name a few!
[Name]: Thanks bro, really!
Moral: I doubt we truly realize how much internet/media clutter is out there, and about how many “indie” publishing efforts simply go ignored.
Finally, some thoughts from speculative-novel editor and longtime blogger Rebecca Miller.
Rebecca LuElla Miller: Stephen, I’ve suggested to a couple of the brains behind small presses that they throw their hats into the same ring. One of those is no more. That may be the way of things. Some will fade away and die and there will be only a handful of viable houses, struggling though they might be.
I’d at least think some of these would want to talk, but who makes the first move? Whose business model do you use? There might be some issues independents think too important to compromise. I don’t know. I think it would have to help the genre, but I don’t know about the individual houses.
Even as I was assembling this piece, more from Grace, and Kristine Pratt of Written World Communications — a completely new name to me, despite my familiarity(?) with the “biz.”
Grace Bridges: Well, combining is a great idea in theory, but I still think we are all way too different for it to ever work. I love Chila, Kristine, Jeff, and I think they are doing wonderful things, but their vision is not mine.
Kristine Pratt: Hey don’t forget the OtherSheep imprint at Written World Communications does Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. Grace is right – our visions all do differ. For example, Jeff over at MLP won’t touch horror while the first two books that came out with OtherSheep were just that. (We have Sci Fi and Fantasy under contract as well). I don’t think it’s wrong to have diversity with numerous publishers looking for Christian spec fic of all varieties. I think we’re actually raising awareness for each other and building a larger market with our efforts. *grins* I’ll be quiet now, I just happened to come late to the party!
(I will need to leave out any further discussion on there; this piece can only go so long.)
So, what might we have missed? What are the pros and cons of indie presses? How do these reach or fail to reach readers? Have you personally heard of the presses named here? What about their novels, authors, or websites? Finally, I re-ask: what is the purpose of Story?
Welcome to the world of Hipsterism. We have ironic shirts, coffee, and scarve a plenty! Coem and like bands so indie they don’t exist yet! Oh, there’s punch and chookies by the door. 😀
In all seriousness… I don’t know. When I think “indie press” I think “probably going to be mediocre writing in amazing packaging” fairly or unfairly. Yeah, sure, you get Lovecraft’s from the basement presses, so it’s not all bad, but… *shrug* Smallness can be as much of a hindrance as it can be a strength. MLP is pretty cool– I’ve bought books from them, and the few I’ve gotten were great. But it’s so hard to find good stuff. Without this blog, if I had found any of these presses, there would be ZERO chance of me finding out if they were charlatans or not, and I’d be buying books blind. That can be fun, but not all the time.
I have such a hard time tracking down good books, and regardless of quality, small houses have a smaller publicity budget. They try to use word-of-mouth, but it only can get so far.
As a reader and customer who is not aspiring to be published by any of the small Christian speculative fiction presses, I do think the fragmentation of the CSF community is confusing and probably has kept me in the dark about some books that I may have been potential interested in.
I do notice the publishers of the books that I buy. After I read a few books from the same publisher, I do start to form opinions about the way books from that publisher generally are. For instance, I expect fantasy novels published by the big secular imprint Tor to have high production quality, including lots of external feelies like maps, deep worldbuilding, and adventurous, fast-paced plot that will probably fail to fully capture the fantastic wonder of the classic fantasies. (However, I’m reading a Tor book right now — The Knight by Gene Wolfe — that seems to contradict some of my presuppositions, although it looks like Tor did the whole external formatting completely different for Wolfe’s books, probably because he’s more of a literary writer.)
I haven’t read as many MLP books as I have books from secular fantasy publishers like Tor, but I’m beginning to get a feel for MLP. Colorful, fun covers, and generally fast-paced plot. Good formatting and feelies for the print books; inconsistent formatting for the ebook versions. Generally, very casual-style prose.
I’ve heard a lot about Splashdown Books but haven’t bought or read any of their books yet. I’ve heard about Port Yonder Press and Risen Books in passing but know essentially nothing about them. I don’t think I ever heard of OtherSheep at all before.
Thus my suggestion that some of these publishing houses could remain “indie” but join forces in the area where it really counts — marketing, website presence, and so on.
For my part, I don’t mind a fun indie “vibe,” or keeping things small and personal, or any of those very good things. Yet glorifying God through the beauty, truths, and of course God-exalting entertainment of fantastic stories matters more.
Some links to independent Christian SF publishers whose novels have been added to our comprehensive Christian-speculative-fiction Library:
(If you think of others, reply to this comment with links and info. I’ll add more.)
As I mentioned in the FB discussion, though not by name, only recently did I learn of Risen Books, thanks to author Yvonne Anderson’s The Story in the Stars being submitted to the Library. (Within days, this science-fiction novel gained five very positive short reviews/comments from fans.) As I did mention by name, I did not know about Written World Communications, and I’m interested in learning more, solely thanks to Kristine Pratt’s own written communications in that conversation.
My recommendation has evolved from wondering if some publishers could actually join forces in editing/soliciting, to wondering if they would join forces where it really counts to benefit all: marketing. To be honest, some publishers’ websites and social-media presence look better than others. If I have not read their offerings or reviews, I’ll likely go with the one with the shinier site! Not fair, perhaps, but true.
The Writer’s Cafe Press (Frank Creed of the Lost Genre Guild) still has their web site up, but I don’t know if they’re still publishing new material. Same with Flaming Pen Press (Scott Appleton, author of the Swords of the Dragon series). I believe Tsaba House is no more and the parent company (the name escapes me now) of the online magazines (Mindfilghts, etc.) sold their book interest. I don’t know if the new owner is still in operation or not. I’m sketchy on the details with that one.
Then there is Rabbit Room Press (which published Andrew Peterson’s last book), an apparently closed operation reserved for member and friends.
Perhaps the newest is Magpie Eclectic Press which announced their launch in May.
I should point out that all these places have “more than just Jeff” and “more than just Grace/Kristine/etc” handling submissions and editing. As Grace has said, the big challenge is finding likeminded assistance so that the company’s unique niche maintains its focus.
The other challenge is that it’s difficult to pay for editing on a small press budget. Kristine uses an agency model for her editors, I believe. (They take a percentage of the sales revenue for books they work on.) So does Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas. I have acted as a small press contractor and worked for a flat rate honorarium-style fee at times.
So the question of building up staff and expanding the reach of existing presses is in large part bounded by economics and securing donations of time. I love these projects, and I’ve deeply appreciated the offers I’ve had to join forces with several of them, but I can’t afford to donate my time. It’s a catch-22 from where I sit, because I really do admire what they’re achieving.
As to marketing, just as each acquires books based on its own unique vision, it will also market on that unique vision. Cross-promotion entails hitting on the common points and having sufficient agreement on content and visual presentation (AKA shininess) to endorse each other’s work.
But readers don’t care so much what the imprint on the spine is. They care if it looks like a product of trustworthy quality and if it turns out to be a great story. From my neutral position, I’ve been able to recommend various books from various publishers to my friends.
Independent synergy has seemed to be the most effective approach I’ve witnessed so far. These folks really are reaching out to each other and pulling together, including mentioning each other’s companies in interviews, inviting each other into their online forums, etc.
Similar tactics with different flavour allows avid readers to bounce between companies and remain interested in Christian SF as a whole, because they’re finding enough variety to keep them engaged. On Saturday I posted a link to Marc Schooley’s contribution to the MLP online serial story, and included a mention of Avenir Eclectia, Splashdown’s online serial. One of my friends told me, “Thanks! There goes my weekend!”
So the individualism definitely does add up to a win for readers. And we’re here to serve readers, so that’s a great thing.
Conglomerates are great for making money and devaluing a brand. Really–look at the beer industry. The big names buy everyone else out or put them out of business, and what you’re left with is a consistently watered down, poor quality product. I’d rather have indies because then I know what brand I like, and I know it will remain true to its artistic vision, even if it lacks watered-down consistency or good marketing.
The merit of independents is that they’re free to innovate. In fact, they die if they don’t innovate. They’re not tied to anyone else’s agenda, budget, market analysis, logistical system, or designated fan base. They embrace risk rather than strive to avoid it. They can be extremely nimble, turning on a dime to respond to new trends, or even better, lead the market with new ideas of their own. The distance between idea and execution is very short. There are no layers of bureaucracy to negotiate or endless lists of stakeholders to appease. Too many cooks often do spoil the soup.
Professional cooperation of the sort C.L. mentions is useful. Getting much more structured than that, I think, would result in independents becoming something less than independent. As Stephen observed, a Boss is declared at some point, or someone is elected to hold the common purse, and you’ve suddenly become the very thing you’ve been fighting against. You’ve taken a multiplicity of fresh visions for Christian fiction and congealed them into a monolith that may be more marketable, for awhile, but has nowhere to go when the conventional wisdom changes. The ability to lead change or quickly adapt is lost. “Whatever sells to demographic X” isn’t a sound foundation for writing the sort of God-glorifying fiction Stephen is advocating.
There may be some potential for synergy in marketing, but I think the various indie publishers have more fans in common than they realize. A bigger joint marketing push may result in simply hollering louder into the fishbowl.
Seems to me that there’s at least three major issues in play here, and they each might suggest slightly different solutions, depending on which you focus on.
1) The reader’s desire to FIND what they’re looking for (“Whoever writes or publishes them, I only desire epic stories…“).
2) The curator’s (indie publisher’s) desire to discover and PROMOTE what they personally prefer.
3) The business end of PUBLISHING: editing, formatting, packaging, distributing, marketing, etc.
Addressing issue #1: If we’re just talking about helping people find good Christian speculative fiction (CSF), then anybody willing to do the work to create a good central outlet will “solve” the problem. With cooperation and effort, and a mission specifically for becoming The One Place to find all quality CSF, a single website could become a ‘household name’. With good guidelines and quality filters and perhaps a clear review/rating system to handle the differences of opinion related to content (swearing or no swearing, etc), all the good stuff could be found. With a big enough community involved, even the “bad stuff” (not professional quality, or not discernibly Christian in content) could be included and labeled and voted for in such a way that it has a chance to be found.
Issue #2 isn’t likely to go away. People will put work into what they are passionate about, and publishers work hard. Someday I may have the opportunity to publish others’ work and when that happens, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be stuff that I believe in, stuff that fits my personal passion and calling. You’re not likely to convince people to put work into something they’re not passionate about. Sometimes that alone will keep indie publishers from combining forces.
And last, the logistics of the business end of things are pretty overwhelming. Combining forces takes extra effort. It takes trust. You are putting your reputation in the hands of someone else when you partner with them, even with something as simple as a link exchange. Most of us are so buried with projects that the extra effort to try and coordinate joint ventures is just too much to ask.
Personally, I think the solution with the best chance of success is launching a website whose mission was to become the central clearing house for CSF. I would support such a project if it was well done, well thought-out and organized.
In a way, that’s why I started commenting on this blog and participating in this community. I want to support places like this where people can come and find what they’re looking for. Of course, SpeculativeFaith.com is a little different, its main focus is not exactly what we’re talking about here (right?). For a project like a central CSF site to succeed, it needs to be 100% focused on that one thing.
Teddi, Spec Faith really is trying to meet the need for readers to know what all is out there and available. I’m discovering more and more sites and writers, all working in a vacuum, it seems, as if none of the others exists. I’d like to see a place where we can serve readers by pointing them in the direction of all the parts, little or big.
If we can serve to accomplish this, then I think it reduces the attractiveness for several small companies to join forces. Marketability and visibility could be taken care of without changing the particular business models, and that should be an appeal, I’d think.
What Spec Faith needs to make that happen is people participating–writing reviews, telling others about the site and the books, Tweeting or Facebook Liking posts, that sort of thing.
It’s not only the indies making changes to the business, but also those who bypass publishers altogether:
The big guys aren’t going anywhere, but there are more avenues for authors to take. “Indie” and “self-published” are no longer bad words. Each venue has good and bad books and every author will have to decide which route is best for them. Similar changes happened in the movie industry. Big budget films will always dominate, but the indie business is thriving.
Wow, what a cool conversation! Thanks everyone for your words.
I agree that readers don’t care who the publisher is; and I agree that I don’t want to become part of a monolith. I don’t trust the final proofing, design and sign-off on a project to anyone but myself, and I’d like it to stay that way – the buck stops right here and my authors and readers know that means something.
As for shared marketing, some moves have been attempted – there’s the IndieGalaxy group in a rudimentary form (we have a Facebook page and a Twitter handle, not being used much), except none of us publishers have time to play with it. Such a thing probably needs to be run by someone who isn’t a publisher.
For a while, I was trying to list all CSF titles at the Lost Genre Guild and later on at my review blog; now you guys are doing it here, and all power to you. Jeff Gerke had a great list too, though I can’t find it since the redesign at MLP. I found some great books on there over the years.
In terms of book lists, then, we should quit messing around with our own dinky sites and pick one to put them all on. Any will do, as long as it’s done well. Beyond that, I don’t know. I’m a publisher, not a marketer, and my job is to keep putting out great books. Seems that gets the word out about as good as anything 🙂
Bainespal points out that he IS aware of the publishers of the books he reads, even though he’s not a writer aspiring for publication in this market.
I have to say–I think that is rare. Very rare for a straight-up reader.
I don’t know ANY readers-not-writers who have a CLUE which publisher is which out there. Not even the big houses. Before I started writing, I never, ever paid attention to publishers. To be honest, other than with indie presses I rarely look to see who publishes the books I read even now.
And with big publishers there is not always cohesion. With sooooo many editors, the variation in style between books can be vast at larger presses. Plus look at all the imprints! It’s almost like most biggies run as a group of smaller presses anyway.
The one thing I agree with–marketing is harder for small presses. But it’s because small presses can’t get into most bookstores, much less PAY the big bucks to get their books on those tables and displays in the fronts of bookstores, or to pay for advertising, or to pay to have their books listed in the Amazon emails, or to pay to send out hundreds of review copies to Amazon and blog reviewers.
And for every book a big press pays for all those things, there are hundreds likely that don’t get that kind of attention.
The point is, big publishers are big businesses. They have big budgets. I don’t think a bunch of small presses getting together can accomplish that. What are they to do? Pool their money? Compared to the big budget of a larger press, that would feel like a bunch of teenagers emptying their pockets together to all try and buy a case of that watered-down beer Jill spoke of.
Anyway, my point is that with big presses, titles sell, not publisher names. Publishers make the titles the best they can with great editing and great cover art, and of course by choosing great stories with great writing in the first place. But it’s money that backs marketing, not the big publisher name printed on the spine.
Again, as Jill said, with indies it’s reputation. It’s brand. It’s reaching people who want or are at least willing to try something different. We’re the micro-breweries of the writing world. I think I really like that analogy!
You’re probably right; I may be rare in noticing publishers.
However, I think readers noticing the companies that publish their books is no different from any consumer having any kind of brand preference.
A computer owner who does not have an opinion on the experience of using a computer other than efficiency, who doesn’t have any nostalgic or romanticized feelings about computing, probably doesn’t care what company made his or her computer, or about its specs. This computer user just wants to surf the Internet, view/edit documents, save his or her personal photographs, and things like that, and the only consideration is being able to do those things.
But then there are computer users who are in love with computing, even though they might not work in any business related to computers. These people will definitely have an opinion on the various computer manufacturers and an interest in their design, both internal and external. That’s why there are die-hard Mac fans out there who hate PCs. Personally, I have a slight preference for HP laptops; I like the way they look and “feel”, and I’ve had a basically good experience with the one that I own.
Having a personal opinion about the qualities and distinctiveness of HP laptops is absolutely no different from noticing and having feelings about Tor or Marcher Lord Press. In both cases, my feelings are formed by my past experiences with the brands and by silly external things like “feelies” or cover-art or the material used for the external casing of my laptop. And in both cases, I know that the branding and the feelings have little to do with the overall qualities; I know that my feelings are just feelings. I know that I book is more than its cover and a computer is more than its casing or its operating system, but I surely notice all of that.
Kat, I’m not sure about readers, but I know some librarians care. And bookstores.
To me it doesn’t seem that far fetched for several of the indies focused on Christian speculative fiction to combine forces, if for no other reason than that they can reach more people that way. The people who follow one will then learn about all the authors of another. With an increase in visibility, it seems an increase in sales is bound to take place too.
Think about all the starters that grew big–either companies or products. Somebody had to take a chance and decide not to stay small. I’d like to see that spirit infuse a handful of these indies. In a business whose success depends on people knowing and finding and buying, I don’t see why “big” would be frowned upon.
I definitely understand the point about visibility. What I’m saying is that for the indies to all join and become ONE publishing house doesn’t work. The reason marketing for a small press can be so hard is literally money (and also time). Not having the personal assets to invest in mega-advertising campaigns and premium spots in bookstores–bookstores that won’t let them in anyway because they won’t take POD books. Pooling their funds won’t take them farther because when they all get joined together they have more books to fund!
What will help is indies joining forces to share about each other. Splashdown, for instance, has exchanged ad space with Diminished Media in the backs of books. Word of mouth is a HUGE marketing tool. One press shouting out about not just their own titles but titles of similar presses helps them to all get some attention. The key though is TITLES. Not just saying, “Go check out So-n-So Publishing.” An ad for a publisher in the back of a book does nothing. Readers want to see BOOKS.
BTW–I have asked on FB and in one Goodreads group about whether readers pay attention to publishers. While my sampling is rather small still, most have said they do NOT look at who publishes the books they read. I asked specifically for answers from readers who are not writers.
To be frank, there seems only a few explanations for this phenomenon:
Please understand, this is a series of general thoughts. I don’t know enough about any site or group that could specifically fall under one or more of these categories. I mainly recognize that these are potential risks for Speculative Faith as well. Surely, then, they must also be risks faced by other publishers and outfits.
This conversation is rather long and rambly, but let me hit on one aspect of it, that which seems to be the main focus of Stephen’s point, and that is small press cooperation.
Well, I’m not sure why those in our group haven’t hit on it yet, so I will. Last year we began the very rudimentary plans for what we now call the IndieGalaxy Group, a collaboration of small presses for the mutual benefit of ourselves and each other. In the group we have yours truly (Port Yonder), Splashdown (Grace Bridges), Diminished Media (the Tim & Randy show), ResAliens, Written World (Kristine), and Desert Breeze thus far. Now admittedly, not all deal in speculative fiction. We only have a tiny bit of it and I believe DB is all romance. Nevertheless, the bones are there and we’re working toward adding meat to those bones, albeit slowly. We’re still sketchy on details, we just know that we also see the need to work together to avoid duplicating efforts. The big snafu seems to be time. No one has a lot of it at any given time to spend working this thing. We did manage to put an ad in the last ACFW Journal mag, but that’s really it so far. We’ve discussed a joint online bookstore and a number of other issues, but those are all still in the “idea” stage.
It’s like Grace said, we each have a slightly different vision so anything we do must account for everyone, must of necessity be somewhat general. To this point I’ve suggested we not include MLP simply because Jeff has more to offer us than we do him, and I’d rather the scales be a little more balanced before we discuss his thoughts on this (not to mention I’d like our intent to be more firmly established).
Not sure if this adds much to the discussion other than to say, yes, several of us also see the need to work together. It’s the doing of it that’s difficult. To give up our own presses to someone else under a single banner? I doubt that will ever happen – it’s the vision thing again.
Good subject, Stephen.
Great discussion. This one is bookmark-worthy.
And thanks for the indie publishing reference, Grace!!!