On Writing: Distribution Bias – Self-Publishing, eBooks and the Direct to Video Stigma

When I was teenager I used to go to a video store called Video World that had a big central display for all of the video new releases. The new releases fell into three general categories. There were the mainstream movies that I’d seen or could have seen at the local multiplex, the art house foreign and indie movies that played in theaters in big cities and college towns and there were the direct to video releases. I watched a lot of movies from the first two categories and almost none from the third. Featuring fading (or completely faded) movie stars, knock-off plots and ill-conceived sequels to mainstream movies, direct to video movies radiated mediocrity and poor production values straight off of the shelf. The direct to video movie’s highest ambition was a modestly successful rental run followed by a spot on late night cable television. While some (mostly horror and sci fi focused) direct to video operations reveled in their marginalized status and created trashy late night masterpieces most lived down to the worst expectations; low budget, poor performances and terrible writing. Even if a truly marvelous direct to video film found it’s way to the new release shelf at Video World, most people wouldn’t watch it, including me, because of the assumed low quality that it’s release suggested. After all, a lot of mediocre movies get big studio distribution and well-made independent efforts would percolate through film festivals and find a home in the art house theaters, right?

Now I look at the new releases on Netflix and see the descendants of the direct to video market; a half dozen Nicolas Cage movies no one has ever heard of and just as many obscure genre offerings filmed on the cheap in Eastern Europe. Among the familiar fair though, a growing number of indie films and lower budgeted mainstream movies are experimenting with simultaneous digital and theatrical releases or are making the tactical decision to skip crowded theaters and go direct to digital on day one. Even as the quality gap is disappearing, I still find myself pausing when I see these “direct to digital” movies and wondering why they weren’t good enough to make it in theaters. I recently watched the movie Stretch directed by Joe Carnahan. The movie boasts a great, recognizable cast and I’m huge Carnahan fan but I still hesitated to watch it until I read that it was supposed to be a theatrical release. I watched it one afternoon with my expectations incredibly low and discovered an amazing movie that I’ve recommended over and over again to friends and acquaintances. Every time I recommend it though I’m careful to tell them, it’s a digital release but it was supposed to be a theatrical release. I sent out a few tweets about how much I liked the movie after I saw it and saw some other comments that all seemed to talk around the same thing; Stretch was too good for digital distribution. There’s a sense, even now, that the direct home market for films is the minor leagues and that to be a legitimate movie a theatrical run is still expected (even if it only plays in 8 theaters for a few weeks). Even as more of us watch more movies for the first time from the comfort of our couches from Netflix, Amazon or iTunes this outdated bias stays with us and big theater chains are doing everything they can to keep it going.

I remember the first person I knew that self-published a full length novel. I was in college and she was from an upper middle class family that had a new bright yellow car with a custom license plate (“Poet”) and printed copies of her book. I never asked her much about the process of self-printing them but I assumed then that her parents helped pay the cost for the poetry/prose hybrid and chocked the whole thing up to vanity and privilege. I’m certain that was an unfair dismissal but I was 20, skipping my Hemingway and Joyce survey class to write my angry young man fiction in a cheap room with cheap beer and a growing lump of college debt wanting nothing more than to “break in” to the literary world. I knew what it was going to take to get there. It was going to take misery and it was going to take rejection and when it happened, when I had my printed book in my hands for the first time, it wasn’t going to be from the campus Kinkos. The truth is, her book was better than I was comfortable with it being and however she managed to get it done, the confidence it took for her to do it was, and continues to be, commendable. Unfortunately, for her and her book the publishing industry and the whole apparatus of the literary world 15 years ago would be just as dismissive as I was. Back then, self-publishing was a vanity project. It was what a writer did that couldn’t get into the major leagues and all of the trade magazines and books about getting published warned against it.

It’s funny how expectations work for different media. When it comes to music, I’ve always been a garage band DIY punk rock guy. A band on a major label has a similar stigma for me as a direct to digital movie. The band needs to prove to me that being on a major label hasn’t changed their sound, that they haven’t sold out. One of my top 5 favorite bands, Bad Religion, signed to Atlantic in the early 90s and I spent a lot of time grousing about it and listening to their new albums waiting for my distrust of mainstream music to be affirmed. It might be a coincidence but my least favorite Bad Religion albums came out during their Atlantic years and they returned to form when they went back to being indie. Music tends to be the vanguard of how we consume and interact with media. Savvy musicians have leveraged digital media and self-distribution through social networks for years and most of us think that kind of guerrilla approach to creating and owning their own work is innovative and commendable, not minor league vanity.

So you have a novel. You’ve done what’s supposed to be the hard work of writing it. You did the misery part of the equation. Maybe you’ve already got some rejection. What about self-publishing in 2015? What about focusing on the digital-only market? The truth is that the publishing industry and the whole paradigm around it is in the middle of a revolution. Big bookstore chains are disappearing and readership of traditionally printed work is a dwindling while e-readers are more mainstream than ever. Agents and editors continue to adapt and go forward with the same middle man approach to getting a book to market. The old way to success is to compete for an agent from a list of hundreds, doing your best to find a good fit for your work and figure out if an agent really is reputable or not, and then hoping the agent does the agent magic and gets an editor to offer you a deal to print your book. You still have to sell it to readers, and those last, classically infuriating steps for a beginning writer, are all prologue to the real challenge for an author. It doesn’t matter how good your book is, how agent-y your agent is or how old and reputable your publisher is, you still need to reach the audience. Self-publishing (print or digital) is an option that cuts out the rest and takes your book directly to the people and most people don’t care how you got it to their attention – they just care if it’s something they want to read and if it’s any good. When you crunch the numbers and look at all of your options, self-publishing is a compelling possibility to get your work out there.

Most publishers and agents still see the same stigma on self-published work that they did 15 years ago. Most authors do too. That stigma is fast becoming a relic though. It’s a vestige of an industry that convinced us we needed gatekeepers for our own good even as the gatekeepers didn’t always open the gates for the right works. Brilliant voices waited too long for mainstream acceptance while YouTube celebrities and reality show spokesmodels have been given hefty advances and contracts. Meanwhile, while publishers chase after fads, media has become democratized more than ever before. Different, sometimes unconventional or socially marginalized, voices can find a way to distribution and legions of readers on social networks can review and recommend that work without the old guard of the publishing world giving any blessing or feedback. What the gatekeepers don’t see yet is that the gate still stands but there are now a hundred holes in the wall surrounding it.

It’s a strange time to be an aspiring author. A generation ago we would have been resigned to the predictable labyrinth of slush piles and query letters and a generation from now it’s possible that big publishers and the paradigm they represent could be gone or transformed completely. It’s only been a few months since the first major war between traditional publishing and new distribution. Amazon and Hachette resolved a dispute on pricing that hinted at the bigger philosophical divide and a lot of authors were caught in the crossfire. I suspect there will be more battles like this and writers will continue to be collateral damage as these giants decide how our work will be distributed for us. As a technology consultant, I find my allegiance is with Amazon. As a novelist that still wants to hold a physical copy of a book with my name on the cover, something that I could sign in a bookstore and could slide next to my favorite authors and inspirations on my book shelf, my sympathies are with the majesty and tradition of the big publishers.

I haven’t figured out how I intend to leverage or not leverage self-publishing my work. I consider a manuscript and I still wonder if it’s not good enough to be a traditional release, as if distribution still has any bearing on quality which I know intellectually it doesn’t. I think about how there are no big media rights deals that come to mind for exclusively self-published material and my childhood dreams of seeing one of my books turned into a movie I could pick up on the new release shelf at Video World. I also think about listings for agents or publishers that don’t even deal in email, don’t use Twitter or have any kind of significant web presence and I wonder if they even understand the world they work in anymore. I think about the punk rock revolution from 35+ years ago and I wonder if my self-published manuscript would be pre-Atlantic Bad Religion or a direct to digital Nic Cage movie. For a long time agents and editors have guided authors through questions and concerns like this. They insulated us so we could sit in our writer caves and knock out a million precious words but even if we still use them, they must become partners for us, not business nannies and the question about how we distribute our work ultimately comes down to us, not the gatekeepers, not anymore.



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