We all know this person, right? You send out a quick Tweet or Facebook update, and some friend informs you that you’ve split an infinitive, left a modifier dangling, ignored the necessity of the Oxford comma, or some other rule you didn’t learn in grade school and you sure as hell don’t remember now. You might have as an excuse that you were typing on your cramped cell phone or that you honestly don’t care about these rules. My rationale is normally that I goofed. Because even though I make a living at writing, I don’t know much about it. I just have ideas that I want to communicate, and I rely on spellcheck to make this as pain-free for the reader as possible.
Because really, what is language for? When you distill it right down to its essence, it’s all about the teleportation of ideas and imaginings, right? Think about how strange this process is: I see something in my mind, or I have a thought, and by emitting a strange series of sounds (or by drawing a string of symbols), I can implant into your brain what was previously in mine. Bizarro. And yet we do it every day and take it completely for granted.
If language is meant to communicate, why do we get in an uproar when it does its primary job, but with slight imperfections? In most cases, the intent of an error-filled sentence is clear. Heck, you can leave all the vowels out of this entire blog post and most people would still be able to read it. The Idea-Teleporter that we call “language” can be missing quite a few bolts and springs and still do its job.
And yet, many people expect perfection out of a tool that does not require it. It’s like wanting a car that not only delivers us to our destination, but emits no road noise, has plenty of cup holders, and will not break down. Ever. It can’t simply do what it was meant to do, it has to do it without error or a scratch. I can’t think of many things that are held to this standard, but the written word seems to be one of them.
Language is meant to be flexible. Moldable. To change over time. Look at neologisms. And no, I didn’t make that word up; that’s the word for making words up! Which is necessary as the world becomes more complex and fills up with physical things that people invent. One of my favorite sections of Wired magazine is the handful of new words that have come into vogue since the last issue. I’m always amazed that they can find four or five of these every month without fail. That means there’s a lot of neologisimism going on. And yeah, I just made that up. Microsoft Word is having red squiggly fits with that one. Who cares? You know what I mean! And that’s all that matters.
Now, if new words upset some, the hijacking of words send many more into apoplectic fits. But this is just the way of things. Words are used differently across generations, sometimes just to help differentiate us from each other (i.e.: to confuse parental units). When I was a kid, we started using the word “bad” to mean “good.” We came up with “radical” to mean things that were really quite blasé, but at least they made us happy. My grandfather would have reached for a gun at the mention of a “radical.” I snatched my skateboard. Etymologists had fits.
Look at the word “awful.” It used to mean the exact opposite of what it means today. Something that inspired awe has become something that inspires distaste. Same goes for “artificial.” What formerly denoted an expression of artistic merit now means anything but. Does it matter? Not to me. I know what century I live in. The knobs on the Idea-Teleporter have moved, but I can still work the thing. We all can.
On many writing forums these days, the quickest way to end a healthy and productive discussion and watch it devolve into wielded clubs and hurled sticks is to use a couple of words in a new manner. One of these is e-publish. Much is written these days about the e-publishing revolution (or the rEvolution, if you want to get awesomely radical about it). And for those who have been publishing digital books in some form or another for years, this raises hackles. The word, for them, has always meant something else.
An established e-publisher views their process much the same as a traditional press. They take on manuscripts, edit them thoroughly, produce some cover art, and put up for sale a finished e-book. To them, e-publishing is a lengthy and involved process, one that also involves gatekeepers. It’s exclusive. Not everyone can join.
Another way the term “e-publish” has been commonly used is by traditional presses. Just a few years ago, they would use this term to describe an ancillary process, as in: “Let’s e-publish this book as well, but wait a few months and really jack that price up.” In this use, e-publish is a secondary act, both in time and importance. That’s changing now, as publishers examine their revenue streams.
So why has e-publish become synonymous with self-publish? And should we care? And why do some authors tear their hair out as the two terms become interchangeable?
I think it boils down to a handful of things. First, most self-publishers only e-publish these days. Gone are the days when self-publishing meant turning your basement or garage into a warehouse for that 5,000 print run of your mystery novel (because that’s the point where production costs got low enough to “only” charge $34.95 for a 250-page work and still make two dollars on each copy). Now, you write, revise, edit, and press a button (this simplification is sure to annoy many). E-publishing is without a doubt becoming defined by do-it-yourselfers. This is why the terms are beginning to stand for the same thing.
Moreover, most e-published books are from self-publishers, not from e-publishers. The former are drowning out the latter. For every book produced by a small e-publisher, a thousand or more are uploaded by someone like me, whose work probably wouldn’t be accepted by these digital gatekeepers (perhaps rightly so).
And so a word with old meanings is having them stripped away. Adding to this process (and to the suffering of e-publishers) is the fact that hardly anyone writes about e-publishing houses in a sensational manner. Even when an e-publisher has a hit that is taken on by a big press, the public and media often label this as a self-published work. They don’t know e-publishers exist. Which makes the struggle to retain this word an admittedly scary, lonely, and desperate struggle for those who have poured so much sweat, blood, and tears into their businesses.
I sympathize with e-publishers, who have been on the front lines for the longest time. They dug the trenches and strung out the wire. They did and continue to do all the hard work. And when a bunch of yahoos run by, waving their bayonets like fools, throwing themselves across no-man’s-land with absolute contempt of boundaries and expectations, one imagines there would be some shaking of fists. I suppose I’m one of those yahoos, charging into the mist, but I’m at least curious about all the cursing from the trenches I just vaulted over. I want to turn and apologize for causing offense. Or at least to thank them for holding the line. I love e-publishers, even as I steal their moniker. I feel awful for the radicals who came before me.
If the new usage of e-publish has some people in a bother, wait until you use the word “indie” around the wrong listener. You’ll be sorry. Indie, you see, is often thought to denote any publisher that you’ve never heard of. It’s not Random House or Harper Collins or Penguin. It’s the publisher who operates much like those houses … but isn’t.
Now, I love indie publishers. My first book was published by NorLights Press, an independent publisher, and I still cherish my friendships over there. I also adore indie bookstores. I worked for two years in a university bookshop that was run on the indie model. The manager came from The Regulator in Raleigh, a signature indie bookshop, and we tried our best to emulate them in both look and feel.
So what’s the fuss over this term? Well, self-published authors have taken (rightly, I believe) to calling themselves “indie.” There are reasons for this. For one, not everyone can touch-type their hyphen, so it’s just easier to write. It’s also easier to say. Not to mention: It sounds cooler. Which is probably why the kids are fussing over it. It’s the best toy on the floor, and there’s only one of them.
Why do I consider myself indie? Because I choose to be, and so do others. Many of the authors who self-publish today never attempt the traditional route. They forgo the lengthy querying process and go straight to readers. Being indie is a choice, not something they’re forced into by being barred at any gate. I know quite a few indie authors who have turned down offers from presses both large and small. To us, being “independent” means being free of publishing houses altogether. This distinction feels significant. The distinction between the size of the press seems less so.
Having said that, I was raised with siblings, and my parents constantly yelled at us to “share.” Just because there’s one toy doesn’t mean anyone has to hog it. Words are used to communicate ideas. If you tell me you run an indie press or were published by one, I’m not going to assume it was Simon and Schuster. If you tell me you’re an indie author, I’m not going to assume your work is of any particular quality or that you got fed up after years of acquiring rejection letters. In both cases, I’m going to assume that you have a unique vision of how to go about producing good works, that there’s nothing at the major houses that fits for what you’d like to do, and so you’re doing it on your own. That may be with a small team at a small house. That may be you, all alone, out of your literal house. I say both uses are fine. But don’t be surprised when more and more people think of self-published authors as “indie” while small presses that operate according to the traditional model are lumped in with the non-indie houses. To me, this is language made more clear, not usurped. Philosophy means more than size. Indie doesn’t say you aren’t making a profit; it simply means you aren’t bound by anyone else’s rules.
Look at Louis C.K., possibly the biggest name in stand-up comedy today. Louis is wildly successful and extremely wealthy, and yet he perfectly embodies the indie spirit. He produces his own shows and sells them directly to the viewer. By charging $5 for his self-produced show, he made a million dollars in a handful of days, simplified delivery for viewers, and everyone won out. More recently, he decided to cut out the middleman for his most recent comedy tour and sold tickets on his website. This meant reduced fees and protections against gougers, so the people who want to attend are the ones purchasing the tickets. Louis is like the Amazon.com of comedy. Big and successful, yeah, but still operating according to indie principles.
What are indie principles, then? I think it’s the same philosophy that motivated the founding fathers. I believe it’s the soul at the heart of every indie artist out there who is doing his or her own thing. This is what we celelibrate this week with Independence Day and INDIEpendence day alike. It’s the ability to ask oneself not: “How has this always been done in the past?” But rather: “What’s the best way to do this, period?”
The true indie will make up their own rules. They will follow their heart and their art. They will adopt and adapt language in the manner that best serves our ability to communicate. And while we can feel sorry for those who wish things wouldn’t change, and who take offense at our borrowing of words, we will not allow those who came before us to dictate the shape of our philosophies. It’s all about the people who matter: The readers. The consumers. The general public. Serve them and serve them well.
Happy INDIEpendence Day.
And don’t be an asshole with your fireworks.