Rants from the Kitchen #3 – Indie books vs Indie movies

book theaterBeing active in several lit forums, I see one subject come up maybe more than any other – indie books and authors. It’s precisely because it comes up so often that I was reluctant to write about it at first. That and the fact that indie movies are actually a different kind of “indie” than indie books. Yet, as it usually happens, a thought came and refused to go, so now I have to write it down. *Sigh*

Initially I wanted to count and summarize all the differences and similarities between indie books and indie movies. However, since from the books’ POV, indie movies aren’t really “indie” (with a lot of them having multimillion “indie studios” behind them), the question became – why is that so? How did indie movies become what they are today and how can indie books achieve a similar success?

Indie movies are synonymous with “high, artistic quality”, while indie books are synonymous with “poor quality”. Let’s take a look at some of the indie movies of 2014:

Boyhood

Birdman

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Nightcrawler

Snowpiercer

And many others: http://www.tasteofcinema.com/2014/the-23-best-independent-movies-of-2014/3/

You don’t even need to watch movies to have heard about most of those films. At the same time, big movie blockbusters with $100ml+ budgets are – artistically and story-wise – considered of “low quality” (that’s not necessarily my view – I love me some well-made blockbusters as much as the next guy). Indie films on the other hand have the freedom to be creative and do new and different things. They are not tied to the “blockbuster formula” – good guys, bad guys, love interest, explosions, happy ending. As a result, they are original and different. Why? Well, mostly because, being not-so-high budget, they pose less of a risk financially, and are not expected to make insane amounts of money anyway. Instead they’re expected to be good (and to make… sane amounts of money). And that artistic freedom is precisely the main similarity between indie movies and indie books. Many authors as well as filmmakers want to be free to express themselves and therefore go indie. I personally know a writer who rejected an offer from Random House because they wanted him to add a love triangle and soften the protagonist in a book. Instead he went indie and (as was expected) didn’t really reach a lot of readers. And there are a multitude of other such cases.

Everything else between the indies in the movie world and the world of literature however is completely different. Indie books are shunned as poor and amateurish, while books published by big and prominent publishers are “top-notch”. And I’m not saying all that is wrong.

So, how did indie movies become what they are? Well, this is not Wikipedia, so I won’t bother listing all the ups and downs of indie movies for the last 107 years. In short – you can’t make movies without money, so many independent filmmakers were forced to make collaborations, seek money elsewhere or even start studios, that were independent from the “big players”, hence – indie studios. In addition, cinema is a visual art and as such, the quality of the production is visible in every single frame. With books however, if the cover, blurb and reviews are good (not a hard task to achieve, which is why reviews are rarely trustworthy), the reader has to actually start reading to assess the “quality of the production”. So with movies it’s also much easier to distinguish the amateurish attempts from the professional ones, which is a great plus for the latter.

Books on the other hand, don’t require much money to be made. Literally everyone with enough enthusiasm and ~2 free hours per day can sit down and write a book in several months. Not necessarily a good book – or rather, most probably a bad one – but a book nonetheless. So here’s probably the most significant difference – if a movie wants to be good enough to reach theaters, it needs talent, effort and investment, with which to reach theater-level quality. With the completely devoid of restrictions online bookstores however, indie authors can just put a book together, get a drawing from somewhere, photoshop their title on it and viola!, they are on the “shelves” of Amazon, side by side with everyone else. Therefore the main difference is that there’s no actual control on indie books. Online distributors are not publishers and don’t care about the quality of the books sold through them.

So, either you’ve been picked up by a publisher, or you are an indie/small press – that’s the biggest measuring stick the reader has. There are no “theaters” for books where both indie and traditionally published works will be “shown” if they are of high enough quality. Blogs are trying to fill that gap as much as they can, but with such an insane amount of books out there, they are fighting an uphill battle. Maybe things would go more smoothly if we had less blogs but with more readers in them, reviewing books. Instead we have thousands of blogs, managed by just one person each. There are blogs with several volunteering readers in them of course, just not sizable enough yet. Initiatives like The Great Self-published Fantasy Blog-off can also work really well, especially if they become even bigger and more numerous. There are also some great organizations like The IndePENdents, but they too are yet to become bigger and more influential.

But I don’t know if even that will be enough. We’ll see. Whatever happens, if we want serious, professional indie authors to actually become a truly significant part of the world of literature, we need to give them “movie theaters” so that they can stand out from the amateurs the way good indie movies do. Until then, indie books will remain just a drop of water in the ocean of “just indies”.

 

-YZ                                                                                                                                                                                                                  10.09.2015