How We Read: Indie vs. Traditional


For those of you have been joining me on this semi-regular foray into the ways we read, it shouldn’t be surprising that we finally tackle the elephant in the room. We’ve talked about reading alone vs. reading in a book club, and reading on a digital platform vs. reading old paper and glue tomes. Now, this site being IndieReader and all, it’s time we talk about the big one: how we read independently published books vs. traditionally published books.

Allow me to introduce a metaphor here, to help try and get my feelings across. Reading a traditionally published book is like eating in a restaurant. You are going somewhere to have the work done for you. Much like a chef selects ingredients, prepares them, and serves them in an appetizing way, book publishers go through all the preparation work themselves. They find the authors and works. They package the materials. They deliver it to you in an attractive fashion. It costs a little more in both cases, of course, but you’re paying to eliminate risk, basically. Instead of trying to make something yourself, or find something yourself, you put your money in the hands of professionals, hoping they deliver you a superior product.

The twist to all this is when the food is bad, or the book unreadable, you are furious. You paid good money to have someone, who is purported to be an expert, give you something appetizing. And when they don’t, you’re mad. The whole point of all this was to eliminate risk of something bad happens, and when it does, it’s doubly insulting.

Reading independently published books, on the other hand, is more like foraging in the woods, trying to find something tasty to put in your garden salad. You bring out your wildflower guide and pick at things in the ground, and pray to God what you eat doesn’t poison you. There’s a much higher level of risk that what you get will be bad, but when you grab a wildflower and take a bite, and spit the bitter thing out because it tastes terrible, you aren’t mad. You smile. On to the next. You didn’t risk all that much.

And when you do find something wonderful, and delicious, the satisfaction that comes with it is innumerably greater than if you found that same taste in a restaurant.

The real question of whether you should read independent or traditional books is where you find the fun. If the process of searching through droves of (sorry everyone) crap, and finding a community that helps you sort through it and guides you to gems, then you’re better suited for the independently published crowd. It’s exciting. There’s real risk, but the rewards are there if you hunt.

(To anyone who’s going to jump in here and tell me I’m overreacting with how much crap is out there, and will say I’m overstating how real the risk is when you try to read independently published books, and will try to tell me that every story deserves to be told and it is a failing on my part to see the worth in every piece of independently published fiction…stop it. Just stop it. There IS crap out there, a lot of it. Some of it is derivative crap and some of it is self-indulgent crap and some of it is incomprehensible crap and some of it is just plain old, two-hands clutching the head, eyes bulging, I-can’t-believe-someone-thought-this-could-justifiably-be-put-on-the-page crap. Call me elitist. Say I’m not truly inhabiting the spirit of independent publishing. Whatever. I know a bad mushroom when I taste one.)

For those of you who prefer your books vetted, and selected for you, and packaged in gorgeous dust jackets, with a little note at the end of the book that explains why the font was chosen (does anyone really care about that, by the way?) then traditionally published lit is probably for you.

For those of us who dabble in both, how we read each is all about expectations. When I read traditionally published books, I expect a quality of experience. I expect typo-free copy; I expect intelligent language; I expect a level of professionalism in the storytelling. When I don’t find these things, I’m pissed. I spent good money to have someone do that work for me, and when I don’t get it, I’m upset.

When I read independently published works, my expectations are different. I’m forgiving of grammatical mistakes. I don’t care how the thing is packaged. In terms of storytelling, even, I’m not even expecting flawless execution.

What I’m looking for is moments. Unexpected moments. Moments of clarity, originality, insight. Moments that I would never find in a book that went through the grinder of the publishing house—moments too strange, or frightening, or alien for a large audience. They’re harder to find, these moments, but man…when you do. Man. The payoff is enormous.

(To quickly and parenthetically return to the original argument about all the “crap” out there, nothing pisses me off more than when I read an independently published work that is totally derivative and imitative of other books out there. By publishing independently, you are getting permission, carte blanche, to write about whatever the hell you want to write about! One of your characters can have three arms. You could put an entire chapter in upside down Farsi. There are no rules! You don’t need to conform to any publishing house’s expectations of what a book is. And time and time again I read these independently published works that are just hashed out Da Vinci Code reboots and John Grisham imitations and Harry Potter “re-imaginings” and 50 Shades of Grey sexual tripe and I want to put my head through a wall. Right now, for another site, I’m reviewing a book that somehow manages to simultaneously rip off Tom Clancy and Indiana fucking Jones and it might kill me. I might be dead by the time this runs.)

Ahem. Anyway, yes, there are risks with reading independently published books, as I outlined in great detail. But the indie world offers something the traditional world cannot, a world of community and discovery, of punk rock DIY freedom. You can’t get that in the publishing house world, where you’re told what to read, more or less. You have the choice of what you buy, of course, but they’re setting the menu.

The choice is yours.

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