I apologize ahead of time for the following generalization and also the following corporate-marketing cliche: indie books need Millennials in order to be cool.
OK, so that sounds as horrible to you as it felt to me, writing it, so let me revise to something a bit more substantial and less corporate-speaky: indie books need (or if not need, would definitely benefit from) the same sort of connoisseurship culture that has defined ‘indie music’ for the last 15 or 20 years.
Independent musicians, and now not-technically-indie indie bands on major records labels, can safely depend on a whole subculture of music trading and discussion to help propagate their music, a subculture which is for the most part cultivated by people in their twenties and early thirties. People review, Facebook, Tweet, and old-fashioned talk about new music in person; independent DIY bands relying on Bandcamp are celebrated for their independence, and music connoisseurs are genuinely proud of discovering new and totally unknown artists.
Indie books and indie music are both inextricably connected to the phenomenon of overproduction: doing it yourself means anyone can; it means there are no initial filters for creative output. The difference between indie (which is functionally synonymous with ‘internet’) music culture and book culture, however, is that while there is a huge cultural digestive system prepared to process and categorize the constant release of new music, there is nothing analogous for new indie books.
It is essentially impossible to say just how many independent musicians exist in the United States, just as it is essentially impossible to say how many independent, self-publishing writers there are, but it is fair to assume, I think, that both numbers are big numbers; that there is more ‘indie’ in general than anyone can even begin to listen to or read, and that both indie writers and indie musicians must try to impress internet gatekeepers to gain an audience.
The difference is simply that musicians have a better shot at this; that while most indie musicians languish in obscurity, just like most indie writers do, indie music seems to be more flourishing, varied, and respected than indie publishing. There is credibility, it is cool—or at least can be—in being an unknown, self-released musician; being a self-published writer, simply, there is not. A site like Pitchfork, for instance, breathlessly reviews small and no label (along with major label) acts every day–and there are hundreds of websites emulating Pitchfork, and thousands and thousands of blogs who feed on the scraps and sawdust of the bigger music sites. Indie music cares about itself, reads about itself, and propagates itself–and while there are certain examples of this happening in indie publishing–only very rarely, like in the case of Sergio de la Pava, do the biggest success stories coincidence with the best independent writing.
The same, however, cannot be claimed against indie music: some of the biggest acts in indie music over the past decade—The Arcade Fire, Animal Collective, and Bon Iver—have all received consistent critical acclaim and adoration, and deservingly so in my opinion. Hermetic and authentically original acts with almost no initial mainstream appeal have managed to branch into major artistic (and commercial) figures. The reason this happens, I’m trying to suggest, is that indie music has an anarchic, yet dependable structure for filtering its own content—and more importantly, because serious music fans have genuinely—and this happened a long time ago—turned against most of the major label output. Among the major differences, and one of the major reasons indie publishing doesn’t have the same ‘filtration system’, is that serious readers don’t believe that there’s anything worth filtering in small and independent publishing. Music fans don’t trust their major labels, but for the most part, book lovers do.
One of the claims—or rather, the claim—made against indie publishing is it simply fails to produce writing deserving of serious consideration, but there’s really very little proof for or against this claim. A Google search of indie book reviews yields a relative pittance of hits, given the fact, that you, Google searches the entire internet. This means that right now, indie publishing is stuck asking potential readers to buy books on faith, while indie musicians can genuinely turn to an entire cottage industry of bloggers and journalists to establish that faith for them. The consequence of this, is that many musicians feel empowered—and rightfully so—to simply reject major label attention, while most writers are absolutely desperate for a ‘Big 5’ contract.
Simply put: the indie music community is more daring because the culture of indie music itself—a culture that comes with a diffuse but huge network of indie music writers—values artistically serious and daring recordings. While a self-released musician still faces immense challenges promoting and selling themselves, there are millions of music fans who go online every day hoping to discover a great new artist. There is no comparable willingness to discover, as far as I’m aware, among readers, who are already, I suspect, less numerous than music fans to begin with. So what one is forced to wonder, is how many legitimately good novel manuscripts are being kept in desk-drawers (or Google docs) for the day when an agent will magically rescue them from obscurity? It is impossible to know, but one can be sure that if the indie reading community looked more like the indie music community, that number would be much smaller.