Writing as an Indie Artform

Over a decade ago, we turned-up our noses at the idea of independently publishing books.

When many study writing and literature in college, they brainwashed to assume that if we shell out hundreds of bucks for (what was called then) vanity publishing–simply because the author was “vain” enough to publish their own works; or, even, if the books weren’t published by a major publishing house, the writing was considered to be lesser quality.

I recall an old manuscript of poetry I wrote titled “The Natural Cant” during the mid-1990s. A collection, I truly thought I could market as a modern epic poem with a pantheist undertone. The summer between my junior and senior year in college, I sent this manuscript out to various publishers–all of which sent rejection letters for this 150-page manuscript. All the publishers—but one. With my research, I started to realize that 1) it’s difficult to publish poetry WITH a major publisher—unless already established; and 2) that people will purposely lead you down the wrong path, simply because of jealousy.

Due to the lack of popularity with the internet (at the time), and my trust in an unmentioned professor, I chose to turn down the offer of publishing with this small publisher. The professor told me that if the publisher isn’t large, hasn’t published any well known books, or has small distribution—your career as a writer could easily be destroyed over night, ruining your chances of ever getting picked up by a major house. In short, she said, don’t publish with this company.

I listened to her. I trusted her. But, looking back, that was a terrible decision.

I wish I would have experienced what I needed to experience on my own.

But, alas, we live and learn and I was young.

But looking on the bookshelves at the local bookstore and seeing what people are reading on the subway as I peer onto the screen of their Kindle or see the cover of the books they hold—I see a common trend. Much of the books that are being published today are of a lower quality. By this, I mean, I see things that I would not have normally referred to as literature.  No longer are people attempting to publish (and write) things that will stand the test of times like Shakespeare, Shelley, or Frost. Publishers are now mass-producing books that are simply filling a common, current trend—not something created in the name of art, of literature, of inspiring the future generations. But, rather, to fulfill the needs of today. To simply make a dollar.

As such, much of the good writing is being bypassed by agents and publishers, alike. The end result is that the true art is being left unnoticed and perhaps even published independently. The moment I realized this tidbit of information was the same moment I, as a writer, truly classified writing with art; music with art; art with art.

Why has it been traditionally okay for other artists to independently produce (and mass produce) their art, but when it came to writers—it was always been perceived as lesser quality? It doesn’t make sense.

This awakening I experienced had me diving into more independently published books. I wanted to give them a chance. After all, I listened to and appreciated indie music so I didn’t think this would be any different. And, I was right! Yes, of course there were some poorly written attempts at books. But, the same can be said for books found at a retailer. However, there were also many independently published hidden gems that were crafted with artistry.

I receive emails from people around the US asking for advice on how to publish their works with Harper Collins or Simon Schuster or any other large house. I always say, “With goals, guidance and persistance… you can do it.” What more can I say? My works are independently produced and I’ve been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to teach writing workshops and public speak at public schools as well as colleges/universities. Sometimes I say jokingly, yet half serious, I believe my best trait is marketing more than my art, itself. Othertimes I believe that marketing is truly an art. Regardless, for the most part, I’m an independent (indie) artist with no boundaries, just like Langston Hughs, Zora Neale Hurston, and James Baldwin were during their time.

I never considered trying to get my manuscripts published by a major house. I’m not sure why. I’ve published individual stories and poetry in journals, books, and whatnot, but never have I diligently attempted to send out full manuscripts and I’m quite satisfied with that. I like the idea of saying I’m an idependent artist and I appreciate the freedom that comes with it.

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About Stephen Earley Jordan II

Author of "Beyond Bougie", "Cold, Black, and Hungry" and many other books. www.StephenEarleyJordan.com
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One Response to Writing as an Indie Artform

  1. “No longer are people attempting to publish (and write) things that will stand the test of times like Shakespeare, Shelley, or Frost.”

    I do so disagree with the heart of this statement, both in the idea that writing lasting literature is no longer a goal, and that those who write real literature do so with the express goal of standing the test of time. I’d argue that most of the time, authors write and publish with the hopes of their work being read and received well, but not as the end-all. That way lies misery.

    Not only that, when have publishers ever not published “to fulfill the needs of today?” Publishing and the book retailers make money. They publish and stock the books that will sell. They seek to carve a niche for themselves and work with that because that too will sell. In a town like mine where there are over a dozen independent book-sellers, each focuses on a genre or book type. There is the wall to wall romance paperback place on the plaza near the highway, and the small bookstore of new age spiritual books near the downtown crossing. There’s the store that stocks historical books on one side and fantasy and science fiction on the other…

    But they don’t do it to make a statement. They do it because it’s a way to make money, and if they break this marriage balance between what they can count on people buying, and what they personally would like to stock, they go out of business.

    If you go back to 18th and 19th century literature, you’ll find just as many “popular” novels that sold thousands upon thousands of copies that are no longer read today. No one remembers Feddey Bulgarin anymore, but Gogol is renown in Russian literature. In the end, only a few novels come from each decade to stay on our list of classics, and only a few authors from each century. How is it that we expect to see a plethora of High Lit on our Kindles today? The majority will always be transient, whether it is published by an independent house, a renown publisher, or not published at all.

    Why has it been traditionally okay for other artists to independently produce (and mass produce) their art, but when it came to writers—it was always been perceived as lesser quality?

    Interestingly enough, that isn’t the case with dissident literature. In Soviet Russia, for example, government-sanctioned literature was what was mass produced. “Real” lit was passed around in the circles of the intelligentsia as manuscripts. Poetry was often memorized to keep it from being written down and falling into the hands of the police. When Anna Akhmatova first wrote her famous poem cycle, The Requiem, she had friends memorize parts–it wasn’t until about a decade after it was first conceived that she wrote it down.

    There is value in scarcity. I am hard pressed to believe that even the most enthusiastic reader of serials today will argue that their favorite mass-produced paperbacks are higher quality (in terms of literature) than those books that hit the, say, Pulitzer lists.

    I think I got lost somewhere as I wrote my response. I promise there was a point to all this!

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