We got out to book launches and readings again this fall after a two-year shutdown for the pandemic. And the world had changed. People were still reluctant to come out to public events, especially to crowded ones where we breathed over each other. The older demographic was masked and impregnable, and readers were consuming less indies (independent and small-press writers) and more brandies (big name brand authors).
I watched my fellow indie authors selling their wares, and we all had to try even harder now. This is when I valued the benefit of branding. A brand connotes trust, reputation (even if it’s manufactured), proven track record, predictability and a guarantee of performance (although in literature, I’ve seen brandies, well past prime time, wielding their brand in front of a fading performance like a shield). The Indie author, devoid of this shield, has to get the reader to know them, like them, and trust that they have written a good book so that the reader’s time would not be wasted. This takes a lot of selling, telling, and yelling on the part of the indie, with each reader, one-on-one, before the proverbial $20 bill drops on the table! Social Media was once an enabler for the indie, but after those platforms realized that there was money to be made in advertising, the free circulation whittled down to close friends and family only (never mind that you have 5000 friends in cyberspace, your posts will only be seen by 25, the same 25, all the time), and if you wanted more, you had to pay!
I read a lot of indie literature as a publisher. There is very little that separates the good indies from the brandies, in terms of quality of work. In fact, indies go into the squeamish areas of human experiences that brandies are discouraged from for politically correct reasons (“it could hurt your brand!”). Many indies have gone to craft schools (writing courses are everywhere now – mostly taught by the brandies who can’t make a living off writing, or who want to squeeze their brand for a bit of extra cash). All good indies, I’ll wager, have employed professional editors – it’s the entry ticket to play these days. And all printers use the same technology and produce high quality products for indies and brandies alike. So, what’s the indie missing that their opposite number has? Endorsement and Sponsorship. Let’s take these two important items individually.
Endorsement: is when someone influential like Oprah or Heather says, “Buy this Book!” (not necessarily because it’s any good, but because we have been paid), and everyone obeys – it saves time browsing thousands of titles in a bookshop for a good read. Endorsement is when a book wins an award and everyone wants a copy of it on their bookshelf, sight unseen, not necessarily to read but to show off their literary trendiness. You can imagine the pressure on prize jurors who have to remain impartial but are under constant threat from those who have much at stake wanting to take them out for lunch. The indie rarely has money for their own lunch!
Sponsorship: it comes down to money and influence. Who is willing and able to grant this starving indie writer some money, or open some doors, so they can advertise and promote their book(s) beyond what their meagre resources could afford? And sponsors look for bankable bets. If the author is young and looks like they have another 10 books in them, all the better. But the old guy with many life experiences and juicy stories but who looks like he could croak tomorrow? Pass! And yet no one wants to remember those young, one-hit wonders like Emily Bronte, Oscar Wilde, J.D. Salinger, Margaret Mitchell, Sylvia Plath, and a host of others who held such promise but did not deliver beyond their solitary best-seller. Imagination and determination, not youth, are the drivers of literary longevity.
And so, the indie, without these two valuable props, shoulders their bag of books and trudges to the next book fair or bookshop and gets ready with their spiel which will end with a plaintive “Buy My Book! Please!” And they dream of crossing the bridge from indie to brandie one day.
Which reminds me. I need to pick up my own bag-o-books, and my hip flask of brandy (note the difference in spelling) and head off to my next book-selling event. Best-sellerdom lies beyond the next hill, like a mirage—but dammit, we are gluttons for punishment!