The Best Books You’ve Never Read
Before I was a writer, I was a reader. Somewhere in between, I also became a librarian. As such, I tend to view the process of book production with a blended vantage point. It’s difficult for me to address writing topics without talking about the fine art of reading— and every writer should be a reader too. It is from this triple-perspective that I have observed a curious phenomenon that will flip your brain inside out. Ready?
Some of my favorite books over the last decade were not published by Big Five publishers! Of course, I’ve also enjoyed many titles from each of the Big Five. But what I was surprised to discover is that some of the gems I’ve found in indie publishing had a more lasting impression on me than many of the mainstream titles I’ve read. How can that be given all the taboos of independent and small press publishing? If these books are so good, why weren’t they picked up by one of the big guys? Here are my own findings:
The digital age of do-it-yourself publishing opened the floodgates of amateur writers who have little use for the likes of “editing” or “rewrites” and who just want to pull up their name on Amazon. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being a hobbyist, and why not wrack up a few sales if you can? It does create a tricky process for readers to find the good stuff, though. It’s a lot like looking for a needle in a stack of other needles that are poorly constructed and riddled with grammatical errors. But then you find something that makes all those bandaged fingers worth it.
The Good Stuff:
The good ones are difficult to tell apart from mainstream titles. Attributes include quality covers, good structural development, smooth composition without grammatical errors, and proper formatting. Each of those attributes was probably the work of a different person, because good books aren’t the result of just one person’s effort. There are various editors and artists all along the process. In short, the good stuff is good stuff because it’s good! …stuff.
And what? The Author Just Doesn’t Like Money or Something?
I’ve discovered a number of independent and small press authors who turned down big house contracts for numerous reasons including artistic differences or loss of creative control. It really depends on the author’s goals. Big houses will offer wider distribution and probably increased sales. But if that means the project has to submit to another person’s vision, the author may feel it’s not worth it. There is also the author’s timetable to consider. Even authors who’ve had multiple titles on the best-seller lists will tell how difficult it was to get their first book published. Most had to shop their manuscripts for years and weather rejections upon rejections before they finally got a nibble. That kind of endurance race isn’t for everybody. And, frankly, some titles do better independently. Why?
It’s the nature of industry. Large producers move more and more toward producing content with the lowest common denominator. They’re looking for stories with a wide audience that will probably cover multiple demographics. This is because publishing is a business, and a business is reliant on income, and income is generated by sales. That doesn’t mean they don’t publish some really good stuff. But it does mean that they’re not as interested in niche markets and quirky subcultures. If that’s the best audience for a particular book, then it might not be the worst thing to go with a more independent model. While there may not be as many sales, the author sees a higher percentage of the profits, and it may not take as many sales to make the author happy as it would to appease Random House or HarperCollins. If your story doesn’t have mass appeal, then maybe you don’t need mass production.
So, Why Were Those Stories So Good?
Because they didn’t have mass appeal. They weren’t intended for the lowest common denominator. They struck a very specific chord in my heart. And they also had the power to surprise me. The downside of being an avid reader is that you become harder and harder to please. You become too familiar with the established trends, and you need something a little more experimental. We’ve seen this phenomenon with music. The first decade of the new millennium was thick with industry-produced music that didn’t have the iconic identity of the previous decades. Now indie music is the mark of trendsetters, and even big labels frequently try to emulate a home-spun sound. People are looking for something different.
To get you started, here’s a few independent and small press offerings I’ve enjoyed:
How to Break an Evil Curse by Laura Morrison Humorous Fantasy. If you’re interested in some light-hearted, quirky adventure that’s just fun to read, you won’t go wrong with this one. Witty narrative and loveable characters stylistically remind me of William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, and her plucky heroine wouldn’t be out of place in the likes of the more recent Disney movies. It was originally released as a serial, but now you can read it in its entirety. You’ll have to get an account with the site that hosts her, but it’s free so stop complaining! And you might even find some other serials to addict you while you’re there.
Coffee Cup Tales by Richard Keller Quirky Short Stories. I bought this one at a conference. I was probably drawn to it because I used to be a barista. I wound up carrying it in my computer bag, and I’d pull it out whenever I had to wait somewhere. It was a fantastic time-killer, and you always look more intelligent when people scheduled to meet up with you discover you reading a book. (The effect doesn’t carry over to smart phones.) The stories are clever and diverse; you never know what to expect from the next one.
Pursuit of a King by Candace Christine Little Middle Grade Allegorical Fantasy. If you’ve been missing Narnia lately, this may be a good book for you. It’s wildly imaginative, well told and full of surprises. Like the works of C. S. Lewis, this book contains Christian symbolism and allegory that has been woven into an enchanting otherworld with exotic dangers and delights. The plot takes several twists and turns, and doesn’t end up quite where I expected it to.
Wallflower Blooming by Amy Rivers Political Thriller. Okay, it’s not really a political thriller. But the introverted protagonist might feel like that’s what she’s gotten herself into. I met the author at a conference, and she’d just gotten a piece accepted into a volume of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. This book is similar in that it’s a feel-good book with a happy ending. Sorry for the spoilers. But sometimes, what you’re in the mood for is a happy ending, and this book is a great place to start because it’s the first of a trilogy. That means three happy endings for those of you doing the math. But I’ve also had opportunity to read some of the author’s darker writings, and I can’t wait to see those titles in full jagged bloom as well.
These are four vastly different titles whose only commonality is that I happened to enjoy them, and I didn’t discover them through mainstream channels. Maybe some of these aren’t quite for you, but something else might be. That’s what niche markets are all about. I still love my favorite bestselling authors, and I’m not putting out some obnoxious call to boycott the big presses. All I’m saying is, leave some room on your book lists for the indie titles.
You’ll be glad you did.
David Sharp is a noisy librarian. He has written three plays which have been produced six time altogether. He is a regular contributor to The Writing Bug, and he has written a novel for which he is seeking representation as well as numerous short works.
I'm generally pulled in a million different directions and I wouldn't trade it for the world. Here's a glimpse of my life - hope you enjoy it! And if there's a big lapse between posts, well, that's the way life goes in Amy's world.