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Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

The Moat Around the Castle: treehouse orgs and storming the gates

Over the past couple months I’ve been working with The IndiePENdents, a homespun organization that is attempting to raise the reading public and traditional publishing world’s consciences about quality self-published and small-press writers who have stayed out of the traditional publishing maelstrom for a plethora of reasons.

The IndiePENdents’ central idea is to establish a committee to read and give approval to self-published books in order to let readers know of their quality: no typos, no grammar errors, coherency of writing. I had argued, as a member of the Working Group tasked by the founders to establish the initial guidelines on what & how to make the reviews/approval stamp happen, that the organization begin by focusing on literary fiction and literary non-fiction. My argument for this focus was that we, the organization, should want to raise awareness for the best writing and best stories available. In my opinion, genre fiction falls far short of this aim, by its own definition (even the best of genre writers know they aren’t producing “high art”).

Why high art? For me this is an easy question to answer: I write literature and read literature; genre has no value other than simple entertainment (better than television, mostly, but still merely pop fiction). Furthermore, literary fiction is about people and their struggles — problems centered around everyday existence; story about the human condition; for all you uni grads: existentialism — and what lit fict stays away from is plotty, action-hero-style events, and flat characters.

But the IndiePENdents’ working group was headed by a man whose “books” are basic personal-treatises on getting ahead in business, and he makes his living “fixing books” for authors trying to e-publish their stories. While there’s nothing wrong with that on the face of it all, it turns out that Joel Canfield has had a secret agenda: allow the organization to accept any and all books, and then when 90% of them are rejected for the basic failures of grammar, spelling and story coherency, he would swoop down and try to sell these authors his services. This is the worst kind of sales tactic any one or company can practice, and it’s already pervasive on the internet, among legitimate and low-cal businesses and careers.

The original intent of the two founding members — “mastery of language,” “coherence of narrative,” and “literary proficiency” — had been diluted to allow any book of any genre, and would be given a stamp of approval for basic adherence toward grammar and spelling. In other words, if you’ve passed 8th Grade English class, whatever story you’ve “written” will get the Golden Seal.

It was this that finally did it for me. I bowed out. But not before I wrote the founders and working group a letter that outlined what sort of organization I’d thought they had wanted to form, and why it’s original intent was the best direction; also a point of contention about the potential side-line mercantile profiteering by managing members.

Here is the entirety of the letter’s text:

Dear Julia and Jasha and fellow members of the Working Group,


Upon further consideration of our discussion regarding what books should be eligible for review and how that process will proceed, I have some additional thoughts.


There is a far greater issue to the claim “independent writer/publisher” than merely a basic ability to put something on the market that is called a “book,” a “story,” or even “literature.” That Julia and Jasha are attempting to build approval for indie writers is commendable, and to start with reviews and approval stamps is a good first step.


But grammar, spelling, and punctuation should not and cannot be the sole criteria for legitimacy (the inclusion of coherency review helps this but slightly). Writing is a craft and a practiced profession. Yet, interestingly — and solely because the technology exists — anyone who can make it to the end of a 30-60,000-word ebook manuscript thinks he or she is a writer. They are not. Taking the summer off from an accounting job, or sitting down between the kids’ naps, very rarely produces a written work containing “good story,” much less coherency or value.


Writers love words and language, and are passionate about how language works and how they can mold sentences to create mood, capture a common image in a unique light, and give readers characters whom they fear, or love, or hate, or want to be made come alive.


For the glut of bad writing and awful indie books that flood the market — choose any genre or category; big publishers or bedroom e-bookers — I blame the entertainment industry particularly and celebrities in general. Obviously it’s all about money. However, when actors suddenly decide they think they can sing (but can’t) and singers & models think they can act (and fail, usually quite miserably), these entertainment atrocities encourage the TV-saturated and entertainment-addled masses to “try it out” themselves. How many of those do you see around? How many have actually “made it”? There’s a reason for their failure.


Of course there are those independent writers, filmmakers, and recording artists who’ve found success (viewers, readers, and listeners, if not money and fame), and thus won legitimacy. This happened because the quality of their work showed through, and the work mirrored that of the establishment and tastes of the consumers. Establishment is not a by-word for “bad” or “elitist,” but it can wear the banner of “fat, fickle and greedy” quite often. What the successful independents have shown is that there are people and groups working beyond the compounds of the “traditional” industries and their corresponding artists.


Yet, even independents must have a system of separating the “professional and good” from the “amateur and bad.” Successful independent filmmakers, to give a long-standing example, have found legitimacy and recognition by winning awards at Cannes and Sundance and a dozen other noteworthy film festivals. These orgs have selection committees to separate the professionals (the craftsman and artists) from the amateurs-with-money-or-access (in the case of writers, our present POD technology).


Such a selection process is not the purview of The IndiePENdents organization, as duly expressed by Julia and Jasha, and the majority of the Working Group. I respect this decision on several levels. However, by putting a stamp of approval on a book simply because the “author” has successfully edited and proofread his manuscript to a high-school English proficiency level, is really no legitimacy at all. Perhaps some of you think I’m wrong. That is your opinion and your right.


A further question of legitimacy exists within The IndiePENdents org by virtue of the founders and the Working Group’s individual vested interest. And for this subject I can only wholly speak about myself. As an independent author (albeit working with a small press publisher, itself an indie outfit), I can gain recognition, readers, links, and perhaps some other notoriety through my affiliation with The IndiePENdents. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. Nothing is a guarantee. While at the same time — and more importantly for writers everywhere — I have the chance to spread the idea (and work) of independent authors working together to show their legitimacy by reviewing and approving the quality of books (by whatever definition that falls under).


Meanwhile, some of you have expressed your own personal interests, noted in emails and on the website. Julia is a professional editor, and of course she benefits when good writing is highlighted. Jasha is a writer and has a helluva story to tell (but has not got squat from traditional publishers), so he has a personal interest. Eddie Louise and k.k., I haven’t quite got a handle on you two, but your comments are sound and I sense your hearts are firmly in the right place on this project.


Joel is a special case altogether. He has unabashedly admitted that he has connected himself with the org for its potential client list, and has promised/threatened to leave the org if he’s not able to advertise his re-writing/fixing services directly on the site. Which effectively means that any ms from any genre that the org accepts is potential business for him; and the worse the ms, the better his chance for business! This comes from someone who leads the Working Group that is tasked to determine just what the org is about and does/can do for independent authors; this, also, from someone who nakedly admits his ignorance of the basic categories by which books are grouped for marketing purposes. And yet he makes his living “holding the hands” of writers who are themselves ignorant of the pub world! Does anyone else smell the stench of the snake-oil salesman?


Julia and Jasha, while I respect what you are trying to do for yourselves and independent authors, the larger issue of legitimacy will not be served by putting a stamp on amateurish writing no matter how “clean” the pages are. Independent author legitimacy has a far greater mountain to climb. Just because an “avid reader” has written “THE END” on the last page doesn’t mean he or she is a writer. My opinion about genre fiction means nothing, least of all to its fans (and I have high regard for King and Straub, Leonard and Hiaasen, Forsythe and Le Carre, and Lem & Niven & Assimov), but the gatekeepers in whatever their dress stand there for a purpose.


The true crème de la crème of independents gain recognition by way of their professionalism, style, unique voice and vision, and (perhaps unfortunately so) by comparison to the established artists within their field.


All this being my repositioned opinion, I politely decline to participate further with The IndiePENdents while the opening of the floodgates of crap is readied. Mark my words: if you go ahead and allow any-and-everything for potential review, you will be reading god-awful half-stories about vampires and romances and dragons and space stations and talking dogs and … maybe all of these put into a single story. And once you’ve pulled the cork, you can’t put it back in without hurting the ultimate intent of the organization.

I bid you all well wishes and success.


Mark Beyer

By the way: “Lolita” is not erotica by any definition of the term; a middle-aged man’s pursuit of a pubescent girl is pedophilia, a term which Nabokov was accused of, regardless of his artistic representation of a classic fault in the minds of some men, or, specifically, the mind of Humbert Humbert. Very little of Nabokov’s narrative is erotic, but fantastic and dreamlike and ever so evanescent, as H.H. realizes at the end of the story.

1 Comment

  bonalibro wrote @ March 20th, 2012 at 1:45 pm

This sounds like a really good idea, sadly bastardized by its fearless leader. Having read through hundreds of slag heap titles on authonomy in recent years, I know exactly what you are talking about.

That said, I think your fearless leader is more realistic. The number of books being written today is immense. You would find yourself so overwhelmed you would not even know how to qualify what you would look at.

Accepting stuff from agents that they can’t sell might be one way to go. But when would you have time to write, for all the read throughs?

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