Last week we had a discussion about community and it became clear that the majority among us indie lit writers and publishers (that felt moved to comment on this blog) believed that writing and publishing with the indie lit community in mind may not be the primary goal, but was very important to keep in mind.

Since then, it’s become abundantly clear to me that the writing that we produce and publish, the stuff that all this wall head beating is for, is being marketed by us, right back to us. We are the audience and we are the producers. It’s created a very clear niche.

The positive effect seems to be that with each powerful story that we write, with each novella and journal we publish, we seem to up the bar for one another, making a decent training ground for us to hone our chops in the hopes that we may be able to graduate to the big leagues. However, some of us are fine just where we are, harboring no interest in publishing with, or on the level of, a major publishing house. A lot of those guys have fucked the publishing industry into the ground with their inability to adapt to a changing market, so why would you want to have anything to do with them?

The negative effect is that the more we write and publish toward each other, the more insular we become, the more splinter factions of style choices are created, the smaller the niches grow until it’s Writer A writing a story for the singular audience of Writer B and vice versa, ad infinitum, the literary version of a circle jerk.

The problem: We, as an indie lit community, aren’t connecting to readers. Independent film has had its boom, and was shortly followed by a boom in independent music. It’s time independent literature had a boom of its own.

There’s a prevailing attitude these days is that no one reads anymore. This is bullshit. Books haven’t lost their power to speak to people and there are folks out there who want to read, they just don’t know what to read. When faced with an overabundance of choices, a person is going to go with what’s familiar. That’s why the bestselling authors stay bestselling authors and why it takes a new author at least a $100k marking campaign to tap into that list. There are people out there craving the good words we’re producing but we’re nowhere close to reaching them. However, as indie publishers and writers, we don’t really have $100k to throw around on marketing campaigns. So what can we do to connect with readers outside of our immediate circle? Do what we’ve always done: start small.

1. People react most to word of mouth. Recommendations are how people make choices on what book they’re going to read next. Did you love The Adderall Diaries? Suggest it to a friend. Did We Take Me Apart change your life? Pass it on to someone you love and tell them that it means a lot to you. Do book trades. Promise your girlfriend that you’ll read the Harry Potter books she holds so dear if she reads A Jello Horse.

2. Ask your friend’s band if you can sell your book at the merch table at their show. If you’re book looks lonely at the table all by itself then sell other books you like. Contact us publishers, I’d happily send out a stack of mags if someone said they were going to sell them for me at a rock show.

3. Start an indie lit book club! Holy crap are book clubs awesome, sitting around a friends living room one night a month drinking wine talking about books. Damn good times, my friend.

4. And blog, people. For the love of god, blog. If you love a book, write a review. It doesn’t even have to be a great review, you don’t even really need to say anything more poignant than, “This is a good book. Here’s why. You should buy it.”

There’s people outside of the writing game who are looking for good words and they’re not finding them. Instead they’re going with whatever’s on their immediate field of vision, meaning books published by corporate publishing houses. Last week my friend IM’d me saying he wanted to start reading some novels so he bought Never Let Me Go. However he claimed he had a short attention span and thought short stories would be more his speed. I sent him links to AM/PM, SFAA and A Common Pornography (the HP version. Technically not an indie lit book, but definitely a gateway to it). He added them to his cart at Powell’s almost immediately. People have a fever, they need good words to cure them. You are the doctor. Prescribe them some good stuff.

As writers we can’t sit back and let the publisher worry about how this is going to get into the hands of readers and vice versa. This is something we love and no one’s going to market this stuff for us, so the onus is on us as writers and publishers to get it out to people who are going to react to it.

These are just some beginning ideas on how indie publishers and writers can connect to readers. If you have nay others please shout them out in the comments. We’re all in it together.


  1. ce. says:

    Dude, yes. I’m really digging this thread of posts on community. It’s been something on my mind lately here in Indy, being somewhat devoid of a good, regular group of indie lit nerds, and also how much I want to share all this awesome shit with friends who like sentences but not necessarily the writing of them.

    On a camping trip a few weeks ago, we listened to Wolf Parts by Matt Bell at one point on the 4 hour drive home. My buddy Josh was in the car, and loved the living shit out of that as he also followed along reading my copy of it. Ever since then, he’s been asking me for recommendations.

    My friend Emily too recently asked me about “up and coming” poets, and I recommended We Take Me Apart, Easter Rabbit, When All Our Days Are Numbered, and a couple others to her.

    I hope more and more people are doing this. I’ve been clamoring for the possibility for an indie lit breakout for the past few months now, and though I’m not particularly partial to Tao Lin’s writing, I do have to admit his antics create a really feasible and possible gateway for that to happen.

    (P.S. The idea of selling books at a show is amazing, and makes me wish I was still playing rock and roll so I could do just that.)

  2. chris says:

    That’s exactly what I’m talking about, Chris, exposing people in your inner circle to the writing that pumps you up. I was talking with Sasha Fletcher about this last night. The main reason books get sold is because of word of mouth. People buy books because other people recommend them. Goodreads is interesting on a fundamental level, but JA Tyler brings up a good point that much of the appeal is showing off what and how much we’re reading.

    I didn’t even mention Facebook in this post. Pumping up indie lit books on FB is another way to connect good books with hungry readers. Sure, a lot of our friends on FB are probably already savy to most of the stuff we’re reading, but what about the other 90 people on your friends list that might be looking for some cool stuff to read?

    I been in the same boat these past few months, hoping for an indie lit explosion, but it’s not going to happen all by itself. Like my friend’s grandma said, “You don’t ask, you don’t get.” It’s up to us to be proactive about this. Roxane Gay sent me an extra copy of Aaron Burch’s chapbook. I gave it to a weird whiteboy rasta skate kid on the train platform. We got off at the same stop, he rolled past me and said “Dude, thank you. So. Much.” He’d been reading it and it connected with him. Do you know how cool that feels to have been a part of connecting people like that?

    And you don’t even have to sell stuff at a rock show, could be at a farmers market, a swap meet, flea market, any sort of gathering of people selling stuff.

    I feel like the scene could be on the brink of some mass exposure. Shane Jones miraculously got re-issued by Penguin. Ben Loory got a story published in the New Yorker. Dzanc’s list of 20 writers to watch got picked up at PW. There are signs.

    What the tipping point will hinge on is whether or not we as indie writers and publishers love this scene enough to push it past ourselves and into the outside world.

    The great thing about our scene is how much quality content we’re producing. The problem is the demand. We all know it’s easy to get sucked into the rabbit hole of stuff that we’re publishing. One good book leads to another. The more we dig, the more cool stuff we find. We need to get outsiders excited and hooked on this healthy drug we’re cooking up.

  3. ce. says:

    Yeah, man. Also similar to what we’re talking about it Levinson’s Book Bike, which I think I remember you blogging about here before. I’d really love to have the time and resources to invest in a similar endeavor here in Indy. I’ve an idea that sprang from your thoughts here about flea marketing books that could go along with it, too.

    Every first Friday of the month in Indy, there’s a First Friday Gallery Walk, where all the art galleries around town open up their new shows and exhibits. It draws a huge crowd, and especially this art community building, the Murphy Building. I bet it’d be nothing at all for me to ask to set up a small flea market booth of books to pander in a corner of the Murphy Building somewhere. I could even have readings/performances from the books available to draw people to the booth. It’s a built in audience of creative appreciators that is being greatly overlooked. I honestly don’t know why the Indy art and lit scenes don’t work together more anyway.

    Just, finding venues like that would be such a boost to promotion and marketing of new work from small presses.

  4. chris says:

    Hell yeah dude! Let me know if you need any help from me. David Peak and I are working to have an indie lit table at the Brooklyn Flea here in NY. I’ll post more info on the blog once that gets going, maybe it can help you organize your table in Indy.

  5. ce. says:

    That’d be awesome. Any info would be welcome. I have some connections to Murphy Building and also to some local farmer’s market organizers, so I think I might be able to work that angle.

    I’ve already a name an idea for it, “Vouched Books,” all small press books and journals that I’ve read and can vouch for them being awesome. I think if I started small just flea-marketing books, I could eventually grow it into a book-bike sort of idea. Damn. Exciting stuff.

    Do me a favor and don’t tell my wife about this. I already have too many projects going on.

  6. bl pawelek says:

    Chris, Great post man. Connected on many levels.

  7. chris says:

    Chris: Consider the lip zipped. Vouched Books is a great idea. I think that’s another important part about recommending books, letting people know that it’s worth their time to read it.

    bl: thanks! glad you like it.

  8. ce. says:

    Yeah. That’s what I was thinking; I wouldn’t be just some bookseller stocking shelves with new releases. I’ve actually read and can recommend and discuss any of the books on my table. With the flea market concept, I think that can be a really important selling point.

    I’ve already contacted a guy who’s had a studio space at the Murphy for a couple years now, and he said the likelihood that anyone would care that I’d set up shop selling books on First Friday is slim to none, but gave me the contact info for the owner in case I wanted to be legit about it. Forward motion.

    By the way, Chris, I sent you an email to discuss some of this further. I didn’t know your actual personal email, so I just sent it to the info(at)annelemma email address.

  9. this is exactly what we were talking about, but better. you chris heavener are a solid dude. we need to sit us down and have us a talk about this in august when i get back from vermont.

  10. god bless synchronicity. A lot of good people all over are thinking these same things. A D Jameson in Chicago for one ( Here in London, two American short story writers (me being one) and two English comedians do a monthly gig that mixes film, comedy, illustrators, short stories, the kitchen sink. Literary Variety show is the best word I’ve found to describe it. The whole idea being the comedians, the film makers, etc will drag their friends to the show, and a new set of people will learn that literature doesn’t have to be these boring events held in libraries sitting next to an old dude in tweed that smells faintly of pee.

    Keep fighting the good fight.


  11. A D Jameson says:

    Jarred, are there photos from your event? Can we get a more thorough report?

  12. chris says:

    Sasha: Thank you, sir. You are a dude of solid quality as well.

    Jarred: That Literary Variety show sounds amazing. That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do with the few events that Annalemma has thrown in the past, a move away from straight readings. They are boring events most of the time, unless you got a firecracker of a writer onstage, which is rare. A writer should know how to deliver, how to grip a live audience, engage them. Most tremble like they’re in front of a firing squad. No biggie, really, just hard to watch as an audience member.

    A D: These recent posts have been partly inspired by your recent treatise at Big Other. Thanks for posting that, it really codified some ideas I was having at the time and caused me to think about this scene from a different angle.

  13. also, let me know if you need a hand at the flea come mid-august

  14. Richard says:

    This is really great stuff. I’m a reader, not a writer, (why do I always feel i need to qualify that?) and have been fascinated by the indie lit community. (In fact, I’m going to make it the main thrust of my dissertation on power and hegemony, but that’s for another time).

    Anyway, one thing that stuck out to me was this: “The negative effect is that the more we write and publish toward each other, the more insular we become, the more splinter factions of style choices are created, the smaller the niches grow until it’s Writer A writing a story for the singular audience of Writer B and vice versa, ad infinitum, the literary version of a circle jerk.”

    I’d been talking about this very thing with Jessica Hollander recently and out of that came a blog post she did over at fringe ( which explores a bit about how bi0s have become uniform in a way that tries to legitimize the author, instead of the work… This comes full circle for me do to my hegemonic studies and I think is important to this sense of community your getting at… IOW if authors legitimize some magazine and choose to ignore others, then a capitalistic system of power develops (already has) and the indie lit scene becomes another main stream lit scene, with less audience.

    So, how do we avoid the pitfalls that so many have stepped in before? How do we build a community without, at the same time, segmenting ourselves? If indie lit is to have its boom, it will come because indie lit is united… Right now, indie lit can feel impenetrable to an outsider, you need a guide to get you started, how does this change?

    End rant….

  15. chris says:

    Thanks for commenting. I don’t have any plans for uniting indie lit under any sort of formal banner other than trying to inspire publishers and writers to expose their words to people outside of the writing community. I think it would be a mistake to form some sort of governing body. In my mind those things are often more trouble than they’re worth. You end up paying dues for dubious services, money that goes to administrative costs, nothing that the community sees in terms of growth or exposure. That’s Annalemma’s not a member of AWP or CLMP. I just don’t see the advantage in the long run. A governing body for this scene would quickly implode on itself anyway. There’s so many different presses doing so many different things that it would be torn by all the people trying to pull it in different directions.

    But that’s the plus side of this scene, too. There’s so much cool stuff being made that it’s easy to get sucked into the world, check out all the cool things people are doing. So once you get an outsider hooked they’ll want to know more, get deeper into it, just like movies, just like music.

    But back to community building. I don’t think it needs to be anything beyond raising awareness to presses and writers that we need to be working toward a common goal of reminding people of the fulfilling experience of reading print. I think in terms of uniting the scene it will have to be under an idea that we can’t simply market to each other anymore, we have to get the general public interested. (pause for laughter) Seriously. People have forgotten about the power reader has over your mind. So much more impactful than movies or television. The only problem is that it is inherently inaccessable. It takes time and effort. Things that are in short supply by humans these days.

    That’s another thing that’s appealing about indie lit. Most books we publish are under 150 pages. They’re short, powerful reads that don’t demand much of your time. And in terms of cost, you get roughly 8-10 hours of entertainment and fulfillment for the cost of one night at the movies.

    Now I feel like I’m the one ranting. Let me know what you think…

  16. chris says:

    Oh and to better answer your question, to avoid a hegemonic power structure when trying to reach an outside audience, it would be important for the scene not to put emphasis on a specific set of presses or magazines, but to stress the idea of reading as of the utmost importance.

  17. chris says:

    god, these are really poorly worded but I’m firing them off quick as I got stuff to do… forgive the spelling errors.

  18. Richard says:

    Totally see what you’re saying. And no, I didn’t think you were talking about any sort of governing body (I’m with you on that one, it would just kill indie lit faster)… The structures I’m talking about are invisible (basically social constructs) and what happens, in my mind, is that we reproduce systems already in place because we are used to them. So indie lit reproduces the exclusionary mainstream lit. Right now the writing is exciting, but if we continue to reproduce that system then it will either become completely insular and unreadable or completely boring and predictable…

    To me it seems that new indie magazines and presses have to break into an established readership that consists mainly of writers and editors of indie lit. This does not seem like a good long term strategy, which is exactly what you’re saying. I see things like bios (thank you Jessica) and MFA programs (ie Iowa) as ways to reinforce the structures already in place. There are clearly exceptions to this…

    Again, i don’t have a thesis or an answer, I’m just looking at individual issues as they come. Hopefully my research can clarify some of the underpinning issues, but I doubt it. If anything, it will bring more issues to light.

    So what is that answer to getting to the mainstream? I think what you provided in your post are a nice start, I just think there are more. I mean, indie movies have capitalized because hollywood movies cannibalize old hollywood movies, making them boring and predictable. Actors don’t like being in these type of movies because they are not challenged (they still take the checks) so in their spare time they make indie movies. These movies then get seen because of the attached start or festivals…

    Are there lit festivals? I mean there are, but they normally involve writers that are not really on the cutting edge. They are big name authors who either broke the rules decades ago or are very good at following a mainstream formula.

    This is not the way to cultivate new readers. New readers are not excited about Catherine Coulter… My mom is…

    There are a lot of events that have great writers, writers that would, if given the chance, be able to cultivate new readers… But these events are populated by other writers (conferences, readings, awp, etc.) We need events that cross market. Get new readers there for something else and then hit them in the face with a great reading and in turn makes these people into readers (I don’t know what I’m talking about here… But maybe like a lit/music/film fest?)

    Anyway, just thoughts…

  19. chris says:

    Hey Richard,

    Some good points here. I’m very interested to see where your research takes you. There’s a wealth of knowledge out there to pull from, that’s for sure. I’m gonna try and address your comments in order:

    – I don’t really think there’s a concern that indie lit could take the form of mainstream lit (boring and predictable) simply because you’d be hard pressed to find a publisher who’s interested in changing their content to appease a new readership. People in this scene publish what they want to publish cause they love it.

    -Exactly. I’m interested in finding out what kind of readers are out there beyond the writing programs and publishing circles.

    -I think drawing the indie film comparison here is getting a little too nuts-and-bolts. The industries and processes are so vastly different in terms of operation that I don’t think you could use it as a model. I don’t know what incentive a wildly successful author would have in publishing with a small press. I don’t think publishing houses work like that. I think if a popular writer has a weird manuscript that’s different than what she has been writing, her big house publisher is going to publish it anyway because her name sells books.

    -Yup, there are plenty of writing and book festivals. But, again, you’re pretty much preaching to the choir if you go to sell books at AWP. I’m with you that we need events that cross markets. That’s why I suggested flea markets, swap meets, shows, mainly a place populated with people looking for something interesting, a place outside of the writing community. We’re going to try this Brooklyn Flea thing, see how it works out. In the meantime I think it’s important to keep looking for new places to do this sort of thing. That’s what’s interesting about this whole thing: now that we’re thinking about it, the possibilities open up.

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