If you want to support indies, lead. Don’t cheer.

No football team ever won the Super Bowl on the strength of its cheerleading squad. Teams win the Super Bowl on the talent of their players and the ability of the coaching staff to lead. Cheerleaders exist in professional sports to rev up the crowd and sell calendars. They don’t actually do anything to improve the game.

Which brings me to the ongoing lament in the indie community regarding “supporting” indie authors. I love indie authors. I read tons of indie books. I review indie books. I try to provide material support to indies in terms of marketing opportunities and directing them toward cost-effective resources. But there is this firming opinion that anything that can be construed as negative is unsupportive.

We make each other feel guilty for posting honest reviews that are less-than-stellar. We tell each other that we are being negative for pointing out grammar or punctuation errors in blurbs. We are encouraged to provide moral support for the most horrendously produced books so as to not hurt someone’s feelings or make them give up on writing. And we do all of this in the name of supporting indie authors.

But what are we providing support for, if not to drive them to excel?

Is the goal to promote and highlight the best of the indie community, or is the goal to encourage every illiterate Gertie to upload a file to Kindle and call herself a published author? Is the goal to showcase the amazing talent found in the indie community, or is the goal to bury the true gems produced under a mountain of mundane drivel? Is the goal to present the reading public with work that rivals the production value and quality of the traditional industry, or is it to foist upon an unsuspecting public every two-bit piece of crap someone wants to sell and make readers wade through a sea of stale urine to find clean water?

If the goal is to support the indie community, then that support must be built on a strong foundation of honesty, critical integrity, and knowledge. If the community is going to thrive both creativity and financially, it must be willing to weed its ranks and stop enabling people just because they have an internet connection. It should not be the goal of the community to sate the egos of ever frail-minded hack that thinks he is the next Stephen King.

We need to start respecting the craft as a skill that requires raw talent, patience, and discipline, not just something anyone can do if they “believe enough.” By wasting so much energy providing emotional support to those who lack the talent, patience, and discipline to produce quality work, we diminish those among us who deserve praise. When we give Jane Doe’s unedited, poorly formatted, thinly plotted book a four or five star review on Amazon in order to support her or because we don’t want to hurt her feelings, we diminish the value of a five star review to those whose talent warrants it.

What is there to motivate someone to excellence if just showing up is all that is required to achieve praise from one’s peers?

Further, the false praise heaped upon those who do not deserve it can lead to more harm down the road. When we continuously offer only positive reinforcement in the name of being nice, we cripple a person’s ability to take an honest stock of his or her abilities. When all of this sympathy praise is not coupled with sales volume or equal admiration from neutral third parties, it can have the opposite impact. Such persons begin to make excuses for their failure. They blame phantom enemies for posting bad reviews. They level accusations at bookstores for refusing to stock their books. They begin to buy into the notion that “the industry” is out to keep them down. This leads them to harden their positions and become less and less likely to try and improve upon their craft.

Six or seven years ago at a writing convention I met a young woman who was rather frustrated with her inability to get her work published. We ended up in the same critique circle, and she grew furious when writers offered her suggestions because “nobody ever complained about my stories!” She had never received anything but positive feedback from friends, family, and teachers. But in truth while her writing was mechanically sound, she lacked the creative artistry of a storyteller. She was a competent, but not a good, writer.

As she zoned out of the circle, she started doodling in her notebook. I happened to look over and was amazed by her talent (you will all remember my recent example of my own lack of artistic ability). What she was producing in a few minutes with a pencil would have taken a lot of artists hours to complete.

I asked her if she had ever thought about taking up art. She enjoyed drawing, but had always dreamed of being a published author and never considered a career in art. I mention her because recently we reconnected online. She now works in graphic design for an ad agency.

The point is that, thanks to the false encouragement from friends and family, she had spend an enormous amount of time on a craft she was not very good at while ignoring one she had a natural gift for. That day in the writing circle when she confronted actual real criticism for the first time, she was forced to take stock of her abilities. She attended the conference expecting praise, because that was all she ever received. Some would claim we discouraged her from following her dream. I would counter what we really did was redirect her dreaming into an obtainable and fulfilling goal.

Not everyone is cut out to be a writer. Just like not everyone is cut out to be a concert violinist or a NASA astronaut or a brain surgeon (I certainly would not want someone with a big dream but no talent opening my skull!). By pretending that all writing is created equal, we do not strengthen the indie community. We dilute it.

That isn’t to say one should make a concerted effort to run off people. But it does mean one should not praise that which does not warrant praise. It means if someone claims they want constructive feedback, give constructive feedback and let the chips fall where they may. If the author lashes out or ignores you, at least your conscience is clean in that you did not enable his or her delusions. And if the author has the talent, patience and discipline to take up you advice, you have helped improve the industry as a whole.

Indie publishing is in the middle of a revolution. Customers no longer care who the publisher is or if a book is produced with digital presses or offset presses. However, if we collectively continue to support and praise those who do not deserve it, it reflects poorly on all of us. With the diminishing influence of traditional industry gatekeepers standing between authors and readers, it falls on us to make sure that the quality of work presented to the public does not sink to the lowest common denominator. That means we need to do less cheering and more mentoring. That means we need to offer fewer consolatory hugs and more smacks upside the head. It means that those who can need to step up and offer criticism when it is warranted and praise only when it is deserved.

The Big Game is upon us. Will we put our best players on the field, or just whoever shows up first?

3 Replies to “If you want to support indies, lead. Don’t cheer.”

  1. That’s the thing, Josh. By giving an honest assessment of work, you WILL discourage the fair-weather writers while helping the ones that have the potential to actually produce something good. Honesty is the greatest weapon in weeding out the ones who will just muck up the works, and the best tool we have to encourage those with actual talent.

  2. For the most part I agree with you, Julie. This is something I’ve been talking about for years when it comes to comics. The indie comic scene is frequently filled with work that is, on multiple levels, simply bad. Yet people often praise the work, because doing otherwise isn’t “supporting the community.”

    I do, however, disagree in that I think we should do everything we can do discourage people from taking up the writer’s pencil. Harlan Ellison has been saying it for years, and Greg Rucka recently echoed Ellison’s sentiments in a recent blog post. Writing is hard. It took me years of work to get to a level that I consider passably competent; I suspect I have a ways to go before I can call my work good. I don’t see discouraging people who want to write as being a bad thing, as it can help to weed out those folks who don’t have the necessary perseverance.

  3. Sooooo true! As indie authors, we have the freedom to produce books however we want, but that doesn’t mean we should cut corners. We made sure to make our books “industry standard” so they wouldn’t fall under the piece-of-crap category. The Pantheon Collective prides ourselves on producing quality books, and we want to keep it that way.