Thursday, October 8

Prestigious Institutions: Always In Your Best Interest?

By Julie Musil, @juliemusil

Part of the Indie Author Series  

I’m reading a fascinating book--David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell. The subtitle says a whole lot: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Yes, it tells the familiar story of David and Goliath, but it takes a different approach. It tells how the very thing that makes a giant a giant might also be their weakness.

In one chapter, the author tells the story of the Impressionist artists who birthed Impressionism. Wikipedia describes Impressionism as “a 19th-century art movement that originated with a group of Paris-based artists whose independent exhibitions brought them to prominence during the 1870s and 1880s.”

The moment I read this section, I recognized many similarities between the Impressionists and indie authors.

Impressionists sought the approval of prestigious institutions

David and Goliath tells the story how the Impressionists spun their wheels trying to get their art accepted by the Salon, the art exhibit of their time. When one artist didn’t make it to the Salon, he committed suicide. The note he left behind said, “The members of the jury have rejected me. Therefore I have no talent.”


How many indie authors have banged their heads against invisible gates, trying to get past gatekeepers? It’s a natural desire to seek the approval of the top tier in any field.

Acceptance came at a cost

Some of the Impressionists were able to get their art displayed in the Salon, but they weren’t at eye level. Instead, they were placed high on the walls near the ceiling, practically invisible. Halfway through their run, those pieces were exiled to a dark room at the back of the building. Gladwell writes, “...acceptance by the Salon came with a cost: it required creating the kind of art that they did not find meaningful...”

How many authors have been given the golden ticket--a publishing deal with a major publisher--only to be disappointed by the lack of respect and attention they felt their book deserved? Or disappointed with artistic decisions made by editors and cover designers? Or binding contracts that tied up their digital rights?

Prestigious institutions may not be in our best interest

The Impressionists faced a decision: “...keep knocking on the Salon door or strike out on their own and stage a show just for themselves.” Well, we know that they struck out on their own and made history. “...the choice between the Salon and a solo show wasn’t a simple case of a best option and a second-best option. It was a choice between two very different options, each with its own strengths and drawbacks.”

Many authors face this same decision: do I continue pursuing the traditional path, or do I strike out on my own? Only the author can make that choice for themselves. I’m glad that Hugh Howey, and others like him, didn’t publish traditionally. They wrote their books their way, and didn’t wait for someone else to tell them their work was good. They’ve honed their craft, taken chances, and made their own history.

I’ll leave you with this quote from David and Goliath: “We strive for the best and attach great importance to getting into the finest institutions we can. But rarely do we stop and consider--as the Impressionists did--whether the most prestigious of institutions is always in our best interest.”

What say you, writers? Do you think the prestigious institutions are always the best way to go? Why or why not? I’d love to hear your opinion. 

Julie Musil writes from her rural home in Southern California, where she lives with her husband and three sons. She’s an obsessive reader who loves stories that grab the heart and won’t let go. Her Young Adult novels, The Summer of Crossing Lines and The Boy Who Loved Fire, are available now. For more information, or to stop by an say Hi, please visit Julie on her blog, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

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  1. So much to think about - 'banging one's head against invisible gates' captures it exactly right

    1. Bonnie, so true, right? At least these days we have a choice. That wasn't always the case.

  2. I do agree with your points in general, Julie, but lack of money does in the way of that ideal, and I do feel until there are ways to better democratize access to decent freelance editors, and ESPECIALLY illustrators and/or cover designers, this "New Normal" of indie publishing will leave too many authors, myself included, behind.

    Yes, I know there's DeviantArt, crowdfunding and all that, but there does come a point where you don't want to turn to that all the time, or at least not have to ask for so much of your (ideal community) upfront.

    Plus, the first time crowdfunding as an "unknown" adds a whole new layer of challenges. Even Bestselling authors aren't guaranteed to succeed.

    Laura Numeroff (The "If You Give A Mouse A Cookie" lady) had to persist on Kickstarter TWICE before her book project sold at the start of 2015, and now it's available to her ever-growing legion of fans, old and new, and I was proud to be part of that campaign.

    If even she STRUGGLED (she has the kind of clout, connections, trust, readership and lifetime sales most authors only dream of) than someone like me, whose first book took nearly a decade to sell, and because my press has limited resources, getting the cover and illustrations my book needs is on me, and while I'm grateful for the creative autonomy, I can't fund it all myself, so I'm turning to crowdfunding, and it's hard to know how much to ask for that's reasonable without being insurmountable, and thinking of rewards for backers that are desirable, but realistic.

    Example, you launch crowdfunding campaign to hire an illustrator for a 200 page graphic novel, not counting any "Extras or stretch goals" you need $9,000 (USD) and for the sake of this example you get that funding goal met, the graphic novel is completed and up for sale.

    Again, for the sake of this example, it does well enough that the next book (an MG novel) you crowdfund that needs a different artist than the first one, and they charge $10,000 USD. A lot more than the graphic novel, BUT the sales from the graphic novel (minus taxes and all that) allow you ask for LESS this time, instead of the full 10K, you only ask for 2-5K (USD), because you can cover the rest, and possibly get a piece of art done to use for the campaign, and use the success of your last campaign as leverage to show you complete what you start and the end result is what you say it will be.

    Granted this is an idealistic example, but this best explains my point, and I hope it helps me not sound too much a "Negative Nicky" here.

    Author Jami Gold and I discussed this on her blog post touching on indie or hybrid authors finding cover designers who don't necessarily live "Money is no object" lives.

    1. Taurean, I understand your points. Yes, it does cost money to indie publish. I wrote a whole post on how to publish with little to no money. I'm not a fan of crowdfunding or that sort of thing, but that's just me. We're creative types, right? So let's get creative! Trade with students, or something along those lines.

      I won't pretend to have all the answers, but you're can think of something to make it work.

      No matter what, it's nice to have a choice. That wasn't the case before.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Thanks for replying, Julie,

      I looked into many options, and for me, crowdfunding's my best option, as just saving what little money to my name would take too long, but we'll agree to disagree here.

      I'm glad you and Jami (who I mentioned above in my orig. comment) found ways to launch your author careers. I'm still feeling my way through on these issue.

      Yes, it's nice to have choices, but if you can't afford most of the "choices" it doesn't always feel liberating for you and your specific situation. Again, don't mean to sound negative.

      I'm certainly not giving up.

      But I was just speaking to something that's not always as straightforward to deal with in my experience, which is inherently different from yours, Jami's, Janice's and my own.

  3. Fine points, Julie, and a great post: you chose a terrific example with the Impressionists.

    I'm actually about to release a new novel, a supernatural (or, to be precise, black magic) thriller. A writer friend who knows my work and who's with a midsize trad house that covers dark.fantasy etc. offered to introduce and hook me up directly with his editor, bypassing the slushpile altogether. Now there's temptation. LOL

    Since I'm hoping that this might be my breakout novel, the offer was intriguing, seductive even -- if they liked it, it would mean an advance, no need to self-promote, copyedit and proof and design cover, and so on.

    And yet, as I thought about it, I realized that after all the work I've done thus far on publishing my first few books and establishing a small brand, I'm not prepared to give up the control, not to mention the fat slice of royalties should the book break through. I may *never* make it as a writer, but are my chances better with a trad house? I doubt it. Not at least at this point.

    I think if one's going to accept a trad pub deal at all, the time to do it is when you're successful enough to negotiate your own terms rather than to take whatever they give you (which may actually *hurt* your chances, if it's a poor cover and minimal marketing).

    Indie rules!