Infinite shades of grey
Michael Marshall Smith - who is both published and self-published - argues that the market, rather than notions of the better way to approach it, will carry on determining writers' successes.A characteristic feature of the internet is that it tends to polarise discourse. There's little allowance for subtlety. It's all black or white, and generally involves shouting. This is partly down to economic pressures like the fact it's much easier to drive page views (and sponsorship revenues) through extreme positions. It's also related to the internet enabling people to blurt out what they think (or think they think) without the usual moderating factors like other human beings being around to bring raised eyebrows, contrary utterances or simple reasonableness to the discussion. In real life you generally take a breath before you speak. On the web, often that step gets missed out.
A classic example of this is the current online spat between the new generation of web-savvy self-published authors, and those who've followed the more traditional route of earning the attention of a major publisher. Sue Grafton put the cat among the pigeons by suggesting that "indie" writers were being lazy in trying to leapfrog the conventional process. The indies in turn savaged her for being elitist, and/or failing to appreciate or respect how new technologies opened doors for people who either couldn't, or didn't want, to follow the more traditional route to finding a readership. Writers on both sides, I suspect, merrily spent a day failing to write what they were supposed to be writing, while bellowing at each other through the monochrome megaphone of the internet.
As ever, the truth lies in the grey area between the two positions. There certainly are long-term writers, people who've earned the right to call themselves authors (and I agree with Grafton that this is something you can't just declare yourself to be simply because you have access to word processing software and websites upon which to throw substandard material) who are now exploring new ways of publishing, in a positive way: either to reach new markets, or to escape the restrictive demands and needs of the publishers. I've done this myself, with short stories. Big publishers don't like the form much, but readers do: so why not distribute directly through the internet? The indie market is, however, unquestionably also littered with people who aren't prepared to put in the hours and years of working on their craft, withstanding rejection, and developing the other and sometimes tedious and non-obvious skills required to stand a chance of being taken seriously as a writer. Chancers, rather than writers.
In the end, as always, the vagaries of fate and the marketplace will determine who succeeds - and trust me, as a lifer novelist who's mainly still following the old skool publishing route, those factors scare me a lot more than the notion that there are some plucky individuals out there rolling up their sleeves and doing it in the barn. No professional writer is "afraid" of the new indies - this is a silly myth put about by people still trying to find their way, and looking for an old guard to kick against. The reality is that the only meaningful competition for a writer is with themselves, with the endless struggle to be better, and with the challenge of encouraging sustained interest from readers. So long as indie writers understand this then you can remove the "indie" tag from their name, regardless of how, when or where they publish.
If you're a writer, then you should write - and stop worrying about what the other person is doing. The only true enemy is the blank page, and the best subject matter of all is the world's endless fascinating shades of grey.
Michael Marshall (Smith) is a novelist, screenwriter and short story writer. Since the first of his 10 novels was published in 1994, he has won recognition, sales and international accolades. His fourth novel, The Straw Men, a global bestseller, represented a departure from the genre fiction of his earlier novels. The Intruders is currently in development with BBC Worldwide in LA. His most recent novel, Killer Move, was published in 2011 in paperback in the US and in hardback in the UK by Orion.