Last weekend I went back to college. Or to campus, at least. And as a fellow English-major grad and I sat on the bank of our college-town river, chatting about (what else?) books, movies, and music, we had one of those epiphanies that campuses tend to inspire: why aren’t indie books cool?
O.K., so this epiphany was more of a question than an answer. But sometimes the best discussions end that way.
In some hipster-filled havens of higher learning, you can’t get by without a passing knowledge of indie music and film. College kids and 20-somethings comb the internet for new bands and take every opportunity to declare, “I knew them before they were cool.”
So, we mused, why isn’t this the mantra for the “booksters” (bookworms + hipsters?) that undoubtedly exist on these campuses, too?
Our conversation began when I told my friend about a manuscript submission I’d read as a Coffee House Press intern this summer. As usual, we did our little English-major dance: “There are just so many books in the world. How can I read them all?” Throw in indie books, and even books that are never published, and it’s quite the mind bomb.
When I say “indie book,” I’m not talking about self-published novels. (Those are a whole different conversation.) I mean books published by small, independent presses, and Coffee House is only one of many. We English majors should be on top of the latest indie books, and to the general onlooker, maybe we are. Sure, most of us reject current bestsellers by John Grisham and Jodi Picoult, but even the contemporary authors we turn to instead—David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen—are published by the country’s largest presses. These writers are incredible, but they’re far from indie.
I read extremely few books by small presses before this year, mostly because I needed to read all of the books people had actually heard of first. But when I decided to try out publishing, I picked up two Coffee House volumes—I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita and Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner—and took a guilt-free break from the big-name books; this was for a job, after all. Long story short, they’re two of the best books I’ve read this year, and I’ve been recommending them to every reader I know.
When it comes to picking up a book by a less publicized author, I understand the reluctance. Heck, I’m still reluctant. Call it risk management. Compared to listening to an album or watching a movie, reading a book takes time, effort, and undivided attention. And if that book is truly obscure, you’re not going to find it in a used bookstore—maybe not even in a library. You’re going to have to BUY it, without the guarantee that it’s going to be good.
Then there’s the issue of credibility. Just this year I read Blue Boy by Rakesh Satyal for a gender studies class. Satyal’s twelve-year-old narrator is warm and entertaining as he comes into his own as a gay youth, but though I loved the book, I couldn’t quite call it “good literature.” It wasn’t until I saw Blue Boy on a shelf at Magers & Quinn this summer that I trusted my own instincts.
Working at Coffee House, though, I’ve realized that trusting your instincts and taste in books is what every editor at every publishing house in the world has to do. Someone—be it a publisher or a reviewer—decides which books you should be reading, so it might as well be you.
But if you’re going to step outside of mainstream lists and reviews, then, as my friend asked, how do you take the next step, to actually find independent books?
My answer: just about the same way you find independent music and movies—word of mouth and the internet. Local bookstores are ideal for seeking recommendations, and Read This!—a collection of recommendations from independent booksellers due out in September—is a great place to start, too. While sites for indie music and movies may seem easier to come by, indie book blogs are everywhere once you look, not to mention sites like indiebound.org.
Even better, publishers preview their books on their own sites every season. If you find a book you like, check out other books from that press, because its mission just might be to publish exactly the kind of books you want to read.
Lucky for me, Minneapolis has a strong indie book community, and, like underground music scenes across the country, your city might have a hidden one, too. So here’s a call to expand your tastes, expand your street cred, and make indie books cool.
Do you think the indie book scene is different from other indie scenes? How do you find indie books in your area? Let us and other readers know by leaving a comment.