I’ve been involved in varies capacities in the publishing industry for twenty-five years now, as a writer and editor and policy advocate. I never could have imagined the transformations that have occurred in both technology and business models. And yet I repeatedly find myself confused by the use of the term “indie” in the context of authors and publishers. “Indie” is all anyone talks about at writer’s conferences, and there are a plethora of Twitter accounts that claim to be the source for all things “indie.”
So what the heck is “indie,” anyway?
I’ve spent some time exploring what others have written on the subject, and I’ve identified one source of confusion and derived one takeaway that could help the discussion.
The source of confusion is that people use “indie” differently when talking about authors vs. publishers. An “indie” author is often considered someone who has chosen to self-publish. An “indie” publisher is often considered a press that is not one of the Big Six. What this means is that an “indie” author is not published by an “indie” publisher, or to put it another way, an “indie” publisher is not publishing “indie” authors. So if an author published by an “indie” press isn’t an “indie” author, what is she?
The takeaway I’ve derived is that we need to look at authors and publishers together. They are, after all, in the same ecosystem. So to do that, we need to determine what shared criterion we can use to group authors and publishers.
The question for both authors and publishers is whether financial risk is being shared.
This is a critical point in this discussion, because what is “indie” and “not indie” is blurring. The Big Six publishers have dramatically scaled back their marketing, and have also reduced staffing on the editorial side. Some of them are even experimenting with self-publishing divisions, raising some controversy while doing so. On the flip side, many self-published authors are creating actual publishing companies, in which they contract for editorial contributions and visual design work rather than just throwing some draft online as a PDF. In the middle of this spectrum are the many, many smaller presses that have more options at their disposal today thanks to the advent of an ebook market and the reduced expense of print-on-demand technology.
But risk never changes. You either share it or you don’t. I applaud the author who seeks to ensure that her self-published book experiences all of the benefits that would come with a traditional press. But she’s taking on all of the risk; the editor and dust jacket designer are contractors. A publisher–any publisher, even someone who creates their own self-publishing press but then publishes others–is risking capital for work that is not their own. The evil vanity presses that would prey on people’s dreams of seeing their name on a book’s spine assumed no risk.
The distinction of solo vs. shared risk may not matter as much in today’s publishing marketplace, but it is connected to the “gatekeeper” concept, in which readers are more likely to trust a book that has had to get sign-off from a publisher willing to risk capital to publish it. Call it a seal of approval, perhaps. Of course, there are plenty of mediocre books that land publishing contracts, and plenty of excellent books with an author who for various reasons chose to go the self-publishing route. But the “gatekeeper” concept remains an obstacle for self-published authors, particularly in terms of securing reviews in conventional media and placement in conventional bookstores.
Many authors who comment here at The Artist’s Road have been published by traditional presses, both the Big Six and the “indie” ones. Many more authors have self-published. Quite a few have done both, some moving from self-publishing to conventional and others the reverse. I generally don’t think about them in terms of whether they are “indie” or not, nor do I know if it matters.
I do know the use of the term “indie” for presses other than the Big Six far predates its use for self-publishing authors. I get that “self-publishing” may be a tarnished term, and that the use of “indie” for those authors does reflect their independent path. But the wordsmith in me remains frustrated at the muddling of that adjective in the publishing ecosystem.
Am I making too much of the distinction? If not, are there better labels for these authors and publishers? And are we on a glide path to where the distinction won’t matter, even the one about shared risk?