What the Heck is “Indie” Publishing?

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?

Ugh.

All of this "indie" confusion is making my head hurt. I need a zen garden.

All of this “indie” confusion is making my head hurt. I need a zen garden.

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.

Yes. More zen rocks, please.

Yes. More zen rocks, please.

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?

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

10 Responses to “What the Heck is “Indie” Publishing?”

  1. Hmmm…what about the “indie” author just being known as an entrepreneur? Granted, it’s a tough spell, but I think it captures the spirit of being an “indie” author. Thoughts?

    • Certainly most indie authors are entrepreneurs, at least those looking for readers. I’m in a biography writing group, and there are a couple of people in it researching their family history who only intend to share the book with family members. But that is an outlier. Few people would go through the effort of writing a book and not want it to find readers, and indie authors embrace the entrepreneurial spirit of growing a market.

  2. Before I self published, I did the same research you did — so I could understand the two indies. Now that I do, I use both indie author and self published to describe myself, and to be honest it depends on the audience I’m talking to. Because I think you’re right (although I don’t feel this way myself) that there’s still a stigma attached to the term self published. Since the “indies use” is usually context sensitive, I don’t really have a problem with using the same word for both publishers and authors — and don’t forget about bookstores.

    • Good to hear from you, Julia. I like what you say about context usually resolving it. I can see that. I also know this post was triggered in my mind yesterday when someone tweeted a link to a post on succeeding in indie publishing and when I started reading it I realized it was a primer on self-publishing.

      Thanks for mentioning bookstores. I did think about independent bookstores, but I think pretty much everyone knows what you’re talking about with them, and they’re not necessarily confused with authors and publishers. But they are an important component of the ecosystem, and also are undergoing severe changes (mostly bad in terms of competition but also good in terms of finding ways to broaden their sales audience online).

      Thank you for providing your perspective as an indie author. If you’re interested in writing a guest post about your experience shoot me an email.

  3. Thanks for shedding some much needed light on this indie topic, Patrick! A worthwhile exploration for authors🙂

  4. I always thought “Indie” was a genre and simply dismissed it entirely. Thank you for giving me some very valuable insight. I now have a better understanding of the word/term and a lot of things make more sense to me🙂 Aloha!

  5. For me, independent has always meant “not through the highrises” as it were, or “not of the established channels.”. It was good for music when record labels were no longer the sole gatekeepers, and I think it’s been good for publishing as well. Independent films can become blockbusters; they, too, just take a less traditional route. That’s the key, I think. We have established institutions and systems that evolve over time, and that evolving happens through “indie.”

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  1. How to self-publish your novel | Write on the World - September 26, 2013

    […] What the Heck is “Indie” Publishing? (artistsroad.wordpress.com) […]

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