What is an “Indie” Press?

When anyone can upload a Word .doc and call it an E-book, what are we “independent” from?

Yesterday on Twitter, eBookNoir asked a question:

We had a lengthy back-and-forth on Twitter, but to summarize my thoughts, I certainly hope we don’t let “indie publishing” become a byword for “self-publishing,” because the term occupies a useful space in our industry. We’ll all be worse off if our language loses the distinction.

Bicycle Comics is a small press. To me, that means fewer than half of our books were written by me, Artie Moffa. Sam Teitel wrote two of our books, Carrie Rudzinski wrote one, and dozens of poets contributed to our three Lit Slam anthologies. I write the blog posts and the copyright pages, but those are packaging, not product. A self-publisher is someone who prints mostly or entirely her own writing. When I started Bicycle Comics in 2009, I contributed about 25% of the material for our first book, a four-author collection of poetry and comic strips. Maybe that means we started as a self-publisher. Since then, though, I haven’t written any of our books, and we’ve been solidly in the small press category.

A vanity press is a company that makes books out of an author’s manuscript and sells the complete print run of books back to that author at retail price. The arrangement is not unlike ordering a set of business cards from a local print shop, although the cost of a vanity press is often much higher. eBookNoir says that the term “vanity publisher” is on the way out, and in any event I wouldn’t countenance vanity presses in the indie tent (1).

All self-published authors are “indie” authors, but not all “indie” authors are self-published. Small presses and self-publishers have equal claim to the indie publishing category. They should share it. They share many of the same characteristics and challenges, after all. Most small presses and self-publishers use small teams of freelancers or part-time workers. They often patronize the same print shops and binderies. They often have to negotiate store-by-store for space on retail shelves. And while a few self-published authors and small presses get rich, for most indies, publishing is a labor of love.

The distinction between small press and self-publisher need not be one of quality. A writer with a flair for project management and favor-trading can certainly negotiate the production of good-quality paperbacks. But small presses have a role to play in the indie space, because many talented writers simply don’t have the time, money, or design sensibilities to oversee all parts of a publishing project. Sam Teitel is an insightful and (intentionally) hilarious poet. He is an unusual and (unintentionally) hilarious grammarian. Sam Teitel wouldn’t do well as a self-publisher, but the world is richer because his books are in it.

If eBookNoir is right and “indie” blurs with “self-publishing,” I worry that the kind of schism that has Kindle Direct Publishing authors gleefully decrying Big Publishers as ossified dinosaurs will one day divide two groups whose interests largely align (2). However things shake out for the giants of the publishing world, indies rely on many of the markets they create (Kindle) and technologies they underwrite (Adobe Creative Suite). Meanwhile, it’s the combined purchasing power of small presses and self-publishers (3) that keeps the ecosystem of print shops, niche software companies, and ‘zine festivals going. Bicycle Comics prints our mass-market paperbacks through 48hrbooks and our boutique books through Deschamps Printing. Those facilities would not exist if either of the indie publishers went away. Neither indie would be well-served by an “us vs. them” mentality. If “indie” is short for “independent,” then what are we independent from? We’re independent, to varying degrees, from shareholders or boards of trustees. We’re independent in that we can change our prices, genres, mission, or supply chains without too much hassle. It’s that panoply of technologies and vendors that allows us these options (4).

Big Five publishers lack this independence, and they are pretty easy to spot. Hachette is in a knock-down, drag-out battle with Amazon right now, because Hachette is too big to be independent or nimble (5). If they were to issue a press release stating “Screw it; all our books will be $7 PDF downloads starting tomorrow,” its authors, supply chains, and shareholders would howl.

Likewise, academic publishers, big or small, don’t fit under the “indie” umbrella. They, too, are often labors of love, with a few profitable exceptions, but they answer to scholarly standards and operate at the pleasure of the college’s board of trustees. Academic publishers are the last major market segment still likely to own their own printing presses; indies can’t afford them and the Big Five outsourced such labor-intensive cost centers a decade ago. Small press publishers, while perhaps harder to root for than solo self-publishers, have similar needs and goals. We face the same changing media landscape, scarred though it may be by the ongoing clash of larger players. The “indie” label, I hope, is something we can both rally under.  

Updated March 2015 with new paragraph break and a link to a useful blog post over on Jane Friedman’s site.


(1) Outfits such as Author Solutions (no link, no way) are industry pariahs, but there is nothing inherently awful about a vanity press; Apple’s iPhoto Books are a reasonable example of a cash-up-front vanity publisher. As I tweeted to eBookNoir:  

There’s no stigma to paying extra money to get customized goods and services. Bespoke suits, upgrade packages on cars, or fancy business cards aren’t disparaged. The problem with vanity press is the number of customers who pass themselves off as authors. The pomp of “I’ve just been published” instead of “I’ve just ordered a set of custom books.” The stigma was never intrinsic to the “Vanity” business model. The stigma comes from dishonesty, which has always been stigmatized, and rightfully so.

(2) the Gigaom article discusses “self-publishers” vs. “traditional publishers,” but I think small presses belong more with self-publishers than with the Big Five. I worked for six years at a Big Five (back then it was Big Six) publisher before I started Bicycle Comics. The Bicycle Comics dining room office bears scant resemblance to Pearson’s six floors in Boston’s tony Back Bay.

(3)I don’t often see the term mid-market publisher or medium-sized press, but for a start I’d say that such publishers have multiple editorial and production teams, and they (usually) have a specific contact person at major distributors. If everyone on staff works at least a little bit on every title, then that’s probably still a small press, not a mid-market press.

(4) Some of us may not be independent of Amazon. If you’re enrolled in KDP select, for example, then I’d argue you’re not really an “indie.” You’re in some new space for which the proper nomenclature hasn’t yet emerged.

(5) Many of the KDP authors watching from the sideliness aren’t as nimble or independent as they flatter themselves; if the Big Five were to fall, do they really think Amazon’s terms would continue to be so generous?

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