Over twenty years ago, a self-publishing company – BookSurge – was born in the US. Five years later the company was acquired by Amazon and came to trade as Create Space (now superseded by Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP)). According to Wikipedia, by the end of 2018 over 1.4 million titles from tens of thousands of authors were available on that platform alone, never mind the thousands more that flowed into the market via services such as Ingram Spark, Smashwords, Lulu and many others. I wonder how many books in Amazon’s catalogue – especially in the Kindle format – are currently tagged as ‘independently published’ (which is essentially Amazon’s phrase for self-published).
In parallel with this exponential expansion, on the 2020 Booker Prize shortlist (of six), four of the titles were produced by publishers either regarded as “Indie” themselves or are members of the Independent Alliance. Indies also dominated the 17-strong longlist.
An “Indie Publisher”? Take your pick:
- “a publisher with annual sales below a certain level or below a certain number of titles published”
- “publishers that are not part of large conglomerates”
- in the US, “publishers with annual turnover of under $50 million, or those that publish on average 10 or fewer titles per year”
- publishers who focus on “genre fiction, poetry or limited-edition books, magazines, or niche non-fiction markets”
Importantly, Indie publishers normally offer pretty much the full range of services as the industry behemoths.
So for an Indie Publisher – alternatively known as the “Small Press” – size and capability is the thing. Undoubtedly there will be a line of some kind where once a threshold is crossed – turnover, number of books, number of employees – being tagged as an Indie might look less ‘genuine’. For example, Faber & Faber is a core member of the Independent Alliance; how many writers would instinctively consider them an “Indie”? According to the Alliance’s website, others members include Atlantic Books, Portobello Books, Canongate, Icon Books, Profile Books, Short Books, Granta Books, Serpent’s Tail, Constable & Robinson, and David Ficking.
Considering both of these channels, the traditional route to publication – find an agent, find a publisher – has therefore ceased to be the only option for over two decades. Whilst it is still the ‘Gold Standard’ for an author, the spectrum now starts at DIY and runs all the way through to the majors. If there is a dividing line of some kind between an Indie and the Conglomerate (for want of a better phrase), what about the dividing line between self-publishers and Indies?
In my own case, I started out as a shameless self-publisher when I discovered KDP. In the distant past I had been through the painful experience of being rejected – quite rightly! – by traditional Agents, then suddenly I’d found a mechanism to get some of my more recent – and hopefully better – work into print. Not only was it an outlet pretty much in my control, but it actually spurred me on; I have never been as prolific as in the last few years. (Some might say that’s a bad thing..!!)
Having become familiar with the system and process (though not using KDP much any longer), in the last 12 months I have used those skills to collaborate with six people get their work into print, people who, like me, would most likely have struggled otherwise – not to mention the 70+ others included in two anthologies I’ve published. What does that make me now? Have I crossed that vague line between “Self” and “Indie”? I don’t think so. I probably have a toe in some kind of purgatory between the two…
But that’s an irrelevance. The key question for many revolves around the merits of self-publication. On the one hand you could argue that it’s a brilliant thing, freeing people to be able to evidence their writing with a tangible (or virtual) book. There’s no feeling like it! It also allows new talent to reach the market and, like other modern-day technology (Facebook, WordPress etc.) gives writers a voice. If in doing so these platforms encourage people to write more – and surely blogs, not publishing, is where that is most prevalent – then isn’t that a great thing?
What do they say: “Never mind the quality, feel the width”?
Here’s where the double-edged sword comes in. If traditional publishing through Penguin or Random House etc. represents the “gold standard”, then self-publishing is surely “bronze” at best. Indeed, there is no standard. Anyone can publish anything; publishing democratised. This must mean, however, that a disproportionate amount of self-published work is not of “a standard” – both in terms of format (layout, proofreading etc.) as well as content. It may also flood the market to such an extent that it can be difficult for a potential reader to see the wood for the trees; how do they know what’s good any more unless they stick to traditional and tried-and-tested publishers? But that doesn’t necessarily mean that all self-published books will be rubbish. Why shouldn’t something self-published be as good as a book from Vintage or MacMillan, or even – very rarely probably – better? In any event, self-publishing is also about pursuing “the dream”, about self-esteem, about fulfilment if not reward, fuelled by the belief that our stuff is good, better than the next person’s…
I suspect we may see the pendulum swing back towards traditional Agents and Publishers (Indie or otherwise) for that very reason. As a reader I don’t want to waste my hard-earned cash, and there are brands / ‘names’ I trust. As a writer, I want people to read my work because I actually think some of it is okay and because having a readership validates me and what I do – which surely points me towards Literary Agents and ‘proper’ publishers. That is part of the dream too.
Conflicted? You might say that. I suspect it’s a growing club…