Indie is NOT Self Pubbed

I'm a little irritated this morning. There's been a brief discussion on Dear Author and a lengthier one on Twitter about this issue, but I still feel the need to rant a bit.

Self publishing is the bastard stepchild of the book world. The only thing worse according to many is vanity press. Self publishing has a reputation that makes that term synonymous with a slush pile of unedited, poorly written dreck.

Now that publishing is changing, and self publishing is having a few successes, there are some self published authors who are trying to use the term "indie" to refer to themselves. The problem is that the term is already taken. If self pubbers want to use a different term to describe themselves, more power to them. But they shouldn't do it by preempting a term that has been in use in the publishing business for decades.

An indie author is someone signed with an indie press. An indie press is also sometimes known as a small press, but not always. An independent press is to publishing as an independent record label is to the music industry. It's not owned by a large conglomerate which is then owned by an even larger media company. It's a stand-alone business.

Wiki has several pertinent sentences as well:

The terms "small press", "indie publisher", and "independent press" are often used interchangeably, with "independent press" defined as publishers that are not part of large conglomerates or multinational corporation.

and this

The majority of small presses are independent or indie publishers, this means that they are separate from the handful of major publishing house conglomerates, such as Random House or Hachette. The term 'indie publisher' should not be confused with 'self publisher', which is where the author publishes only their own books.

We don't consider an indie music artist as someone putting out records in his or her basement. We consider them musicians signed with an indie label instead of one of the big music companies like Sony or Warner.  The same concept applies with indie authors and indie pubs.

Why does it matter? It matters because conflating indie with self publication confuses the reader. And confusing/deceiving the reader is a bad thing. I don't care how many extra sales you think you'll get, once deceived, a reader will not only NOT buy your book, they'll tell every other person they can not to buy your book.

Indies are true publishing houses. They are a PRESS. They publish more than the work of a single author. They have editors who acquire or reject based on taste and quality. This is an entirely different thing from self publication.

Most writers I know are aware that words have power. How you use them is important. Using a term that means something specific to many people in the industry and pretending it means something else is a choice. And I'm not going to have a very high opinion of those who engage in that practice.

Don't like the self-pub label? Fine. But don't steal a well known industry term and use it to mask what you're really doing.


  1. Here's why I think you're going to lose this argument over the next few years. Aimee Mann didn't like her conglomerate record label, so she formed her own and released her own CDs and downloads. I'm pretty sure she only produces her own music. Is hers an "indie record company"? She's a serious singer-songwriter with an Oscar nomination to her credit.

    By contrast, take a schlock author -- any schlock author. It's not hard to self-publish bad books, so when Schlock's neighbor comes over and says, "Hey, can you do mine?" he does. And then the neighbor's cousin, and Schlock's good friend... They aren't paying him much, but he names his company and suddenly he's "an indie press."

    And if he isn't, why isn't he? Because his stuff is bad? What if it was great? What if he were the Aimee Mann of books? Why does how his book got onto the virtual shelves of Amazon and Barnes & Noble matter?

    If your concern is that there are small publishers out there that deserve some protection from the creeping crud effect of having schlock authors claim that just because they self-published a single book they're now an indie press -- well, I'm with you. But those paradigms are at the polar extremes of a wide range of possibilities. I would argue it's already too late to draw a line that clearly delineates what is an indie press and what isn't.

  2. Well said. I also just discovered the term "micropress" this week. A lot of new terms and definitions in the publishing world these days.

  3. @Magdalen,

    I wouldn't consider Aimee Mann an "indie artist." I would consider her a self-producer.

    As for your second example, if he formed a legit business, then yes, he would be an indie press.

    (Just to clarify, I'm not saying self pub is necessarily bad and indie press good. I am arguing that changing a term to another one already in use because you don't like your current rep is poor form.)

    "Why does how his book got onto the virtual shelves of Amazon and Barnes & Noble matter?"

    It matters to quite a few readers who want to know whether that book has been edited. Whether it has been chosen for publication or someone just hit send. Having a publisher is not a guarantee of quality, but some readers want that curation. Or the illusion of curation.

    Music isn't a perfect analogy because with a musician, you often hear the music before purchase. Books are bought on faith (or a small sample.)

  4. @Penelope,

    I hadn't heard micropress before. I'm filing that one away. LOL

  5. You said it yourself: the illusion of curation. (By the way, "curation" is a good example of using a word in a way other than its meaning. To curate means to care for a collection. It doesn't mean to select or acquire for that collection. "Curation" isn't even in Merriam-Webster. Just saying.)

    Here's the problem: you can rail against the self-publishers for calling their books "indie" but that does absolutely nothing to identify those self-published books that are good and those that are not.

    And we have all picked up books with commercial publisher imprints (this is romance; I don't know any "indie" publishers in romance) and you'd have thought the manuscript never saw a pair of eyes other than the author's.

    Where does any of that get us? If all you want is for people who publish their own books and no one else's to call their books self-published, fine. It'll be a distinction without a difference in the long run, but at least you'll know the term is being used correctly.

    Now, about letting go of "curation"... :-)

  6. @Magdalen,

    I disagree with your issues with curation. OED and Webster add new words every year. Presence there means nothing. As for whether I used it correctly, I'll argue that curation includes selection of the contents of a collection. Looking at a publisher's catalog as a collection, editors do indeed curate (select and care for) the collection.

    As for romance indie publishers, Kensington is one. It isn't a small press, but it is, indeed, independent. It is a stand-alone publisher and not part of a larger media group. Sourcebooks is another one.

    I get that you think the label is meaningless, but I think it's important. If it wasn't, those self publishers wouldn't want to use the indie label so badly.

  7. Amber -- Find me a dictionary (one from a reputable publisher) that has curation in it. It's a front-formation of "to curate," which in turn is a back-formation from "curator." A curator is not specifically the person who acquires for a collection. In fact, that person (or people) may have a special title, "acquisitions editor" or whatever.

    Here's the real problem. You use "curation" to suggest that winnowing out of worthless manuscripts. As I understand it, people believe that publishers use the winnowing process to shield us, readers, from the worthless and substandard. It's this process that is referred to with "curation."

    Only how many crap books have you read recently from commercial publishers, mainstream publishers (I wouldn't consider Kensington or Sourcebooks "indie" and I doubt you'd get them to agree with that label), etc. If you're lucky, it's a small number. I'm not that lucky. So the "curation" process is hardly a foolproof system for preventing crap books.

    Then there's the question, which I believe is getting more interesting, of whether hard-to-categorize-but-good books won't end up being self-published simply because the days of having to go through 60 rejections (Stockett's experience with The Help) are waning. Stockett could have decided to self-publish The Help not because the "curation" process worked but because it didn't. Or rather, it worked in preventing readers from getting their hands on a good book.

    I never say I think the "indie" label is meaningless. And, as a former lawyer, I'm sensitive to the possibility of confusion or misleading advertising. So I agree with you that self-publishers should identify themselves as self-publishers. It's been my experience that most do. I disagree with your implication that most "want to use the indie label so badly." I think that maligns self-publishing writers needlessly.

  8. @Magdalen,

    I'm going to concede the curation issue. I don't consider dictionary presence the definitive test of usage as you seem to do. I mangle English quite frequently, though. My issue with "indie" isn't about unintentional mangling. It's about appropriating a term used by others.

    As for Kensington and Sourcebooks, being indie is a very big part of their identity.

    The first line on Kensington's About Us Page

    "Kensington Publishing Corp. is the last remaining independent U.S. publisher of hardcover, trade and mass market paperback books."

    Paragraph 3 of Sourcebook's "Story"

    "Over the years, Sourcebooks has grown and flourished by following its independent vision, and by publishing extraordinary authors and unique books with readers in mind. Noted for its strong publicity and marketing efforts on behalf of its authors and retailer partners, Sourcebooks stands today as one of the leading and largest independent publishers in North America."

    Indie does not necessarily mean small. But even Kensington does not have the market share and pull of a behemoth like Penguin.

    (I've thought of a 3rd: Bell Bridge Books)

    Perhaps I should have qualified my statement... Of the self published writers who have posted on blogs I have read or on Twitter, the majority seem to be embracing the "new" terminology. It's not something that's quantifiable, but merely an impression. If it weren't a very prevalent trend, I doubt I would have noticed.

    I've seen it on Dear Author. I've seen it on Read React Review. I've seen it all over Twitter. It is the way the wind is blowing, and I don't like it.

    I agree with you. There's nothing inherently wrong with being self published. There's nothing inherently great about a traditionally published book (I've seen some horrible copy editing lately). But readers currently ascribe value to traditional publication hurdles that self publication doesn't have. The use of "indie" as a codename for "self pub" is very misleading and should be stopped.

  9. As you've graciously conceded about "curation" I'll concede that I was wrong about "indie" -- I thought it implied a smaller size, but if all it's meant to convey is a company not owned by CBS, say, then I get it.

    I finally thought of a bright-line test for who's not self-published: if the author has a contract with the publisher. Because someone can create a corporate entity, publish his neighbor's crappy book, and thus be (by your definition) an independent publisher. But he wouldn't form a contract between himself qua writer and himself qua publisher.

    But I still don't see how that helps, given that there'd be a contract between a writer and a vanity press -- and no one could argue that a vanity press-published book has gone through any sort of vetting process.

    I still think there's no reliable correlation between how a book comes to be available to a reader and the quality of the book. Caveat lector!

  10. Janet W: Sorry to be posting so late ... but here you go: I agree with you. You and I and seemingly many others understand what indie publishing is and what self-pubbing is. And what Big 6 pubbing is. No guarantee that big or indie will guarantee a good product but that doesn't mean I wasn't confused when a review site used the indie label to describe a self-pubbed book. It was Dear Author that I'm referring to: there may be others but I saw this in the last few days. Was the message that they're interchangeable terms?

    And I think you've commented over at Read Review React -- I haven't read a self-pubbed book myself but it would seem from the reactions of many that the quality is *ahem* uneven (and by uneven, I mean more uneven even than the Big 6/indie publications). So I find the merging of the words -- indie/self-pubbed to add confusion & not clarity.

  11. This is an interesting discussion. I work for an independent publisher (in fact the largest independent publisher of children's books in the U.S.) and, right or wrong, I don't put the books my company publishes in the same category as those from a digital-only small press. While I'm sure that I can tell the difference between indie and self-pubbed I don't know that anyone who isn't as big of a book nerd as I am would. For instance even the press refers to Amanda Hocking as "indie" rather than "self-pubbed."