Self-Publishing or Indie – What’s in a Name

The playing field of publishing has tilted, but it hasn’t leveled by any means. The vast majority of books sold still involve the cutting down of a tree and the passing through of some very tiny gates. But it is has tilted, and if you step back, and make a little director’s square with your hands, you’ll see that it is skewed in favor of those who understand the digital world.

There is no doubt that some of the Big Six (BS) will alter course to swing their mammoth tankers towards the unchartered waters of the social consumer. Others will order the champagne to flow and tell the orchestra on the poop deck to play louder. What shape the industry will take is anybody’s guess, but if you’re looking for direction, Mike Shatzkin’s blog is a good place to go. He has a very good piece with Random House CEO, on transitioning from B2B to B2C.

But this post isn’t about the calamity,or not, that BS are facing. Rather it hopes to delve into something of a different nature. An insecure, abused orphan, lacking in confidence, and reaching its adolescent years suffering from an identity crisis; Self Publishing.

It’s a well-known fact that the label, self-publishing, carries with it a stigma. The stigma that once you’ve self-published you’re finished as a writer. A stigma born of the past,  and carefully nurtured by those with a vested interest in the present. The BIG argument from the BS train is that the slush pile is being put on-line. For a near hysterical diatribe from an extremely arrogant and myopic viewpoint, from a lady who’s clearly suffering her own identity crisis (“I’m the man”) go here, feel free to flame comment. Guess what, they’re right. The slush pile is being put online. So what. I can reject something just as quick as you can, however unlike you, I don’t think that I am the sole arbiter of taste, nor do I believe that I am unique.

We’re reliably informed by many agent blogs that the vast majority of “real books” by “real authors” (i.e. pure BS), never earn out their advances and end up being returned. OK, so an agent chose those books and BS editors squabbled over them, the marketers marketed and the sales people sold; and then the public didn’t buy them. I can do that :-).

There is a lot of crap out there from both Trad and Indie publishing. Both parties are aware of this and neither has a solution. BS say the slush is going on-line, Self Publishers (SP) are saying we need to change our name from SP to Indie Publishers (IP) to help distinguish between good Indie and bad Indie. Why? Because self publishing has that stigma and it isn’t bleeding palms. How do you change the perception that something published by an individual is at least the equal of something published by a corporation. For a quick and sad (in my opinion) look at how decisions are made about books have a read over here.

You don’t. The market will decide. What has changed is that the market is now a lot bigger and this is a good thing.

The good stuff will float to the top. Amazon‘s way of doing this is via reviews – user driven reviews. Goodreads and LibraryThing are two other sites where readers write reviews on books. And it works. Yes there are the “release reviews” which are impossible to avoid or to police, (hey publishers print “his latest bestseller” on the front of books which haven’t been released yet), but if the author hasn’t done their work in marketing then that’s all the reviews that author is going to get.

If the author has done their work and spread the message that their new book is available, then some people will sample, some will buy, and the reviews will add up. Some will be mean-spirited, I haven’t had my coffee yet, 1 star for you type reviews, with the reviewer not even having read the book (hey, that happens at agencies too); other reviews will be well thought out by passionate readers who have read past work by the author and didn’t like or liked the work for reasons which they point out in the review.

There are two broad assumptions in the BS world. One – Self-publishing is OK for niche non-fiction (thanks for that, I’ll rush to print with my in-depth study of the impact of pet rocks upon the modern American Psyche); and Two; that self publishers are a lazy lot who have no idea about editing, cover design, and (here’s the cruncher) what sells. I’ve read enough blogs and seen enough evidence to know that the first assumption is simply BS, and the second is just plain rude.

Excluding my time (in my day job I’m charged out at US$3,000 a day), I’ve spent about USD6,000 on getting my book, TAG, to where it is. The cover and copy editing remain to be finished, and when they’re done I’ll have spent a total of about USD8,000 on the book. Then I’ll put it up for sale on Amazon and Smashwords. I consider every penny that I’ve invested to be money well spent. The vast proportion went on developmental editing; which for me was a crash course in writing. I don’t have the time to take an MFA, and whilst books about how to write, help, there is nothing like having a professional critique of your own work to advance.

My publishing goal is simple: put out a great product. That means an attractive cover, no typos, and a well-written, hopefully entertaining story. How hard is that? Damn hard, but it can be done. Will the market like the book? Who knows? But if they don’t, it won’t be because of errors in the text or a crappy cover, ergo laziness. Maybe the writing isn’t ready for prime-time, but I can get feedback on that from an audience. As opposed to trying to decipher months of silence interspersed with snippets of “I didn’t fall in love with it.”

What happens if it doesn’t sell? I’ll write another one. I’ve already started, quite some time ago, about a month after the first one. If that doesn’t sell? OK, I’ll write another one. My writing goal is to have what I write read by people, lots of them, and I’d like those people to pay what I write. That is verification. Each time I write I get better. Each time I publish I’ll get better. Each time I read reviews and see feedback I’ll get better. The difference is that I’ll use the market to tell me what they like and what they don’t.

From my perspective the business model offered by BS, and the model offered by IP (note: the acronym for Indie Publishing is also commonly used for Intellectual Property; whereas the acronym of Big Six… well I’m sure you get it) boils down to one significant difference and one thing only. No, it isn’t money, (if it does sell) you stand to make much more with IP.

The only reason that you should consider going with BS is because, for now, they still have the reach. They can put your book on a shelf. All the rest you can do as well, if not better, than Trad. Why? Because BS is firing a whole bunch of talented people and those people are going to want to eat. The shingles will be hung and in some instances they’ll say, I know you can’t afford me so I’ll take a cut, let’s say 20% of that 70% you get from Amazon – deal? Deal.

People don’t buy books from publishers. They buy them from authors. In the past this meant that you had to get on a bookshelf and the bookshelf was a monopoly. Now a portion of that bookshelf is electronic. Your average, serious, Indie author knows their customers better than any of the BS. How many of the BS actually know who is behind the Bookscan numbers. How many email addresses, blogs and facebook pages are tucked away in their CRM databases? I suspect, given that one CEO of a BS recently claimed that the high cost of ebooks was justified due to the high cost of digital warehousing (I’m not making this up), that the answer is, “More champagne Harper, and do get the orchestra to play a Waltz.”

  • Excellent article! Sturgeon’s law applies in all markets. I’ve published in both Trad and ‘e’, and I like ‘e’ better, though I’m making less money. I’m getting direct feedback not something two years after my project is finished.

    I love my fans and I’m having a blast, even if I am poorer in cash. The big problem I have is marketing. I want to write, not market, since I might have gone into marketing in the first place and made some money, but doing it myself means I have to learn to think that way, at least part of the time.

    Thanks again!

  • I’ve gone with small publishers and DIY. If DIY is a permanent X across my name, then I haven’t noticed it. IMO, my DIY books are just as good as my small publisher books and most of the BS books. They just didn’t hit a note with a publisher. Now, however, I am out of the gutter and with a couple of fantastic epublishers.

    Typos? My gosh. We’ve all seen a ton of them from the BS. What makes readers think they’re getting a perfect product just because a big publisher logo is on the spine?

    The grand thing about ebooks, particularly Kindle, is the sample download. It costs nothing. Try a few pages, then decide whether you’d rather pay $9.99 for a famous author or $2.99 for an excellent DIYer.

    There are turkeys in every publishing venue. That’s a fact.

  • It could well be that the old demarcations will fade away, and relatively quickly. An analogy is software applications. With the iPhone and Android, people don’t care who wrote the software, whose logo is on it, as long as it’s something they want and like. If it’s a free app or costs a few bucks or costs a lot, its distribution will depend on its quality, and quality is determined by what people will accept. The Big Six will be around, like Microsoft and Oracle, but the market is expanding, allowing others into it. My own two cents? ‘Indie’ sound betterb than Self-anything,

  • @ Shirley – yes marketing is the problem, however as with most problems it also represents opportunity. I think that as the market develops the issue of whether a book has been trad or self published will cease to be an issue. What will be an issue is how these books are marketed. I think it somewhat ironic that one of the iconic avenues for publishing success is Oprah. Why is this so? She’s got the microphone…

    @Tom I’m not sure that Big Six will be around. I think this because contracts usually have a time period on them. When mid-list, even top-end authors realize the reach, ROI, and freedom in Indie and the ebook medium I can see BS losing too much money in too short a time. Skyscrapers in New York are expensive. Printed books will be with us for a long time to come, perhaps forever, but three factors will (are) severely going to impact.
    1. Convenience and speed
    2. Cost
    3. Environment

    I’d say 1 &2 are a given. 3 is still up in the air (lip service doesn’t count as action) but future gens like my 8 year old niece who reads voraciously are going to question cutting down a tree when it could be read without doing so…

  • Great post S.G. Great references and a well balanced take on the topic. Personally, I’m with you on the indie side of things and agree that there’s some stigma to overcome. However, the response I’m getting with my first novel makes me think people are as ready for indie literature now as they were for indie music 20 years ago.

    And as for the reach of the BS. I think they’ve even outlived their usefulness in that arena. With the limited print run model they’re using, writers are given a very short window to build an audience before they meet the likes of the remainder bin. It’s true, they’ll get you into Barnes & Nobel, but who do you know who buys books at Barnes & Nobel? Last I heard they were looking like a homeowner with a termite problem and forsale sign on the front lawn.

    And now, I’m going to go leave a comment on that self-pub-hater’s post. I swore I wasn’t going to, but I have one thing that I must say.

    Thanks again S.G. for a great post and the really great references. If you’re on twitter pls find me @WandaShapiro.

  • RF

    Strange. I followed your link to “a near hysterical diatribe from an extremely arrogant and myopic viewpoint, from a lady who’s clearly suffering her own identity crisis” and all I found was a rational, well-reasoned opinion piece that states the truth.

    The simple fact is that most of what purports to be “self-published” (or “indie”, as the latest euphemism appears to be) is actually vanity-published: the product of outfits like AuthorHouse, PublishAmerica, XLibris, et al. And I regret to say that “unedited slush” is exactly what their output is. Of course, that doesn’t mean that everything they issue is bad or even badly presented: just like the slush pile, a small proportion of their books are brilliant, a considerable number are competent if plodding and uncommercial, and quite a few are barely literate drivel.

    As a case in point, when I was promoting my new (commercially published) novel at the London Book Fair, I had a good look at the AuthorHouse stand. The books were, by and large, shocking. One stands as the worst thing I have ever seen in printed form, and I found myself wondering how AuthorHouse’s staff sleep at night: did none of them have the decency to dissuade the author from investing a thousand pounds or so of his own money in transforming this rambling drivel into a book – as opposed to, say, taking a course on creative writing (or maybe just basic English to start)?

    Of course, a clear distinction must be drawn between self-published and vanity-published books (although this site signally fails to draw it, having included a review of AuthorHouse among others). Genuinely self-published authors are generally a smarter and more entrepreneurial breed than their vanity-published counterparts, so please take my comments as applying broadly to the latter (although the issue of it being almost impossible to make volume sales applies to both categories).

    But any suggestion that the quality – in terms of writing, editing, production and cover design – of commercially published, self-published and vanity-published books is roughly equal is absurd. Those works that have been accepted by trade publishers have met a certain minimum standard of quality (which doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re brilliant, merely competent and commercial). Vanity- and self-published books have not.

    This premise is easily tested: simply visit the website of any vanity publisher and read excerpts from some of the books. Now visit your local bookstore and do the same with any random commercially published books on display.

    QED, and no matter how many readers here choose to howl down the cited blog post, most of its statements are nothing more or less than the truth.

  • Hi RF.

    First, I must step up in SG’s defense. I think his use of the word arrogant was valid. The post referenced did carry with it plenty of truth but the author revealed her lack of knowledge regarding self-publishing when she referred to the boxes of books in the garages of self-published authors. If someone thinks self-published authors (today) have boxes of books in their garage then that person knows nothing about the topic or the business model. And to speak of something with such certainty when one knows so little is, I’m sorry to say, a bit arrogant. I also think it’s a bit strange to refer to yourself as “then man” 8 times in a single blog post.

    That being said, I’m an indie author, and to me, indie is not merely a euphemism. What indie is, is a business model. Indie anything involves leveraging available technology and cutting out the middlemen to bring a product, art, or service, directly to an audience or market. And indies across industries have been doing that and building audiences and markets by bringing a new level of quality to otherwise diluted and homogenous markets. This applies to indie filmmakers and musicians who get the majority of the indie respect, but it applies equally in indie fashion, indie crafts, indie software development, etc. And let me tell you, indies all over are laughing all the way to the bank these days.

    It’s true that writers are only beginning to leverage the indie business model, but we don’t do it because we’re crazy or stupid or overly rejected by the man. Me personally, I’ve never been rejected by the man.

    Also, I’d like to comment on the following statement you made: “But any suggestion that the quality – in terms of writing, editing, production and cover design – of commercially published, self-published and vanity-published books is roughly equal is absurd.”

    I agree that the majority of self-published books are utterly wretched. But please keep in mind that there is a small percentage of writers who are going indie and bringing a new level of quality and professionalism to the self-publishing arena.

    I’ll put my novel (Sometimes That Happens With Chicken) up against any book published by a tradition publisher large or small. I don’t usually make such bold statements, and I don’t ever toot my own horn in blog comments, but I went indie with my first novel and since my website launched in February, I’ve been compared to Hemingway, Salinger, Burroughs, Hitchcock, Marquez, and Calvino. One reader said my novel, “…blazes beyond what we have come to expect from modern fiction…” And when people who have seen self-published books look at the paperback edition of my novel, they say things like, “Wow! This doesn’t look self-published at all.”

    So yes, the majority of self-published books cannot be compared to commercially published books, but there are a few and please don’t forget us.

    Hope your novel is flying off the shelves and good luck with your next one.

  • @RF – I’m not surprised that you found that incorrect article to be the truth, because you’re about as out of touch with reality as she was.
    Your comment seems to lump self-publishing in with Vanity. Very old argument and, yes, I did read, “a clear distinction must be drawn between self-published and vanity-published books”; and right after that you lump the two together together then.
    “But any suggestion that the quality – in terms of writing, editing, production and cover design – of commercially published, self-published and vanity-published books is roughly equal is absurd. Those works that have been accepted by trade publishers have met a certain minimum standard of quality (which doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re brilliant, merely competent and commercial). Vanity- and self-published books have not.” – you need to get out more. So Seth Godin, Robert Walker, David Morrell, Joe Konrath – none of their writing can be compared to “commercially published books?”
    You paint with too broad a brush, and a little sloppily. Generally you missed the point of my article; which was that there is a lot of crap in self-publishing; but rather than let a few people decide what is and is not “ready” – let the market decide.
    Anyway RF if you want to debate, stick your real name on a post and we’ll go from there.

    • RF

      Please read my comments again, this time a little more carefully. I clearly distinguish between vanity- and self-publishing at every stage of my argument, and in fact berate this site for conflating the two (why is a website called the “Self Publishing Review” reviewing AuthorHouse?).

      No disrespect to Seth Godin, Robert Walker, David Morrell or Joe Konrath, but the fact is that much of what is commonly referred to as self-published is actually vanity-published, with this site (as I have stated) helping to create the confusion. This does genuinely self-published authors no favours, as most – though admittedly not all – vanity-published books are not anywhere near commercial standard.

      Of course people should be able to decide for themselves what they wish to read; but without adequate trade distribution for self- and vanity-published books, they’re not going to be able to walk into a bookshop and make that decision.

      As for wanting to debate with you: I’m sorry, but you are increasingly coming to resemble the old joke about the well-balanced man who had a chip on each shoulder, so I think we’ll just agree to disagree. (In any case, I’m sure not we actually disagree on anything particularly fundamental.)

      Your final snipe about me posting anonymously – the oldest trick in the book from discussion forum regulars who lack anything of substance to say – loses you a fair bit of credibility in my eyes (as I’m sure my choosing to post anonymously does in yours). Anyway, if you genuinely feel that my posting anonymously invalidates whatever arguments I put forward, you are free not to engage with me further.

      The best of luck to you in your self-publishing career, but I really do feel you might achieve more in life if you lost some of the defensive chippiness.

  • A few people here need to cool off. You’re saying substantially the same things from differing perspectives and stances. You’re also talking past one another.

    Each book is suigeneris, but you’re each lumping them into categories that overlook their distinctive personalities and generative impulses. Moreover, in the case of the named vanity presses, you’re blaming essentially naive authors for the transgressions of venal and cynical businesspeople working off a model designed to treat vulnerable wannabes as personal ATMs. Not everyone who dreams of writing a book, then writes something they mistake for a book is really a guilty party here. All of us listen for feedback–none more than tyros–and if the feedback is bogus, any of us can get screwed by it, none more than tyros.

    (With compassion for Henry, I’d love to see at least the most odious vanity presses banned from advertising here. Ads on a site like this are at least implied testimonials.)

    We have ascribed evil intent to what we call vanity publishing. I just did so. Yet there was a time when I, a many-times published author and small-press owner, took authors’ money to produce books that I at least felt might do well if given decent editing, proofing, typesetting, cover art, promotion, etc. In a few cases, those books did better than my own–over many years and numerous printings and editions. Others bombed, sometimes because I loved the book too much to maintain my business perspective, other times because writers are really crap about taking advice and following directions. But no book had less than professional guidance with respect to the things any publisher can control, mainly tough editing and production values. I did all this because, right after I published my first two books, I began to receive queries from everyone in my genre with a manuscript or an idea for a book, and I frankly didn’t have the money to publish all the good ones I came across in, yup, my slush pile. Several wannabe authors I met this way, and published with their money or my own, have written multiple books, some published for big bucks by big publishers. I like to think, and they like to tell me, that I discovered them and, more important, taught them how to be tough-minded professional writers.

    We all have to start somewhere. I started when Big Publishing was all there was. Some here are starting with tools and opportunities I could never have dreamed of when I began or for long decades moving forward in my profession. I have no regrets. Why would I have? If, on the other hand, it takes being knocked senseless and impoverished by a =bad= vanity house to wake a rube sufficiently to get some real help–or quit–then that’s what it will have taken.

    Meantime, here on this site, all we can do is learn, teach, help, or out-and-out mentor. Rancor is pointless and unproductive. So is the solid and completely justified (right?) sense of superiority each of us brings to this particular table.

  • These discussions always seem to end up revolving around the poles of vanity/slushpile versus the Borders New Arrivals table. A much more apt analogy to me is the historical role of the small/independent presses. These have long published quality products which find their way into the market via such large distributors as Ingram and Baker & Taylor. It is a difficult and not profitable undertaking, usually a labor of love, and in these respects as well I think quite comparable to the current efforts of indie author/publishers. The small press books generally fare best on the local level and in small independent bookstores where the personal touch carries some weight. Social networks – and websites such as this one – may perform a similar role for indie ebooks.

    Distributors like Smashwords will, I think, find their way into the larger ecosystem, which I fully expect to remain dominated by a handful of large players, for several reasons. Linux proposed a similar ‘revolutionary’ moment and yet Microsoft continues to dominate, despite being way more expensive, insecure and unreliable. The music industry remains controlled by the same small number of big labels, long after their demise was prematurely celebrated. Also, these companies are part of the giant media conglomerates that set the cultural trends and narratives. Deals will be made with the distributors (from the monster Amazon to the emerging Smashwords-types), fitting everything into place.

    There’s no need to panic. The new boss will look very much like the old boss, nostrathomas predicts, and that’s okay. If you like small presses, you will like indie authors, and people will seek them out and find them through supportive sites and networks like this one. It is not the end of literature, and it is not the end of publishing. It’s just a bigger pie.

  • One of the things I didn’t make clear in my post was that I believe that the major force driving the change is the emergence as a viable commercial medium of the ebook. My assumptions are based on the premise that the ebook will come to dominate as the most used media in publishing.
    If ebooks become a fad (which I don’t think will happen) then the “indie publishing movement” will die a quick death. The weight that BS have in the traditional area of the bookstore far exceeds anything that indie publishers can do.
    POD doesn’t cut it (just my opinion) mainly due to the price per unit, but also because an independent publisher cannot compete with BS in distribution.
    @Eric – I don’t believe that what you describe doing is vanity publishing – it sounds more like small press publishing. From the way you put it, you believed in the books; there is the difference. An Authorhouse or others of their ilk don’t care what they print as long as they can charge for printing it.
    @Tom – Since your first post I have given some thought to the analogy with the software business (an industry I am intimately familiar with in the day job) – Linux suffers and always has from a perception problem that it is a geek OS for “techies” only. I think in that industry there’s going to be massive change in the coming years. The OS’s that will shake out are coming from mobile phones, into tablets and once everyone gets used to operating on tablets I think it is possible that major change will happen in the “common” OS.
    @RF Peace, and good luck to you.

    • I don’t think we’re dealing with a fad; it’s more like a phase. If I’ve learned one thing in going on fifty years following the publishing industry it’s that today’s big thing will in due course give way to the next big thing and the next and the next. There was a time (1972) when I had a hard time wrapping my head around the IBM Selectric typewriter, but I didn’t even flinch when I bought my first desktop computer for $4400 in 1979.

      Amazon made the dedicated reader–and thus the ebook–viable in little more than a year. But the ebook has already migrated to the multi-function device–mobile phones and what looks to be the first viable tablet device, both still very much in development. It’s anyone’s guess, but is anyone here willing to bet against a multi-function Kindle model within a year?

      Five years ago, the future of computer innovation was said to be sinking because all the possible uses for a personal computer had been addressed. Then came Kindle, and who knew so many Americans even knew how to read?