Indie Publishing’s Impact on Independent Publishing

First off, let me just say that I was a holdout for a long time for not calling self-publishing “indie publishing.”  But that was back when self-publishing was desperate to be taken seriously.  Now it is.  And it’s become as vital a force in the publishing as “true” independent publishing.  So indie publishing works now because all of independent publishing is changing.

JA Konrath talks about the “Publishing Death Spiral” in which traditional publishing is going to be assaulted by writers who can get much better terms on their own if they publish themselves. I’ll gladly dance on the grave of a publishing industry that publishes a Snooki novel, but the problem is that self-publishing will put a dent in less money-grubbing independent houses as well. And this is just as inevitable as the sea change when mainstream commercial writers see the light of 70% royalties and go all in as self-publishers.

Amazon is the biggest target of fear and anger because they’re the ones offering 70% terms and upending the whole system. Dennis Loy Johnson of Melville House Press says:

Amazon will soon be a pretty solid publishing company; even small presses like Melville House are already losing out to them on esoteric projects, such as obscure translation projects. But Amazon’s publishing house will be in service to a different idol, because publishing isn’t, right now, and hasn’t been, for 500 years, about developing algorithms. It’s been about art-making and culture-making and speaking truth to power.

Well, if it’s about culture-making, then what’s that obscure translation project?

He concludes:

But dominating the industry is bad for all kinds of things we hold dear — free speech, great art and a rich and diverse culture. All of which is to say that yes, there is a need for publishers. Many of them, in fact.

This would be a problem if self-publishing didn’t exist. If Amazon indeed decided everything that got published, this would be terrible – but they don’t: they offer the biggest DIY publishing platform available. So self-publishing offers a “diverse culture.” A gatekeeping system offers fewer books. As great a press as Melville House is, the logic doesn’t really hold. There’s certainly a great advantage in being published by an independent press which can offer editing, cover design, and marketing, but it’s not the only system available. Also from that Times piece:

I fear much more what Amazon’s entry into publishing might do to independent publishing houses where writers’ potential and the great possibilities of literature are often valued far above sales and the seductions of profitability.

Even if Amazon monopolizes the industry, this doesn’t affect the diversity of writers who might use a self-publishing platform.  Certainly writers should support independent presses who have been supportive in the past, and can do good work on a book’s release. But accepting a 70% royalty isn’t necessarily due to a writer’s greed, but just that self-publishing can be very practical – no queries, no time, better terms.

All that said, monopolies are of course not good in any industry. Just today there’s news in the UK of Amazon buying out the Book Depository. And while Amazon controls their algorithm, potentially recommending Encore, Createspace,  or Kindle titles before others (people who bought this also bought) this does not appear to be happening. Even if it did, Amazon offers the platform for all books to be found.  The real problem for small presses is not that Amazon is taking over other companies, but that writers see Amazon as the best career move.

I love small presses, and it would be terrible to see Amazon do to small presses what it did to independent bookstores.  Most of the time when people criticize traditional publishing, they’re talking about the big 6 publishers and their marketing obsession and abandonment of non-celebrity writers.  But the reason that writers might want to abandon that system applies both to independent presses as it does to corporate publishing.  It’s just as hard to get published by an independent press, but for different reasons: they have less money, so they can publish fewer books.  Or, rather, it’s the same reason: money is guiding their business plan, as it is for all businesses.  They’re just not quite so callous about it.  If many small presses could publish more books, they would.

So there’s a growing list of independent authors (read: people who don’t write commercial fiction) who will also have a growing problem with getting published by a small press. Small presses will have a harder time earning money because those writers who are more likely to turn a profit on their own may be more willing to self-publish. This will cut down the number of literary presses, or the number of books they can put out a year.  As there are already more authors than literary presses, there won’t be enough presses to go around. So: yes, that does cut into the diversity that small presses can offer, but only because so many writers will be publishing somewhere else.

It’s not a great fate for small presses, which is why many despise Amazon so much, even if Amazon increases a press’s sales. And it truly would be terrible to lose the world’s small presses, just as it’s terrible to lose the world’s small bookstores. But that’s what’s happening, and what’s going to happen. “Death spiral” in this case is too tough, because it’s not a fate anyone should be particularly happy about. But Amazon isn’t necessarily the big bad enemy in this case, because ultimately they’re offering a great service to writers.

  • Henry, the independent bookstores and literary presses never held out any hope for me (or, I suspect, for most of the members of and visitors to SPR). So why are we supposed to waste more than a few tears on them? Many people other than indie bricks-and-mortar book sellers and small print-book publishers have had to repurpose themselves in our brave new digital economy. The most important thing is that Amazon gives writers the freedom to be the authors they want to be.

    • I don’t know – I’ve got a book out on http://anothersky.org and my first book came out on Soft Skull Press. Independent presses just aren’t as corrupt as the Snooki-publishing mainstream industry.

      But yeah, the reason I went all in with self-publishing was because independent presses were pissing me off as well. I was told that I couldn’t put out a book by several small presses unless I could guarantee 3000 sales (back in the pre e-day). So sales reports were driving independent publishing just as much as big publishing. But indie presses do put out stuff that the majors won’t, so I don’t want to see them come to an end.

  • For years, the publishing industry was ruled by oligarchs who held the keys to the kingdom out of reach of the writer. To even be considered for publishing, an author had to jump as high as commanded, begging for table scraps if they were ‘fortunate’ to get a contract.

    From there the author and his works were owned and exploited while the author struggled to fulfill contractual obligations and was forced to do the same amount of promotional work that self publishing requires.

    It was the same in the music industry where musicians were awarded million dollar contracts, if they were ‘lucky’, only to find out that all expenses were deducted from that million dollars, often leaving the artist owing the record company money.

    While all of this was happening, these same gatekeepers had the power to determine what we were allowed to read, see or hear, enabling a steady diet of crappy pop music or same-same fiction for the unwashed masses.

    The movie industry is feeling the heat as well, with their remakes of remakes and nothing but comic book fare, I find myself staying away from theaters these days and watching more Netflix and on demand alternative programming.

    As an author I welcome the change. Somebody opened the door and fresh air is rushing in. On that breeze is the scent of my second novel, self published. For my readers it holds a sweet and salty smell of something different and exciting.

    Amazon gave me hope, they gave me the tools and the opportunity of an audience. I still have to earn my success and earn it, I will. Success is achieved by the degree of passion for the goal we are trying to achieve, and the talent to make it possible. For me, failure is NOT an option.

  • It’s getting harder and harder to keep up with all the Chicken Little scenarios swarming around us these days. Every week it seems someone is announcing the impending Death Of Blank! Self-publishing is destroying literature, free ebooks are destroying the “craft” of writing, Amazon is destroying the publishing industry, Liberals are destroying ‘the family’, the list goes on and on.

    What keeps amazing me is how people assume that the way things have been for a generation or two is the way things have always been and will always remain. Haven’t we experienced enough tremendously rapid change in the recent past to be able to understand that things change tremendously and rapidly? It seems not. We still tend to think in the same old way.

    I just wonder what it’s going to take for us to get with the program. I remember a popular newspaper cartoon meme (remember newspapers? Heck, remember memes? And that was only last week!) about crazy guys walking around with signs proclaiming ‘The World Will End Tomorrow’ – well, the world as we know it DOES end tomorrow, and every day. There are always reasons to be pessimistic, and reasons to be optimistic as well. I feel sorry for people whose jobs are in jeopardy because of change (sorry, small press people) but also feel hopeful for the new jobs that are coming.

    I live and work in Silicon Valley, USA and see the buds of new potentials forming constantly. Many if not most don’t make it, but with so many people in the world and so much change going on all the time, it seems so likely to me that the world I will not live to see (I’m getting on, by the way) will be similar but very very different. No small presses? Come on! Focus! People are communicating in different ways all the time, and what’s really important? People communicating, not the mechanics of how or who makes how much money for what. Isn’t this what ‘publishing’ was supposed to be all about?

  • Thank you, JH and Tom, for your eloquent contributions to this discussion.

    I write novels set in prehistory. What was the big problem then? Change. From hunting and gathering to farming. From roaming the land to settling down in villages, towns, cities. From the spoken word to writing.

    Humans can’t avoid it. No matter how much we fight it, change defines us.