Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Middle Way: The Indie Publisher

I was reading the newest issue of Poets & Writers, cats & kittens (yes, I do occasionally fancy myself a poet or writer, depending on the time of day and the number of rejections I have received that week), when I happened upon an article by Steve Almond in which he discusses the merits and drawbacks of traditional publishing, self-publishing, and—in a surprisingly zen moment—the "perfect compromise" (I'm calling it the Middle Way) of going with an independent publisher.

To quote Almond, you don't get the "bloated marketing departments and built-in publishing delays" of big-six publishing, and to quote me, you don't get the "one-(wo)man marketing department and stomach ulcers" of running the whole show yourself. I'll reiterate: every good writer needs an editor. It's in your best interest to have someone who has experience editing, marketing, and selling books on your side, regardless of how big (or small) the operation.

Now, to be fair—and I strongly suggest that you DNTTAH* unless you, like Almond, have a proven record of writing ability and are only "cut[ting] the cord with traditional publishing" (again, Almond's words) because of a question of salability, not ability in general—Almond does decide to pursue self-publishing in this article. However, Almond also has a huge amount of experience in this industry and is making a well-informed decision that 90% of authors (not necessarily you, gentle readers) are not well prepared to make due to lack of experience, research, &c. This is why I'm raising the possibility of the independent publisher as an alternative between The Publishing Machine™ and the (oft perilous) road of self-publishing.

Independent publishers are generally more open to experimental fiction, literary fiction, and poetry than most big-time publishers, so if it's simply a question of readership as opposed to quality of the MS, an indie may be right for you. You'll almost certainly still get a dedicated editor, a marketing department, an art department, and even a sales rep, and many indies sell books to retailers like Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Amazon via distributors like Baker & Taylor. You'll have a lot more control over the finished product than you would at a larger house, but neither will you have to go it alone with regard to the business side of things. Many smaller houses offer higher royalty rates in exchange for lower advances, so if your goal is to someday land a publishing deal with a larger company, it may look better if you take the indie route and earn out your advance rather than struggle to earn back a larger advance from a larger house or struggle to demonstrate profitable sales figures via self-publication.

You tell me, though, fair readers: would you consider an independent publisher a good compromise between the big houses and self-publishing? Would you prefer a more close-knit group of industry professionals backing your book to a larger one, or to the oft-solo adventure of selling your book yourself?

* "Do Not Try This At Home"


  1. I guess I'm surprised that this is even a question. I'm not a novelist, but outside of a few specific situations that don't apply to many people, I can't imagine writers opting for self-publishing over an indie press. To me it comes down to the editing that makes a manuscript into a book. Very few people can do that without embarrassing themselves.

  2. The winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize is a book from a small press. I do think small presses are excellent choices. From what I've seen in my own reading, these presses are putting out a lot of edgy and risky books that are a pleasure to read.

    So far, I have come to the conclusion that each type of publishing comes with its own upsides and downsides. Self-publishing has the upside of giving a writer total control, something I wish more artists would appreciate. Big house publishing will probably give you more sales, or at least the potential for more sales. As I see it, the Indie presses are sort of like a compromise. I think a lot of the editors of small presses are writers themselves, unlike with big house publishing, and that just creates a different bias, maybe for more of what's perceived as "literary," although that term is really vague. I can almost imagine that different books within a writer's career might call for different modes of publishing.

  3. I am finding my experiece with an independent press so far to be wonderful.

  4. One thing I see getting muddy is the terminology.

    Many self-published authors these days call themselves independently published. They create their own publishing company through a printer like CreateSpace, and publish their own work, acting as their own editor, designer, marketer, etc. My guess is they choose "indie" over "self" to avoid the stigma.

    Thank you for explaining that a true indie press, though smaller, provides the level of editing, designing and marketing expertise necessary to make a book great.

  5. When I think of "indie" ... especially those referred to by Poets&Writers ... I think of traditional literature. Literary fiction excludes most popular women's fiction or what is called genre fiction.

    With regard to self-published, I respect anyone who works hard and feels this is the way to go. However, I cannot lose the image of Kinko's Plus.

    The big six are difficult and without a top agent impossible. What we think of is: a New York agent, and one of the big six and you have arrived.

    There is a fourth way to go: Respected alternatives such as Poison Pen or Midnight Ink for mystery writers and a couple more for straight women's fiction or romance.

    Being willing to spend the time, get a third eye to help with editing, and having the patience it takes, these publishers still accept submissions without an agent.

    Often, they themselves introduce the new author to an agent.

    For those who do literary works, narrative non-fiction and "up-market fiction" there is the indie and the university press.

  6. You need an editor. Dear lord, you need an editor. Editors who write need editors. Even the greats needed editors.

    Having said that, though, I have to caution you you're not likely to get the kind of serious, thoughtful editing from a major publisher, anymore, that made those authors the greats. Read some of the top-selling fiction in this country. That stuff is not being edited. Most of it's barely having a Dead Chicken Waved in its General Direction.

    Some independent publishers may be better at editing than the big guys, but there's no guarantee there, either. A client of mine recently went through a long negotiation with an indie publisher of good repute who, it turned out, was only budgeted for copy editing and didn't know that wasn't the real thing. An award-winning friend of mine saw her first book come out from quite a big indie publisher with massive, chronic errors in page justification throughout the entire thing. My nonfiction book, which came out from a major publisher way back in 1996---long before the recent Editor Purge started---wasn't even proofread.

    It puts the writer between a rock and a hard place. Absolutely. But if you want a book you're proud to put your name on. . .find yourself an editor.

  7. I self-published after two years of unsuccessfully looking for an agent. I hired a professional editor before I did so and worked with two editors that the self-publishing company provided. I didn't know about Indie presses. Had I known about them, I would have tried that route. I agree, it's a perfect middle between self-publishing and traditional big-house publishing.

  8. It does seem as a viable option to bring to a writer's table...

  9. I don't think self-publishing is for me. However, I would look at the independent press, particularly if the cover art was vital to the story and sales. Today I am somewhere between the large publishing company and the smaller independent one.

  10. Heck, yeah! I'd go with an indie publisher in a flash, but I would probably never self-publish (I know... never say never).

  11. Seems like a viable option, especially for a new author who gets stuck in the perpetual slush pile.

  12. Small Press Publishers are my primary target for my nonfiction. While there are sure to be amazing Indie start-ups, my intent is the more established ones.

    Though things in publishing world are changing daily it would be awesome if you could share some links or information about the hierarchy of publishers. Maybe something to add to your "essentials" list for the newbie that finds your site because they wrote this 700 page epic something and are now ready to be pimped.

  13. I actually saw this ad for Crescent Moon Press. I think they're independent, but it's more like a last resort for me than a first one. I'm still trying the querying route to agents.

  14. I was lucky enough to discover a small press when I was about to self-publish "Oliver's Surprise." Two years and many book sales later, we are about to go to press with a sequel. Both the process and the product were much improved by having an educated eye on both art and words, but I have maintained control of the book's overall look and feel. It's also absolutely invaluable to have someone who knows the industry believe in my work; that makes bad days good and good days better.

  15. I think I'd go indie. I often prefer indie books, music & movies. That being said, I hope I get a big publisher because it seems like the chances of success are higher. Though I find it interesting that this year's Pulitzer was from a small press.

  16. The problem is, you don't get the level of service from indie publishers either. The majority of them barely promote their own books, let alone help you promote yours. You're still going to be setting up your own book signings, your own interviews, etc. If you're looking for help in that aspect from an indie press, don't bother, you won't get it. But the rest is spot on.

  17. Question: Do you need an agent to get an Indie publisher? Or is the idea that you submit directly to the publishers in that case?