Self-Publishing And The Definition Of An Indie Author

    Categories: Publishing Options

OLD POST ALERT! This is an older post and although you might find some useful tips, any technical or publishing information is likely to be out of date. Please click on Start Here on the menu bar above to find links to my most useful articles, videos and podcast. Thanks and happy writing! – Joanna Penn

I’ve been at two publishing conferences in the last week and it’s evident that myths and misconceptions abound when it comes to independent authors and self-publishing.

Book Machine’s Publishing Now even had a debate on the motion “Self-publishing is devaluing publishing.” In a heated discussion afterwards, I could see that the definition of ‘indie’ as it applies to authors is still misunderstood. Of course, when mainstream publishers like Penguin announce their own self-publishing arms, it can be difficult to know what the hell is going on!

This is further demonstrated in the leaked Hachette internal memo on the relevance of publishing companies where they equate self-publishing with just digital distribution, which we (hopefully) all know is only the final step in the process. Joe Konrath & Barry Eisler respond with their comments here which is worth a read.

Eisler defines self-publishing: ‘it means you keep the rights to your book and publish it yourself using distributor/retailers like Amazon, Apple, B&N, Kobo, Smashwords, and Sony, typically retaining 70% of the cover price instead of the 17.5% offered by legacy publishers (for digital editions). This isn’t what “most people” mean when they say self-publishing; it’s what everybody means when they say self-publishing.

But it’s true that to many people self-publishing means bad quality books with no editing published by one of the vanity presses and the main concern is that this crap is flooding the world and readers can’t find quality in the mass of rubbish. I know these books do exist but I hope you agree that we can do a lot better than that these days. I also believe that readers are the new gatekeepers so sales online, reviews and rankings will ensure that the cream rises and bad stuff drops out of the picture.

The term ‘indie author’ has been increasingly claimed by authors who want a new label, one that does justice to the work involved.

This is my take on the subject but please add your comments and thoughts as it is definitely a moving target and no doubt there will be continued debate on it. I do mean for this to be an inclusive definition and you may sit somewhere on the spectrum of indie or you may be traditionally published. People have different aims for their books and their writing careers and I respect your choices, I just wanted to add to the debate!

Indie author means truly independent

At its most basic, indie means there is no separate publisher involved. Many indies may have setup their own micro-press, so their books still have a publisher name that is not the author’s name but the publisher is not one of the author services companies. The indie author most likely owns their own ISBNs. The indie pays the bills and is paid by the distributors e.g. Amazon/Smashwords directly. The only middleman is the distributor.

There has been a blurring of the line between indie author and indie publisher that seems to be mostly related to size and scope of the business. I am an indie publisher of my own books so it’s basically the same thing as being an indie author, but there are small & midsize independent publishing houses who don’t like the term indie being used for people like me. However, there are increasing numbers of micro-businesses being set up by authors who also publish other author’s books so these perhaps count as indie publishers.

Indies are entrepreneurs and business-people

The Creative Penn is a limited company. My books and this site as well as my speaking are a business. I have an accountant and I do monthly accounts. I monitor cash-flow, income and expenses. Indie authors may not all have such a developed business but they treat their writing and publishing in a business-like manner. That means they have to think about financials but also sales & marketing as well as production on top of the creative side. They basically act like a small press and can be defined as micro-entrepreneurs.

This entrepreneurial attitude also spills into why people go indie in the first place. We like speed and we like control. Taking action and seeing what works comes naturally, and jumping into new media, new technologies and opportunities is part of what we do. By the time I had written my first novel, I already had a platform so it was worth the experiment to publish immediately and see what happened. As the great entrepreneurs say, fail fast, fail often and then go with what works.

Indies employ professionals as publishing involves teamwork

We all need editors!

I understand how the term self-publishing can be judged as a misnomer because we don’t do it all ourselves. We have a team in the same way big publishers do.

One of the biggest criticisms of self-publishing is the poor quality of the finished product which is why it’s important to take these extra steps.

As indies, we budget for and employ professional editors, professional designers and formatters for digital and print books. We know the value of our work includes the way it is perceived on the page as well as the work itself. I have always used an editor but I am definitely guilty of doing a lot more myself with my earlier books (which at some point I will re-publish). No more. The charge of bad quality is one we can avoid by investing in a collaborative process.

Indies are still interested in ‘traditional’ book deals

There is a vocal camp that have now sworn off traditional publishing forever but I think most indies are still interested in a publishing deal, if it offers something they can’t do or don’t want to do themselves.

Most indies don’t hate mainstream publishing either, despite the noisy few who make it look like we do.

In actual fact, we are all book lovers and advocates of reading in whatever form people want to consume. We all want the publishing industry to thrive and for readers to continue to buy lots of books and in fact, most authors are also huge consumers of books. Many of the big earning indie authors have been picked up by traditional publishing in some form. Amanda Hocking is the most famous with her St Martin’s Press deal of over $2 million. John Locke took a print distribution deal with Simon & Schuster. Joe Konrath & Barry Eisler signed with Amazon Encore for some of their books which isn’t one of the Big 6 right now, but may soon be. Their secret contracts are rumored to be much better for authors than other publishers but it’s still not purely indie anymore, although many of these authors still continue to do their own work for other books. The hybrid model where some books are traditionally published and others are indie published seem to be growing and is perhaps the sweet spot for the most successful authors. It’s certainly where I would like to get to myself.

What does indie mean to you? Do you identify as an indie?

Top Image: istockphoto.com & other one is my own edits on Prophecy


Joanna Penn :

View Comments (95)

  • Hello folks,
    Very interesting to read the comments.
    With my hand on my heart, I didn`t realise I was a 'vanity publisher'.
    I wrote my books with only one thing in mind - to preserve our social history.
    I`ve written and released three books to date.
    As a one-man operation (apart from the printing and binding)... I`ve found by self-publishing my works, that it`s a great way to get my books to the people that are potential buyers and getting paid first hand by such.

    • Hi Johnny, it sounds like you did it all yourself which doesn't make you a vanity publisher in the negative sense at all :) all the best with your books!

  • Thank you so much. I am a new indie author and your posts, updates and resources are invaluable!

  • I have just started using hour website and find it very encouraging and helpful, thank you :). As a complete novice (first novel in very early notes stage) and trying to get my head around the basics, self-publishing does sound pretty overwhelming and many people who have done it seem to have some experience in the book publishing world rather than none! I wondered if you have any views on whether this is the best route for first time authors?

  • I agree with a lot of your points about what it means to be indie. I do both video games and writing as an indie developer and I am starting to see in both where bigger names adopt the indie title to try to exploit it to sell more. I'm also seeing big name developers sidestep publishers by going the route of crowdfunding, which was made for those who couldn't get their projects done. Good example is Star Citizen (while I do support Chris Roberts, that money could have been used for those who need a boost to start).

    I feel the question should be, when do you stop being indie? For writing, all of the costs come from your pocket, to get a professional cover design, quality editing, and ebook formatting...and that's only if you can afford those things. But what if you get a company to market for you, does that draw the line from indie? How about if someone else distributes your book for you? We can establish where being an indie author starts, but where do you stop being an indie author?

  • I received the newsletter today. I wanted to respond directly to it but this post was the most closely related. In the newsletter you talked about being Indie and you shared with people all the direct places to go to publish for free instead of paying somebody else to do what you could have done and gotten the same results. There's also a thing called coops. I don't know exactly if Eclectic Press falls under that but we support Indie authors. We have a group of authors who are at different stages of writing. We help guide and direct where they can go, as far as Smashwords or KDP or Createspace. We recommend that you get editing done. We have some recommendations for that from various price points. We have various people who can do cover art for you. We have people who can do trailers. They do not work directly for Eclectic Press, but they do get paid for the work they do. You can choose those options, or you can choose your own. The simplest way to say it is, you make it what you want. You get all the freedom of being self published, but you get a backing of a publishing house behind you and all the networking and resources that comes with. You can find us on facebook by searching: eclectic press. there's a picture of a wolf head, that's when you know you are on the right place. Though the right place is starting with a great resource like Ms. Penn

    • Hello my name is Calvin ENGRAM and I'm really a virgin to all of this. But I'm loving what you said. I'm afro american and writing urban fiction as we speak. My writing includes ebonics, slang, broken English, and bad grammar! So finding a really cheap editor for my work, could surely work in my favor cause I know nothing about editing. I only write my story. I want to try KDP select. Any other suggestions?

  • Though I've been writing for many years and have self published a book of poems, and have had some poems and short stories published in a few magazines, my first Novel which I wrote twenty years ago "Every Sunday is Father's Day" will be coming out in a month or two. I have to say I am excited about it. It'll be listed on Amazon as a paperback and as an e-book on Kindle. This is my first comment on this site.
    Anthony Valera

  • You've been popping up in Google for me a lot recently. Genuinely interesting, well written useful content. Sometimes I just need a definition.

    I've been self employed for almost 10 years, and I now I have a book in progress, I suspect I will go down the indie route.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • As self-employed already, you definitely have an advantage in the indie world. It's as much about running a business as being a creative

  • I have followed your website and work for some time now. Like many others, I am attempting to 'publish' my own first book. It is a non-fiction one on a slightly odd subject however I find the thought of finally seeing it online as exciting. My only problem is how do I take those final steps. I guess I can equate this to buying a new car. You know you want one (many do) but do you pick and there is the problem. There are many sellers each offering something, the same with the outlets for self-publishing. Each one seems to offer something just a touch different and for me is the worry. Do I get my own ISBN or let another create one for me? I find reading these blogs very helpful indeed. I want to publish a good book and have taken time to have it edited. Again how far do you go with that? It seems to me research is still the key here, to find that one outlet that suits your needs. Finding like-minded authors and talking to each other is important I feel and I am thankful for sites like this.

  • Hi Joanna,

    Great information, more than what I was originally looking to find...

    I self-published technical books 11 years ago, I am a Crowd and Human Behavior expert for mostly large gatherings. I've been in NBC Dateline, ESPN, etc., Now I am ready to launch a new non-fiction that i have been working on since 2004, on again, off again, titled, Buck Seventy Two, A Destiny of Will", While I am now very successful, it didn't begin that way for me...see description below...I really didn't write the book to make money, it was more about healing for me. As I wrote I not only discovered me, but i learned that I too was in Forster Care (Kinship Care), now what want to book's to bring about awareness and the processes to benefit Fosters. So, thanks for publishing this very helpful blog...

    All the best, Larry Perkins,

    "When a person is faced with adversity, they have two choices, they can brake under the presser, or they can temper the flame and come out strong as steel. It all started in Enfield, North Carolina, and while it's a tiny blimp on the map, for a young Larry Perkins, it was his whole world. Born to a sharecropper father and a mother who aspired to a different life, quickly divorced, Larry’s childhood was tumultuous. Early on, his mother abandoned him and left to New York City to chase her dreams. Larry spent the first 9 years of his life bouncing from family member to family member before landing in his father and stepmother’s home. His father soon enslaved him, forcing him to work his life away on his father's farm. The rules and demands of sharecropping life left little time for play, and work quickly overshadowed school. "