What is indie publishing?

It’s not easy to define. But it’s a big and important issue. Waters are muddy rather than clear. Why? Because there’s a lot of people with a lot of different angles and a lot of different ways of making money involved in this ‘industry.’  The writer often forgets that by engaging in the communicative act of publishing  (the stage beyond the usually communicative act of writing) they are positioning themselves in a marketplace, they become ‘stakeholders’ in a multibillion dollar industry. They are minnows in a very big shark infested water. And everyone has a view. Everyone, it seems, has an angle.  So all I can offer you is a personal opinion and point towards other people’s  work which I think both explores and addresses the myriad of ‘issues.’

Perhaps the best definition I’ve come across is from Jeff Bennington who blogs at Writing Bomb.  http://thewritingbomb.blogspot.co.uk/ and is author of  The Indie Author’s Guide to the Universe

 Traditional Publishers – The folks who have “traditionally” served as the literary gatekeepers, and determined what will and will not be published for the reading public.

Vanity Publishers – Publishers who primarily make their money by selling publishing services to authors rather than selling direct to booksellers.

Self Publishers – Author’s who use a “pay to publish” service (Vanity), including shared publishing (50/50 split in publishing expenses). Authors who use these are often, but not always, publishing with less control because the publisher frequently charges exorbitant fees for common and simple tasks. Many “self-published” authors fall prey to the marketing hype, and lose control of pricing, and quality because the cost to create a fully professional book is so high. As a consequence, some authors settle for less editing, basic cover art, etc. Again, this is my opinion based on what I see every day on Amazon, and in listening to author complaints.

Indie Publishers – Indie publishers, are writers who take full control of their product from cover design, formatting, marketing, editing, etc. They feel more comfortable with the processes and technical aspects of the game. Indie publishers operate like a small press, doing every task in house or subcontracting to those more qualified. They not only hold the rights to their book, but they do not have to answer to a third party to make changes or upgrade quality. Indie publishers often spend far less money on the production of their books and are not restricted to specific price points, cover designs, etc.

(quite apart from anything I like that Jeff still knows that it’s people ‘who’ not people ‘that’ which seems to have become omnipresent in the modern world. Last time I looked it was ‘who’ for animate and ‘that’ for inanimate objects – but maybe I’ve missed something and we have stopped being people and become ‘product creators’? )

Our stated festival ‘perspective’ is that writers who retain all rights in their work and/or act as publishers of that work are true ‘indie’ writers. We don’t want to get bogged down in arguments between competing ‘indie’ claims so we’ve stated our position up front. For us, the relevant issues in this context are publishing ‘rights’ and distribution deals. We’re not just talking about COPYRIGHT here (which should always remain with the writer) We are talking about ‘publishing’ rights.

Basically there are two options for a writer.

1)     You sell or contract your rights to a publisher for a fixed period of time and in exchange you get a deal (usually royalties – a percentage of sales- and less often an advance) for them to publish your book. They take the ‘’risk’ and bear the costs of publishing and distribution the work (and less frequently of marketing it) This is known as the ‘traditional’ publishing route and within it there are the ‘Big Six’ publishing houses and a myriad of smaller publishers many of whom like to be known as ‘independent’. (We call them SmallTrads). However, if you as a writer contract to an ‘independent’ publisher YOU are not actually a true ‘indie’ writer as you have given/sold/traded your rights.  The publisher may term themselves ‘indie’ in this relationship but the writer is not true ‘indie’.  To be ‘indie’ you have to retain your rights.

2)     You retain your rights and act as publisher yourself. This is our definition of true ‘indie’ publishing. It may more accurately be seen as ‘Writer as Publisher’  (WAP) With boundaries blurring due to new technology this does not always mean ‘self publishing’ but may well be an example of self publishing. The term ‘indie’ has emerged in this context because of the erroneous stigma attached to the ‘self publisher’ term which is usually mistaken for ‘vanity’ publishing.

Distribution deals.

With ebooks there are several main distribution outlets. Amazon is the one EVERYONE has heard of. They deal with traditional/independent publishers AND they deal with ‘indie’ publishers (or ‘indie’ authors) through their Direct Publishing contract. If you wonder why some ebooks are £8.99 and others are £2.99 and some are 99p or free this is to do with the distribution deal between the publisher and the distributor.  Obviously ‘indie’ publishers don’t have the same overheads as independent/smallTrad or large publishers and are dealing more directly with a readership (only the distributor as mediator, not under a contractual relation with a publisher) and for the indie writer as publisher taking all the risks themselves means they get more of the deal.  Amazon’s KDP scheme offers publishers a 70% or 30% royalty (dependent on pricing structure) whereas as an independent/small/traditional publisher  engaging with Amazon has to give them a cut and they want 40% of your RRP. (That’s pretty much the standard traditional publishing deal from print by the way). So if your ebook RRP is £5 they take £2 just for listing.  Leaving publisher with £3 The writer is then paid a percentage on the ‘net’ profit after the publisher has taken their percentage.  (usually writer gets 80%  but it’s 80% of the 60% and the maths gets quite complex with other ‘hidden’ or ‘ongoing’ costs.  (At best 80% of £3 is £2.40 – let’s say you’ll likely get between £2 and £2.20 on a £5 ebook)  If you go the ‘indie’ route and set your price at £3 you’d get 70% of that £3 which is just over £2.  The reader gets a cheaper book, you get as much ‘profit’ and the only people losing out? (join the dots)

Waters are further muddied by the fact that some small or self styled ‘indie’ publishers who are still effectively using the traditional model with their writers, in fact use the KDP publishing system (on your behalf but maybe without you knowing) so they take their 70% of selling price from Amazon and then give the writer a smaller cut (royalty).I’m not accusing anyone of anything but you can see there’s a lot of scope for unscrupulousness here!   A lot of the fierce debate at the moment revolves around who is getting what %. Money talks, right?

Our position at this festival is that

1)     To be a true indie writer (writer as publisher) you must retain ALL your rights.

2)     As an indie writer  (WAP)  you can ‘buy in’ services (though beware what you pay for what you can do yourself!)

3)     As an indie writer (WAP) you will be financially better off to keep your distribution deals simple and direct.

At present the distribution channels are fairly limited. Amazon/Kindle  has a huge share of the market with Kobo and Apple (and Nook/Barnes and Noble and Sony) also running distribution outlets. All of these can be dealt with directly by a WAP.  As for direct distribution – ‘indie’ distribution channels if you like, this is still in its infancy. Some of our WAP’s form co-operatives for marketing (and less frequently for distribution) purposes. You’ll never reach a mass market this way, but you can find niche markets and service them without getting involved in the main distributors. Best operate a mixed system at the moment for most true indieWAPS.

Why should you retain your rights?

The more risk you take yourself the more financial % you get. If you distribute ‘indie’ then you retain 100%. If you distribute as an ‘indie’ through the likes of KDP you retain at best 70% (of a price you set yourself) and if you cut a deal with a publisher (traditional or independent/indie) you will get a royalty based on a contract. They are taking risk and putting their reputation on the line, you will not get as much money back. But of course they may well be able to distribute more effectively (sell more ebooks) than you could do as an indie WAP. But maybe not. That’s the gamble you take. You have to engage in a relationship of trust. Enough said.

It seems strange to say, but if you are ‘risk averse’ it’s no bad thing to be an indieWAP. Because you retain rights, you retain control, you can maintain transparency. Any other way you are reliant on the reputation and responsibility of others. And NO ONE can guarantee that your ebook will sell and/or make you millions.

Your options as a writer are:

Putting your trust in other people

Putting your money where your mouth is.

No one can make that choice for you. Most of the writers engaged in this festival have taken the latter option, (and  to a limited degree included the first option as an ‘and’) but we accept that there are plenty of writers for whom the traditional publishing contract is something they favour. That’s great. It’s a big world. There’s room for everyone. We happen to be interested in the true ‘indie’ spirit of writer as publisher and how that might develop through publishing communities, distribution communities, bringing about new ways of writers retaining their publishing rights while reducing the mediation between the writer and reader.

Does ‘indie’ also mean ‘individual’ as well as ‘independent’?

If  I’m going for personal opinion (and rash generalisation) I’ve met two main Types of writers in my life. Type1 are those who focus on the creativity. For whom content (well narrative) really is king. These writers generally struggle or have an aversion to acknowledge that publishing is an industry. They just want to write. And have people read what they write. They are simple souls. I am in essence one of them.  Our story tends to be that we get eaten by sharks – usually before you’ve read our work.

There are GOOD and BAD writers in this category.

The second kind of writer are Type 2: the writer as social being/‘entrepreneur’. The ones who relish the challenge of getting into the mix of the publishing world. They love to network. They love to perform. And often (not always) they are really keen on earning lots of money from their work. They don’t have a conflict between creativity and business savvy.  While  Type 1 writers are often appalled by the thought they they have to transform into Type 2  writers to survive – they are probably also a bit jealous of the genuine Type 2 writer. They might secretly aspire to be a person who has no conflict, no constant struggle between a dark side and their precious creativity. The person who has ‘woken up and smelled the coffee’ in the ‘real’ world.

There are GOOD and BAD writers in this category.

The value laden phrases Good and Bad are significant in this context because an understanding of them is vital if one is to engage with and slay the dragon of ‘vanity’ publishing.  We need to reappraise and truly engage with what we consider to be GOOD and BAD in terms of writing (we are not interested in the personal morality of the writer mind you,  just the critical quality of their work!)

In the old days it was easy. Vanity publishing was when you paid someone to get your work published and no one offered any critical appraisal of the quality of your work.  Self publishing was seen as a variant of vanity publishing by those who refuse to accept that a writer might be able to be a critically competent judge of their own work (or hire/work with people who might also be critically competent before they published.)  The ‘gatekeepers’ or ‘industry’ professionals (the elite?) jealously guarded publishing, feeding us all the myth that unless a book was published by a ‘reputable’ publisher (one in their ‘industry’ club – the ones with the money!) then it wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. And writers and readers pretty much bought into the myth. Because people don’t tend to look beneath the ‘quality’ statement and ask ‘who decides quality?’ and on what basis? And with what bias or agenda?  I trained as a moral philosopher. I was trained to ask these questions. And I do.

With the emergence of digital publishing the genie has somewhat come out of the bottle. While we are still a way away from successfully unmediated relationships between writer and reader (a simple communicative act based on personal taste and common ground) there are more ways of finding writers than simply going with the flow, following the herd, liking what you are told to like, buying what is most ‘in yer face.’ This festival hopes to show you some possible avenues to pursue yourself in this most personal and exciting of journeys.

The mediators of course want to hang onto their market dominance. Consequently to get ‘visible’ as an indie you either have to spend a lot of money or put in a lot of marketing work.  Being a good writer is never enough.  You have to find people who either a) agree you are a good writer or b) like what you write and don’t care whether someone else says it’s good or bad.  We (as readers at least) have been communally programmed against such freedom of creative thought.  We tend to be blind to the fact that we only ‘see’ things that other people want us to see and that these are usually due to some underlying financial/economic imperative.

It’s often said that Content is King for the reader and the writer. Well,  Product is king for the distributor and generally for the publisher (and yes, I realise that’s me just lost any chance of ever getting a mainstream publishing deal. It doesn’t matter. I don’t want one any more than I ever wanted to sell a script to Hollywood. ) I am here to tell you that it’s your world too.  YES, writing that is ‘good’ is what we are all looking for. Definitions of good are flexible (to an extent) but  if you don’t want to develop your own critical faculties to be able to feel comfortable making the ‘good/bad’ choice for yourself, you certainly have to be aware who is selling you ‘good’ and what their reasons for attributing the label are.

I will offer you a list of statements to which your response should be (Really? Always?)

It is popular so it is good

It is making someone a fortune so it’s good

It is NOT making a fortune so it’s not good

It is not popular so it can’t be good

It’s not to my taste so it’s not good

That’s all very well but how do we judge ‘good’? What is vanity publishing?

What is ‘good’? is a question which we should debate contextually.  Vanity is not good. We all know that don’t we? But what’s in a word? For me, at the root of it I believe ‘good’ or vanity depends on the quality of the book.  And here I mean not only the physical quality but the quality of content too.  Obviously there is subjectivity in ‘what is a good novel?’ but the argument is too often abused in an attempt to dismiss perfectly good work as ‘vanity.’  Always by those with an ‘agenda’ of their own be that political or economic.  In the ‘real’ world it’s not that hard to work out if a novel is good or bad – well or poorly written.  Beyond taste there are certain basic literary criteria which can and do apply the same as they do to all creative art forms.  But a ‘good’ work is not the same as a work that ‘I like.’ Opinion is not enough when it comes to ‘good’ in writing. I don’t like Jane Austen but I can give you a list of reasons as to why she is a ‘good’ writer and explain, using accepted critical standards (as objective as it’s possible to be in life) what is ‘good’ about her writing.  Obviously if you are a dyed in the wool post modernist you’re not going to buy my opinion, but I’m afraid I pity the view that ‘a work is only as good as its reader’ It’s a nice handy view for the ‘elite’ to pedal to keep the ‘masses’ in their place but it doesn’t wash as a critical argument for me. It’s my opinion.  Feel free to disagree.

My personal opinion on ‘vanity’ publishing is that the vanity exists if the work is not of a reasonable quality.  A good writer does not engage in ‘vanity’ publish. (Though they may get sucked up by a Vanity Publisher!) For me, ‘Vanity’ publishing is work that has no critical value – irrespective of its commercial value – and is not synonymous with self or indie publishing.  That’s an opinion I’ve had to fight hard to get across over the years but it seems the world is catching up.  Basically, however a writer finds his readership, whatever means he/she is published by, the vanity lies in the content not in the process.  Good writers who are ‘vanity’ published in the market sense are just Type 1 writers who have been ripped off.

And that’s what I find exciting aboutthe whole new ‘indie’ ebook publishing ‘revolution.’ Finally writers (and a lot of good writers) are realising that there’s more than constantly aspiring towards the holy grail of mass market publications.  Being on the supermarket shelves is not every writer’s aspiration.  We are beginning to be free to reclaim our means of production and to take responsibility and make choices for ourselves.

Getting their work read is important to most if not all writers (writing after all is usually a communicative act) but retaining control of the publication process is also important.  The switch is from mediated to unmediated. Which is not the same as vanity.  Or doesn’t have to be.  And this is part of the rise of the ‘indie’ author concept (and reality). Bad writing will always be there. Good writing will always be there. What writing is promoted and published and marketed and funded is more about the economic and political mores of a society. And whatever you are told, at present the ‘reader’ does not choose the reading matter – the reader is ‘sold’ what to choose and then ‘sold’ the idea that they’ve chosen it freely.  But finally, with epublishing it may be possible to change the paradigm. To stop telling people what they ‘should’ like or what they ‘must have’ and give them informed choice. Let them choose. Show them the options without ramming them down their neck.

People may genuinely prefer 50 Shades of something to my own work Brand Loyalty, but the comparison is not one of equals in any sense. Whatever the relative merits of both works, I can guarantee you that if Brand Loyalty had been given the exposure of 50 Shades I’d be earning a lot more from it.  More people would know about it. More people would talk about it. More people would feel they just ‘had’ to engage with it in some way. would it be a better or worse work? No. The quality is not dependent on the visibility or on the promotion.  Slick marketing and wall to wall visibility DOES have an impact, of course it does. (To prove to you that I’m not in the game of shoving work in your face you’ll notice I haven’t included BUYING links to my book, which I should do to get your interest.  But I’m using it as an example. It’s up to you whether you decide to pursue finding out more about Brand Loyalty. I don’t want you to buy my work because it’s fashionable or ‘in yer face’  I’d like you to know it exists so that you can make your own choice but then IT IS YOUR OWN CHOICE. )

In conclusion, the most significant thing I think about the epublishing ‘revolution’ in which we are all engaged to some degree is that  it may afford the possibility for writers to   begin to have a new and more direct relationship with their readers. “Which will allow  Readers to choose their own ‘good.’  Irrespective of what may be objectively ‘good’ perhaps but equally, they may start to learn how to judge writing critically rather than commercially.  That, I hope, is the future of indie ebook publishing.

Cally Phillips (Festival Director) 

Throughout the features that follow in this @theFestival event you will get to read the beliefs, opinions and rationales of a range of indie writer/publishers. We have actively sought out good examples of indie writer as publisher (WAP) but have also been approached by several ‘independent’ publishers who actually work on what we’d term a Small Traditional Publishing paradigm. It offers you the festival goer an insight into the more traditional (and in our view) alternative way of doing things. The key thing for us is that writers retain their rights and that if you are going to give up or sell your rights you understand that in one sense you are giving up your ‘indie’ status even if you are going with a self styled ‘indie’ publisher.