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Monday Musings: Indie Publishing & The Lexicon of Doom

October 3, 2011

As you would expect of a grumpy bulldog, I’m not big on the euphemisms.  I say I’m fat not “chubby” or “pleasantly plump.”  I say black not “African American” or Indian not “Native American.”  I say midget not “little person.”  In part because I’m a grumpy bulldog and in part because no one calls me a “European American” or “Germanic American” or any shit like that, so why do I have to tiptoe around eggshells for them?

Anyway, this is going somewhere.  There’s a movement out there to refer to self-publishing as “indie publishing.”  For instance on Twitter I follow the “Indie Book Collective” that’s made up of self-published authors like Mr. Pagel’s favorite, Rachel in the OC.  The idea behind this is to make self-publishing sound classier like indie movies and indie music.  After all, America is all about independence, isn’t it?

Except I think “indie publishing” is misleading.  There are actual independent publishers.  Those would be the publishers who are not Random House or the other Big [However Many] in the industry.  Books published by the small presses are the real “indie books” not Rachel in the OC’s self-published opus recycling “I Love Lucy” scripts.

Does it really matter?  I think it does.  The euphemism is designed to mislead the consumer.  As I said, “indie” sounds a lot classier than “self-published.”  Self-published sounds like I’m some crackpot who went to Staples and Xeroxed a bunch of pages and stapled them together.  On the REM early years greatest hits disc, Michael Stipe tells a story about a guy who had boxes of a self-published book called “Life and How to Live It” in his house; the books were only discovered after the guy died.  That’s how people think of self-publishing.  Indie publishing makes it sound like I’m the literary version of Quentin Tarantino or Kevin Smith or something.  Which maybe I am!  (Southwest Airlines would make me buy two seats on their planes too, though when I rip them in a Tweet no one would care.)

Is there really a difference?  Yes!  In true “indie publishing” there’s someone else to do the editing, the cover design, and so forth, just like the big publishers.  With self-publishing I’m doing it all myself.  Or maybe I’m conning some friends to help me or buying a package from Lulu or Createspace or whoever.  The point being that in self-publishing the only quality control is my standards, whereas in truly indie publishing there’s someone else to help filter out the shit.  It’s called self-publishing because I’m submitting it to Lulu or Createspace or Kindle mySELF, with no intermediary.

So let’s cut the bullshit.  Rachel in the OC, you’re self-published.  So am I.  Wear that label proudly.  Or not.  But quit trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes and taking away from the truly independent publishers.  Maybe if enough people start calling themselves self-published it can become a good word, like how gay people adopted “queer” as their own and turned it from a slur into a common word.

Wednesday:  Who’s got the touch?  The Nab!


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  1. I sort of can’t blame people for wanting to get away from the “self-publishing” label, simply because self-publishing is so synonymous in people’s minds with “awful” and “otherwise unpublishable”. But “indie” doesn’t work either, for precisely the reasons you mentioned.

    Perhaps it’s time to invent a new term for those that publish themselves. I-published? Bespoke published? Ind-E Published? Solo published?

    • On Facebook the other day Amazon Kindle was advertising a book called “Mercury Falls” for 99 cents. It was originally self-published but Amazon rereleased it through their “Encore” program. Anyway, someone said as soon as he found out it was self-published he didn’t want it. So I guess the stereotype that self-published=bad is still alive and well. Though whenever someone says that I have to say I’ve seen more than enough crap published by the Big Six, some complete with typos and factual errors. For instance right now I’m reading “Hit Parade” by Lawrence Block and he talks about a mall in Farmington Hills, Michigan. Well I lived near Farmington Hills for a year and the mall isn’t in Farmington Hills, it’s in Novi, next to Farmington Hills. But of course no one in New York catches a thing like that, but the Big Six are still infallible, right?

  2. I’m thinking this is a losing battle here. You are correct. But if 99% of self published authors all agreed that they will call themselves ‘Indie’ then that’s what it’s going to be called.

    Me, I hate to even bring it up, but I do wish there was some, minimal, quality control at work. I still see stuff thrown out there that has no business being put up. For me at least, Indie means self published and the folks that used to be called Indie are now referred to as “small” publishers. It works for me anyway.

    • It probably is. Poor independent publishers being called “small.” That’s like the opposite of a euphemism. They kind of got the short end of the stick on that deal.

  3. I feel as though I’m about to start a fight, so I’ll try to sound reasonable: I totally disagree with you, Rogue, and not just because I think I’m the one who started using the word “indie” for self-published authors. At least in my circles. For a brief period of time, I did a blog about trying to get published before I stopped caring (much) about getting published (by someone else) and in that blog I frequently mentioned that I thought it was stupid for self-published authors to call themselves self-published, because of the stigma attached to that. I mentioned bands like “Arctic Monkeys,” which got big by letting people record their shows and post them online, and how nobody called that “self-publishing,” but called them “indie” bands, like Ani DiFranco is an “indie artist” even though she used to sell CDs out of the trunk of her car.

    So I like the “indie” label because it avoids the “I mimeographed this” stereotype.

    But I think it’s accurate, too: You’re an independent if you’re not part of the publishing system. The line you draw is between “small publishers” and “me.” But that line seems as artificial as “Random House” and “small publishers.” Perhaps you could say “a true indie publisher is a publisher that puts out books by more than just the author him/herself” but then I would be an indie publisher if I decided to slap “The Trouble With Roy” books on a collection of poetry from some jerk somewhere, even if 99%+ of my “catalog” is from me, which makes it an artificial distinction again.

    I hate to be on the side of Rachel In The OC and all her “snark,” but if people are going to use labels and make determinations based on them, then someone like me (or you) would be better off using “indie” as a publishing moniker than “self” published — because you’re independent of the big houses and the small houses.

    And, using “indie” too puts you in line with such “indie” filmmakers as Kevin Smith, who made his movie without studio help, and that guy who made “The Foot Fist Way” and others. If a person can be an indie filmmaker by self-publishing his film, and an indie singer by self-publishing his music (see: Jonathan Coulter) why not an indie author?

    • Music gets really confusing. For instance artists like Madonna have their own record labels. Does that make Madonna’s music “self-published” or “indie”? I don’t think anyone would say that. Some artists start their own label because, like my favorite indie artist Josh Joplin, they get dropped from a label and can’t find another. Others just want more creative control or a bigger share of the profits. Which considering how the big record companies screw artists (I was reading someone’s blog entry mentioning an article saying how bands can sell millions of albums and still be in debt to the record company because of shitty contract terms) makes a lot of sense. A lot of self-publishers might say that’s why they’re going that way too, which is probably lying to themselves. I mean if Random House offered to publish my book I’d jump at the chance. I’m just saying.

      There’s really no such thing as a truly independent movie. I mean the only way to be truly independent would be for the filmmakers to pay for everything on their own. Maybe those kids with the “Blair Witch Project” did that but even “independent” filmmakers have to get financing from somewhere because movies are really expensive unless you shoot the whole thing with your cell phone and get your friends to act in it for free using homemade sets and stuff. And a lot of the time if someone’s financing the picture then they’ll want to have some say in how it’s made as an “executive producer” or something.

      Anyway, I think we can split hairs by calling it “indie publishing” but the savvy consumer will figure out it’s self-publishing anyway.

  4. You can get away with not using euphemisms because you have no repercussions. I, however, cannot say (for example) midget over little person or I will get disciplined and possibly fired at my job. Since I don’t make my money via publishing, this is a pretty big deal. But I understand the whole bit with euphemisms and they do get to be tedious. I actually hadn’t given the whole “indie” and “self-published” monikers much thought. It’s interesting and I don’t really see a point. Maybe it should all be renamed Non-Big Six. AS in “I’m a non-big Six author” because that’s all that really matters.

  5. Some say “Indie” is supposed to mean a self-publisher who doesn’t put a lot of money into the project because they sell e-books, which don’t cost much to produce. While before, the self-publisher had to pay more to produce paperbacks. So the name “Indie” may tie in with the new popularity of e-books and the lower cost involved in being self-published.

    Anyway, It doesn’t really matter to me if they call it “Indie” or “Self-publishing”.

  6. Good point. The stigma of self -publishing has made a dramatic turn around. We just have to own it.

  7. I’m not sure I agree with you on this one. If you look at the film industry, “indie” encompasses a lot of ground. And I mean a lot of ground. Technically speaking, George Lucas is an independent movie maker although we don’t consider him as such. 20th Century Fox didn’t -make- Star Wars, George Lucas did, and he retained ownership of his movies. Fox just did the distribution. Likewise, before Disney actually owned Pixar, Pixar was an independent movie maker with Disney acting as distributor. Kevin Smith started out indie, but, after the success of Clerks, he actually contracted with Miramax to make his movies, so he was no longer independent. Then you have something like The Blair Witch Project which was just about the most indie you could get when it was made.

    I suppose what I’m saying is that as long as it’s outside of the “Big 6,” it’s all independent. It’s independent of the Big 6, and that’s all that really matters. It doesn’t matter whether it’s self-published or through a small publisher, it’s still “indie.”

    That said, I’ve never told anyone that I’m an “indie” writer. I’m writer with a self-published book. Sometimes, people immediately lose interest when I say I self-published (you can see it in their eyes and the way that they stand), but I don’t really care. I wrote a book, a good book, and that’s more than you can say for what 99% of people will ever accomplish.

    • I agree the movie and music systems both work different than with books. With books the system is much more clear-cut. At the top you have the Big Six and their various divisions. Then you have the smaller publishers who operate in generally the same manner only on a smaller scale. Then at the bottom you have all of us self-publishers.

      I’d be curious to find out how well the “indie” euphemism is actually working. I think the more savvy consumers will figure it out even if you try to conceal it by using a fake publisher name. Really the only way to fight the self-publisher prejudice is to actually make good books. Unfortunately there are still too many people who give it a bad name by putting out shit.

      • That part’s never going to change. People make bad movies and bad music, too. It’s just harder with books, because they take longer to evaluate. I don’t think things are really going to change until book retailers start taking independently published books seriously and start having people evaluate them for selling in more traditional ways.

  8. Another authors post on the same subject, but different conclusion. For ebooks, both indie and self published authors use the same main distribution channels – Amazon, B&N and smashwords. Printed books is a dying industry and so will be the term “small press publishing”. The game for authors is how they promote and brand themselves and their books. I would say most are moving toward indie author.

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