Publishing labels still matter still, but why? Are they useful?

When outsiders (readers, marketers etc.) look at my writing, they usually refer to me as an “indie author”, and I’ve not really questioned that assertion, not until I read an article the other day from an author who more or less put the equal sign between self-published and indie. That had me wondering. Am I really an independent (or indie) author? I am, after all, published by a publishing company, four to be exact since I first began writing in 2000. I started to look for definitions of what the different terms stand for, and how different people used them, and tbh, it’s a mess out there.

What say the experts?

Here are a few of the articles I’ve read. They have all been published in the past couple of years:

  • Katherine E. Hamilton, a fellow author, makes a difference between indie and self as a form of proclamation of independence. In her eyes, self-publishers are published through what I would call “vanity publishers” or “hybrid publishers”. What she considers “indie” is what I’d call “self-publishing”, i.e. you do it all yourself using online tools available. Read her post here.
  • 1106Design introduce new terms into the mix: “small press”, which I find useful. On the other hand, they seem to throw indie authors and self-published ones into the same bowl. They are more interested in distinguishing author from a publisher in terms of money making. Not much clarification there… Read their post here.
  • This interview, found on The Balance, was interesting, as it basically equated (as several others did) self-publishing to indie publishing, and she really makes the case for going “trad”. This article highlights some of the reasons why readers to this very day attribute a higher value to books published by a publishing house v those from self/indie publishers, highlighting the passage through the eye of the needle (acceptance from a publisher) and the quality assurance process from traditional publishers. Read it here.

My take…

There are a great many other articles (google them) which are variations to the theme. It seems that most people shun the word “self-published” for the hipper term “indie” (re Hamilton.) For an established author, I certainly see the allure to sell your works on Amazon and reap up to 70% royalties compared to the 15-20% they might get from a traditional publisher. If you’re not established with a large customer base, beware of the traps!

For me though, the issue is a lot more complex and involves quality aspects as well. I wish we could just focus on the mere aspects of the actual publishing (or go-to-market) aspects, or focus on creative control, but sadly, the public’s perception is important. Even if you disregard the readers, there are a great many companies that differentiate between indie and traditional publishing in their approach, e.g. distributors newspapers and library services. When I was recently reviewed by Kirkus reviews, it was in their indie section, even though I’m published through what I’d call a “small press”. That distinction, and people’s (mostly) false preconception of all things indie being of “lesser quality” can’t be disregarded.

Today’s publishing world can be viewed from different aspects:

Publishing aspects

You could create this really complex flow diagram of how this all works. My point is that simply because we live in a world where it’s cheaper to print your books using POD (print on demand) solutions, e.g. because you have no warehouse cost, doesn’t mean that such a press automatically is “indie” or non-trad. Even traditional houses use modern go-to-market technology. I find the entire technical aspect not helpful in distinguishing traditional from independent publishing. The more important aspects revolve around “control” and “quality” much more interesting and valuable.

The more independent you are as an author, the greater control you have over the creative aspects of your work. To some of us, this is very important. I often talk to authors who are frustrated when their publishers expect them to rewrite this or that, not because of bad writing (we all hope that our editors catch that, trust me), but because a publisher believes that a character or a scene (even an entire premise) must be made more sellable.

Control and money go hand in hand…

Money. Any author economy depends on the influx of money.

Don’t be angry at a publisher for expecting you to write a book that sells! If you write romance, your publisher will expect you to include aspects they know sell well, from explicit sex scenes to mind-boggling misunderstandings what will have readers cringe and characters that are en vogue (one day it’s alphas, the next it is touchy-feely nerds.)

If you feel that your story is too important, as a work of art, then maybe you should think twice if such a publisher is the right fit for you. They don’t expect you to be “salesy” because they may not love your manuscript as it is, but because they know how readers will react. And if a book doesn’t sell, you won’t get a second contract, because no business is in the business of losing money…

If control is important to you, you will want to go toward indie, no doubt. But luckily, these days, there are many different options available. That doesn’t mean you have to go self-publishing or create your own indie publishing company. You can find an indie press that values your work as is and has the readers that appreciate it. Or, if you just want to see your story shine in a book, go hybrid or vanity.

Perception still matters…

Sadly, to this day, readers value books from traditional houses higher than those of indie publishers. While this is changing, the preconception that self-published books are of lesser quality is still affecting the entire indie side. And here’s the brutal truth: the worst books on the market are published by self-published authors. That’s just a fact. This isn’t necessarily just due to bad stories per se, but book covers from hell, lack of editing, proofing, paginating etc.. Services like CreateSpace et al offer a great service to people who want to get their word out, but their minimal machine proofing is no better than the tools included in Word or Pages, and we all know they don’t catch even half of it.

I’ve sometimes ended up in discussions about “right to be published” as if it were a human right, and while I accept that some people feel that way, I do not. Some say “poverty shouldn’t stop people from being published” No, it shouldn’t. But if a story isn’t good enough for a publisher, what makes you think people will want to read it? Will it be better without even being edited or proofed? You think?

Being published is no human right, it’s not an entitlement. Some writers will choose self-publishing because they can’t be bothered to actually research their genre market and find a good fit in a publisher (small, hybrid or whatever) to help them get their work out. The market usually takes care of such books. I’ve had people complain that their books are returned on Amazon, finding that deeply unfair. Well, if you write crap, that’s what you get in return…

Having said that, I also firmly believe, and I’ve said it before, that the very very best books are published independently these days. These are artistically beautiful books, with great stories, editing, and proofing that just weren’t good fits for publishers. The Big 5 and their publishing is so extremely focused on what sells that they tend to ride on waves, much like commercial “top hit” radio stations, where they all pretty much play the same. You’ll see book after book in the same genre after a big hit, and the quality of the story is secondary. Which isn’t saying that these are bad stories, just that they do not have the same artistic value as some of the more niche ones. You rarely see Nobel Prize winners being best-sellers, to put it differently.

This all amounts to what exactly?

If you’re thinking about going indie, consider this: do you have an audience? Do you know how to reach them? Do you understand the market in depth? If you don’t, I’d seriously recommend you go through a traditional publisher. Not necessarily the Big 5, but find a niche publisher, a small press, someone who understands the genre you write in. They will have that market knowledge. But even if you do have all of the above, as an indie published author, you’ll still sell fewer books, simply because of the perception I’ve described above, the “stigma” Hamilton speaks of.

I’m lucky in a way. I’ve found a small press that allows me to retain most of my creative control, and my royalties are larger than those normally paid by traditional publishers. On the other hand, given that the term “small press” has mostly disappeared from public use and “trad” is often equated to the “Big 5”, my publisher is usually considered “indie”, and they are, at least from the perspective of the owners (who are also authors.) So no matter how you twist and turn this beast, it ain’t easy.

Does this help or make matters worse?

If you are new to all this, it can be complicated, confusing. I’ve created this table, and I’m in no way claiming it to be complete, but I hope it may help you understand the publishing industry a bit better:

Publishing comparison

A larger full-size version of the chart can be found here. What is your take?

One more thing: (financial) stability

In this changing industry, I’ve seen a number of small presses go belly-up in recent years. Some of them had achieved a significant size and reputation in their genres. That is a risk you take when you sign up with a small house. Small house, small muscles. Authors have lost a lot of money from bankruptcies and not a few have been forced into indie-publishing with their entire catalogs (imagine the pain and work…)

For those who have significant followings, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. For others, a disaster and many published titles have forever vanished from bookshelves, physical and electronic because no new publisher could be found and the author couldn’t or didn’t want to self-publish.

Times are changing, fast and I see no slowing down…

But it’s not just financial stability that bigger houses bring to the table. It’s also traditions, rules and processes in place for things like ethics etc. Just recently, a small house in the LGBT industry got into a hot mess over their alleged racism. While this could happen to anyone, the likelihood of things being caught early are greater the more eyes a book sees, and the better processes a house has in place. Size matters in this regard. And even when things blow up, chances are that a big house has better and more professional resources to handle the fallout.

The author of this post was first published in 2000, for a non-fiction book about e-learning. But he’s also gained experience self- or indie-publishing and still has one non-fiction book about his and his husband’s journey to fatherhood out that way. He also indie publishes his audio books. His fiction is published by Beaten Track Publishing, a British small press. Photo: Alina Oswald, New York

The publishing industry is changing. More and more people write and publish books, while fewer and fewer actually sell any. Let’s not even talk about being able to make a decent or even passable living from your writing (of books.) Most authors I know have day jobs or supplement their income writing for magazines etc.


I’m curious to hear from you:

  • Do labels bother you?
  • Does the lingering perception of self-publishing/indie affect your decision-making process with regards to what avenue to take?
  • How important is creative control to you?
  • A house’s reputation?
  • Sales?

Let’s hear it. Feel free to comment and contribute.

As always, if you like my blog, my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. Interact with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great week and don’t be shy. Your experiences and comments are most welcome.

Hans M Hirschi

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