Indie publishing slakes a thirst for new voices

Indie author, IndieReader, indie lit—a new buzzword has clearly come into vogue in the book world. But what is “indie publishing,” anyway? For many, the term is synonymous with (and maybe less stigmatized than) “self-publishing”—an author’s do-it-yourself production of a work at his or her own expense.

But for others, “indie publishing” stands in contrast to “traditional” publishing, often called “trad” or “legacy” publishing by doubters. And it refers to the world of small presses, independently-owned publishers, and non-corporate book companies with, usually, low sales. But that may be changing. Indie publishing is a vibrant and growing category, worth exploring by writers who identify with the adjective “indie” no matter what noun it’s attached to. To really understand the notion of an indie press, it helps to ask what, exactly, such publishers are independent from. More and more over the past generation, venerable traditional publishers have been consolidated into what are commonly known as The Big Six:
  • • Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group / Macmillan
  • • Hachette
  • • HarperCollins
  • • Penguin Books
  • • Random House
  • • Simon & Schuster
Except that now we have the Big Five, because the fourth and fifth examples in that list have combined to form Penguin Random House. Interestingly, only two of these huge houses are U.S. companies: Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins. Each of the Big Five encompasses many imprints under one roof: Simon & Schuster, for example, parents Atria Books, Gallery Books, and Scribner; HarperCollins comprises more 120 imprints, including Amistad, Avon, and Ecco. Simon & Schuster produces about 2,000 titles every year, while HarperCollins publishes roughly 10,000. In 2015, Simon & Schuster reported $233 million in revenue in 2015. HarperCollins? $1.67 billion. Other major publishers include the smaller but prestigious houses like W. W. Norton, which publishes around 400 titles a year (and reports an annual revenue of about $250 million), including those by best-selling authors Michael Lewis and Mary Roach. Another, Grove/Atlantic, boasts a backlist that runs the gamut from the beats (William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg), to Pulitzer– and Nobel Prize–winning authors (Samuel Beckett, David Mamet, Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz, Kenzaburō Ōe, and Elfriede Jelinek). In the late 1950s and early 1960s, then-publisher Grove challenged challenged obscenity laws by releasing D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. Also in the “trad” category are academic presses and museum presses, which are generally smaller in size and output but benefit from their association with large and often prestigious institutions. (Of course, the Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press sees about $1.24 billion in revenue every year; such financial prowess can't be called "smaller.") The nonprofit University of California Press publishes about 175 books a year and maintains 4,000 titles in print. Indie presses lack these institutional associations, and they tend to be younger, tinier, and scrappier. At one end of the scale is the imprint of a solo author who invents a publishing name (the street her or she lives on, perhaps) and registers the copyright under it. SparkPress is less a vanity project than a "hybrid" publisher founded in 2016 to allow unknown authors or unconventional subjects to get to press and distribution. (Full disclosure: I know about SparkPress because it recently published my book The Natives Are Restless). There is curation at SparkPress, but the hybrid part is that authors pay to have their books listed and to get distribution with Ingram. Coffee House Press is a nonprofit literary publisher whose mission is “to publish exciting, vital, and enduring authors of our time.” The company uses this tagline on each book: “Literature is not the same thing as publishing.” The publishing world is often criticized for being too white, too male, and too hetero. “The world of indie-publishing gives authors more freedom,” suggest the bloggers at IndieReader. With the indie press, IndieReader continues, “previously marginalized writers are able to reach a wider audience—and readers can be treated to a wealth of new perspectives and experiences.” A huge segment of those "marginalized" writers are women, and some entrepreneurs are forming indie presses to give them a forum. She Writes Press was founded in 2012 by Kamy Wicoff and Brooke Warner  as a response to the barriers to traditional publishing getting higher and higher for authors. Wicoff’s online community, She Writes, had been founded on the principle of connecting and serving women writers. As the Executive Editor at Seal Press for eight years, Warner found herself having to reject beautifully written books because their author didn’t have what traditional publishers often require: a strong platform. (See this post for a definition of platform I agree with.) The two entrepreneurs envisioned a company where authors would be invited to publish based on the merit of their writing alone. The press itself could provide a way for women to launch their writing careers and compete with traditional counterparts. In a July 2016 article, “American Literature Needs Indie Presses,” in the Atlantic, Nathan Scott McNamara pointed out that the weakness of many bureaucracies--a lack of nimbleness—now applies to traditional publishing. He wrote, “Major presses are inadvertently helping foster an environment where American indie presses can thrive by doing the very thing they’re best at: focusing on creativity and originality over sales.” One of the examples cited in the Atlantic article is the self-described “publishing project” Dorothy, which only releases two titles per year. “We work to pair books that draw upon different aesthetic traditions,” the publisher was quoted as saying. “A large part of our interest in literature lies in its possibilities, its endless stylistic and formal variety.” When sales (and corporate profits) are not the do-or-die goal, these indie publishers can focus on bringing art they love to an audience. And things like nimbleness and lower overhead make different risks possible. “Dorothy powerfully demonstrates the deft curation that’s possible with a small press,” says McNamara in the Atlantic. "Dorothy books emerge each October like ringing endorsements of writers you’ve never heard of by a friend whose taste you can absolutely trust." Many of the indie presses are outside of New York--way outside. Graywolf is based in Minneapolis, Tin House in Portland, Dorothy in St. Louis. In Marin County, California, WTAW Press was founded in 2016 with a mission to make available to the reading public "voices that need to be heard." It builds on the reputation of the Why There Are Words literary-reading series. The impresario of the series and founder of WTAW, Peg Alford Pursell, has expressed a desire to given the voices she hears in the reading series a home—and a level of support—that can prove illusive from the Big Five. "I know firsthand of the despair of writers whose exceptional work is not being given a chance in the corporate publishing climate that rarely takes chances," says Ms. Pursell. "I've read and worked on, as a freelance editor, more beautiful and important manuscripts than I can count that have been overlooked by the 'big five.' Rather than remain depressed, I decided to join the ranks of other independent presses that are publishing significant, necessary, and exceptional works." With the new wave of indie publishing gaining significant cultural ground, we have high hopes for the future: more books, more beauty, and less bottom-line thinking. {Zenya Prowell contributed research for this essay.}

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