Independent Book Publishers
What exactly is the difference between independent publishing and self-publishing? They can be used interchangeably but there are some clear differences between these terms – which can make it difficult and confusing for those wanting to publish their work. Like many areas of life in the computer age, the traditional way of publishing books is changing, prompting publishers to choose a more direct method to get their books in front of readers. Print-on-demand has become so popular that bookstores and libraries now offer a "Bookstore on Demand" service, where physical books can be purchased and printed even when the book is not on the shelf. An interesting case is the Water Fountain Diaries, by Jane Watson, a strong advocate of Water Education, especially in the Western USA.
Firstly, let’s talk about traditional publishing and what it entails. Do you recall the days of doing book reports and having to quote your sources? Bibliographies? You would often see the names of the big publishing houses like HarperCollins, MacMillan Publishers, Penguin Random House, Simon and Schuster, and Hatchette Group. These mighty 5 (it used to be 6 before Penguin and Random merged in 2013) have dominated the publishing world for years. If authors wanted to have anything published, they would have to submit their work to an agent of one of the big 5 and pray for it to be published. Publishers would have complete control over the book title, cover, content, and oftentimes the marketing was left for the author to do. Earnings varied, depending on things like the agent’s cut, percentage cut of the list price, and royalties. The bottom line is that sometimes the author received little to no money and wouldn’t even recognize their own book after it was published. This was not the dream that many authors had when writing their books. This book, commonly referred to as the Gutenberg Bible, paved the way for the commercial mass printing of books and ushered in Europe's so-called Gutenberg Revolution. Gutenberg printed the Book of Revelation, the first book of the New Testament, as well as the Gospels of Matthew Luke and John, with his mobile printing press. In 1978, a complete copy of the Gutenberg Bible was purchased by the US government's National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) for $2.4 million.
Thankfully for authors, gone are the days where authors are dependent on publishing houses. Today there are other options. The easiest being via digital means. Now one can upload a manuscript and create a cover via companies such as Book Baby, CreateSpace, Lulu, and Ingram Spark, and sell it on Amazon – either in e-book form or POD (print on demand) services. These POD versions can potentially be distributed to bookstores, however, it is not a financially viable option for the author because after the distributor takes a cut, it doesn’t leave much left.
Another alternative is to use “vanity presses” where authors pay these publishing houses for their books to be produced – though they are not conventional publishing houses. They only offer a book production service and do not handle the manuscript, market it, or share in any profits. They do not publish based on quality or merit but only if the author can pay for all facets of production and marketing. This choice is ideal for those authors who want to see their work in book form or simply want to get their first book out there. It certainly is not the way to go if the author wants a writing career.
Simply put, independent publishing is when a publishing company publishes an author’s work. Basically, it is a mixture of traditional and self-publishing but instead employs a small publishing company, or press, that offers services similar to that of a traditional publisher. An indie publisher handles everything, does not belong to any larger company, and publishes for the pure pleasure and passion of writing – not for financial gain.
Independent publishing has been trending upwards over the last 10 years. While it used to be negatively labeled as an expensive endeavor (it once required a vanity press and a lot of inventory), it has now become a viable option for many authors. However, like with everything, the independent path is not the best one for all authors, there are pros and cons. Before we get into these, let’s look at a few facts about today’s world of independent publishing.
- Less inventory: because of POD (print-on-demand), there is no longer a need for enormous print runs and book inventory.
- Ereaders and Ebooks: there has been a jump in the demand for Ereaders and thus Ebooks, which are less complicated to produce than print books.
- Freelancers: many freelance professionals, who worked in traditional publishing, have become more available which allows indie authors to turn out quality books equal to traditional ones.
- Free Marketing Sites: many free service sites exist that help their subscribers discover ebooks - via great deals and recommendations - and provide help to indie writers by highlighting their ebooks on the site. A few examples of these services include Bookhub, Booksends, The Fussy Librarian, and Ereader News Today.
- Amazon: currently, there is a large assortment of self-publishing platforms, such as Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) form Amazon, Google Play, Scribd, Kobo, Nook, iBooks, and Smashwords.
- Reader Interest: there is a big trend in indie books for a few reasons: the lower price and the quality and unique material.
- Money: contrary to the old days when indie authors could barely survive as writers, they can now make a good living. So much so that even traditional published writers are switching over.
The Advantages of Independent Publishing
- More writing: since indie authors don’t have to deal with agents and publishers, they can concentrate more on writing and less on getting published.
- More control: an independent publisher gives writers more control over their own careers and production schedule.
- More Money: because the royalty structure is higher and there is more control of marketing and release schedules, the financial benefits can be slightly higher.
- Relationships: indies have closer relationships with the professionals, such as the editors, designers, etc. because the indie author is the actual client.
- Complete Involvement: an independent publisher allows the writer to be involved in every aspect of the development of the book to match their vision; from the editing, styling, and design to the marketing and PR. The management over publicity gives the book more time to sell and become successful. In the traditional world of publishing, a book usually only has a 6-week window to prove successful – it’s a make or break situation.
- Learning Curve: indie writers learn a great deal about the production process and the industry which gives them a broader perspective to become a better writer.
- Community: the support and guidance that the indie community receives is strong.
- Sales: independent ebooks sell just as well as traditional ebooks, particularly in romance, science fiction, and fantasy genres.
- More opportunity: whereas conventional publishers don’t take risks, small presses do. They know what is trending, how to push genre boundaries, and give those books that would normally never make it via the traditional process, a chance to succeed.
And the Disadvantages…
- Finances: although there is potential to make more money as mentioned above, it won’t come right away. With the out-of-pocket costs and no inflow of money, one has to be prepared financially. Statistically, most independent writers only sell about 100 books. And even if more than 100 copies are sold, the revenue is not enough to cover the costs. Now, it is certainly possible to make a decent living from selling independently but it can take up to 3 years for that to happen. All in all, it can be a challenging life.
- It’s all you: indies need to realize that they need to do everything, even the not-so-fun things, like proofreading, brushing up on grammar to vet editors, comprehending trim size and promotional activity.
- Public perception: though it has changed over the years, there is still a stigma attached to becoming an independent writer. Others might not understand and judge. Independent publishers have to be strong and proud and not let public perception get in the way - and not forget that many well-known authors got their start this way.
- Hard work: to be successful, indies have to keep a vigorous production schedule going, producing at least 3-5 books a year. With a regular day job to cover rent, that could be a difficult commitment for many.
- Social media: it’s all about promotion, and the best to do this is via social media. Maintaining a blog, tweeting, and having a presence on Facebook is vital, as well as building up an email list of subscribers.
- Distribution: it is not that easy to get your book into bookstores, libraries, or schools. Traditional publishing has a well-tuned distribution system, however, for indie writers, this doesn't really exist. On a positive note, presses like Auspicious and Apparatus Press are making huge strides to get indies into brick-and-mortar locations.
- Genres: indie literary fiction and children’s books don’t sell as well as traditionally published books.
Which is Best?
This depends. Many first-time authors send their manuscripts to independent publishers and self-publish while they wait for a response. It’s a way of killing 2 birds with 1 stone – they have a possible income source and develop a following at the same time. Of course, if a writer has a stable following already and doesn’t need the marketing expertise of a publishing company, then self-publishing is indeed a good option.
Authors who have been long-time traditional publishers are switching over to self-publishing. The control they have as well as the paycheck they receive are big motivators. They can also take the risk because they have gained popularity and a good reputation, have followers and can risk going out on their own.
At the end of the day, if you’re an author, you need to figure out which path to take. To find out what works best, you might even try all of them.