This is the first article in an ongoing series that will examine every aspect of indie authorship and how developing relationships with indie authors and their communities can benefit both libraries and writers. We will explore why trusted names in the library business, such as Ingram, Publishers Weekly, and Library Journal support indie authors. Likewise, we will look at the efforts of libraries—from huge Los Angeles Public Library to not-so-huge Williamson County, VA—on behalf of indie authors. We will examine the forces that have led to the rise of the indie author, and since NSR is about digital content in libraries, we will look closely at how the internet, the worldwide web, and ebooks are the technologies that have made indie publishing viable in a way that vanity publishing never was.
What is an Indie Author?
Let’s first try to understand what an indie author is, and why knowing something about what makes indie authors indie helps librarians understand how to work with them.
We all know how traditionally published authors work with their publishers, or at least we have a general idea. We know that the author is supported, and to some extent directed, by an editor or several editors. The editor may guide in the development of a manuscript, that is in developing characters and plot in fiction. The editor will assure that the manuscript receives thorough fact checking and vetting in nonfiction. Every manuscript will be copy edited. The cover will be designed and executed by a professional. The book will be typeset in a pleasing font and printed on book paper. The finished book, whether printed or digital, will truly be a finished product. Whether we care for the opinions expressed or the fantasies created within, we know that the book meets what we commonly call good editorial standards.
We may also think we know how indie authors work, but we may not. According to Library Journal’s Evidence for Indies webinar, over 20% of libraries do not include indie authors’ books in their collections because of concerns over poor editorial quality. Almost 35% reject all indie books because of the lack of authoritative reviews. So, let’s go back in our minds to when people who published books they had written were called self-published authors. Often, they had written, edited, designed and illustrated a book, and then paid a local printer to produce a paperback edition. Or, they had paid a vanity press to handle many of these tasks, and the vanity press had done a poor job. The finished book was full of grammatical and spelling errors. The cover was ugly. The font was a bold face san serif on brilliant white paper. The grain of the paper went the wrong way, so the book would not open without force. Even if the content of the book was worthwhile, without the knowledge and skills of a publisher, the final product was not good enough to go into a library collection. It may have been through several drafts, but it read like a first draft.
This is why many self-published authors now prefer to call themselves indie authors. They do not want a pejorative label. But, what are they doing differently that makes their books better? And, why do some of them take a further step and call themselves indie publishers instead of indie authors? They call themselves indie publishers to make clear that they are functioning like micro-businesses, like tiny publishers. Just as the companies that we consider legitimate publishers hire out much of their editorial and design work to freelancers, so indie authors now hire professional editors and designers to assist them in producing their books. Likewise, they may use an accounting service to help run their business. Rather than having their books printed at a local print shop, they use IngramSpark or CreateSpace. They use the BlueInk Review service to get an unbiased third-party review. The reviews may appear in Booklist or PW. In other words, these authors are producing books that are clearly up to good editorial and production standards, so there is no reason not to include them in a library’s collection provided they are of interest to the patrons.
As an interesting aside, none of this could have happened without the internet, easy access to computing equipment, and the development of the freelance economy. Another way of looking at indie authors is as small business owners that rely on freelancers to fill in skill gaps. And another way of explaining why the quality of indie books has improved so much is that, since indie authors can sell their books through Amazon and other major marketing platforms, their books can now compete with books from established publishers, and even with books from the Big Five. Without access to major markets via internet-based companies, indie authors could not compete. When bookstores were the main platform for book sales, indie authors could not sell beyond their local markets, at best. The large publishers controlled the book distribution network. If a person chose to self-publish, the book would probably sell in small numbers if at all. Self-publishing was not viable as a business. Today, commercially successful indie authors earn large amounts of money, so becoming an indie author appeals to people who are very serious, not only about writing but about competing in the marketplace, and these competitive people achieve high standards.
To get back to the immediate task of defining the term indie author, throughout this series of articles, we will use it in a narrow sense to describe an author who has written and published one or more books with or without the assistance of publishing professionals. I am not going to use the term indie publisher as interchangeable with indie author because independent publisher is the term for publishing companies that are independent businesses. That is, they are not subsidiaries of larger companies. Rosen Publishing or Sourcebooks are examples of independent publishers. Each produces hundreds if not thousands of books every year. They are quite different from authors who are publishing their own works. Indie authors publish their own works. That is what defines them. Some indie authors may also publish with publishing companies, but for the purpose of these articles it is the act of publishing their own work that defines them.
Why Librarians Should Pay Attention to Indies
So far, we have defined what we mean by an indie author. Now, let’s try to understand why libraries should work with them. As Jamie LaRue predicted in his 2015 LJ piece on LAPL and self-publishing:
“For at least a generation, libraries have focused their collection development efforts on the Big Six (now Big Five) publishers. But that domination of library purchases and circulation may be about to change.”
He went on to quote stats from an Author Earnings Report that showed indie authors competing very successfully with Big Five authors for sales on Amazon. Since then, more and more indie authors have succeeded commercially while competing against traditionally published authors.
Let’s look at some prominent indie authors, first, so we can appreciate what they have done. Here are a few names you probably know.
John Locke (the living author, not the English philosopher) was the first indie author to pass the 1,000,000 sale mark with an ebook. According to his Amazon author page, he has written 32 books in six genres. He was the eighth author to sell more than one million books on Kindle, and he did this in only five months. He has made the NYT bestseller lists, too. Simon & Schuster distributes print editions of his books, but he does not have a conventional agreement with them. He is still an indie.
Darcie Chan wrote her bestselling The Mill River Recluse and gave up on getting it published after many rejections. When ebooks emerged as a way to self-publish, she tried that and her book sold over 650,000 copies, driven by word of mouth.
Hugh Howey wrote Wool in his spare time and self-published it. Eventually, he sold the print rights to the Arrow imprint of Penguin Random House, but he retained the ebook rights. His series has sold in the millions.
Signing with a big publisher is no longer the only route to success as an author. Given the time required and the frustrations, authors increasingly go indie so they can bypass the traditional two-year publishing cycle, get a higher royalty, and maintain full control over their work. Besides, if an author is successful as an indie, then a large publisher will make an offer. So, there is no downside to trying to succeed as an indie.
Publishing sales figures are difficult to understand. PW has its lists. The New York Times has its lists, and so does USA Today. There are others, too. Amazon just began posting their sales figures on Amazon Charts, so this adds yet another metric to track.
To get a comprehensive look at sales figures, Author Earnings is the only source I know of that attempts to build a comprehensive report of all US trade publishing sales. Their latest report comes from a presentation at this year’s Digital Book World conference and covers 2016 data. You can get the report from their website. It shows that indie authors are performing well in the marketplace, and that libraries should take them seriously.
Clearly, the development of the internet, inexpensive access to computing equipment, and other new technologies have made indie authorship profitable and competitive with traditional publishing. This has created a new kind of commercially successful author. Now is the time for libraries to embrace indie authors, not only as part of their mission to foster literature and culture, but because these authors can increase community involvement and support for the libraries.
Indie Author Day is an annual event that brings indie authors into libraries to the benefit of the authors, their readers, the libraries, and the libraries’ communities. Indie Author Day is sponsored by NSR, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and several other organizations that support libraries. The sponsors provide everything librarians need to know in order to do an Indie Author Day in their libraries. Next week, we will explore it.