This blog was featured on 08/29/2016
Which Authors Get to Be "Indie"?

When you hear the term "indie author," who comes to mind? Do you think of an author published by a small but traditional independent publishing house, or do you think of a self-published author? Or maybe either/or?

As the world of publishing shifts beneath our feet, so does the language of publishing. The term "indie" was at one point reserved for independent small presses. It was a label that distinguished them from their bigger corporate counterparts. It's been years, however, since the term was co-opted by self-published authors, and more and more it's the norm to think of "indie" and "self-published" as going hand-in-hand.

Meanwhile, I know a lot of publishing insiders who bristle at this, feeling that the term has been appropriated. They're possessive of the term, as if it means anything other than "independent." As if there's not room at the table for all of us.

Plus, the term itself was never really publishing's to begin with. It originated with music and film, two industries that do a much better job of celebrating and embracing their independent artists than the book industry does.

To be indie speaks to a certain spirit, the spirit of independence. This belongs to any author who's either driving their own publishing process, or being invited by their publishing house to collaborate and/or partner in the creative process. I know independent small presses who will put up a fight over the label, but who do not exhibit the indie spirit in their dealings with authors.

Wikipedia defines "indie" in many ways, but under the small press subhead, it says:

a book or magazine publisher whose publications appeal to small, niche audiences, and are typically not distributed widely.

Interestingly, those very indie presses who want to fend off appropriators of their term are in fact widely distributed, and would be quick to align themselves more closely to their corporate counterparts when it comes to discussions about their capacity to get books to marketplace.

As a culture, our indie spirit is wrapped up in our very fiber. America is the land of Independence, and "indie" is a feel-good label that artists of any modality wear with pride.

In my forthcoming book, Green-Light Your Book, I celebrate the spirit of independence by championing indie authors of all stripes, but also the spirit of generosity. Because of the rise of self-publishing, book publishing has adopted an us versus them position that's not good for any author. It's traditional versus self. Paid-to-publish versus paying-to-publish. Offset print runs versus print-on-demand. Everywhere I look I see people trying to distinguish between "good" and "bad" books using arbitrary measures, and the favorite, of course, is author subsidization.

And yet all authors who care about their books put their own money behind it, and all of us have read terrible traditionally published books alongside our best-loved books. And plenty of self-published authors are writing and publishing well-designed, gorgeously written, and award-winning books.

Publishing is treated as a zero-sum game, but it doesn't have to be. There is room at the table for all of us, so let's all revel in our own indie-ness, and not shut other authors out because we deem them not indie enough.

Let's be friends

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  • Michelle Cox

    Well said, Brooke!  You are helping to change the face of publishing.  No small feat.

  • Thank you so much Brooke,excellent!

  • Thanks, Judith!

  • Judith Gille

    Thanks Brooke for this article. I look forward to reading Green-Light Your Book!


  • B. Lynn Goodwin

    Shouldn't a book be judged on its merits and not the choice of a publisher--especially in the current economy? I know PhDs who self publish and I believe there are a few well-known writers who need a refresher course in telling original, imaginative stories. I know you run a hybrid publishing company, but I also know that you take care of your people and some of your books (I've reviewed several) have done quite well. Publishing has become a charcoal painting; the lines are smudged. JMHO.


    Writer Advice Managing Editor,
    Author of YOU WANT ME TO DO WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers & Author of TALENT
  • I love the celebration here, Kathryn, despite the challenges. I know it well too. Yes to 100% indie. It is a spirit and we capture it and we live and breathe it. :)

  • Yes, Rebecca, I had many editors in the old days that helped me and taught me what not to do. Like you, I kept losing them, though, when they left the publishers or the publishers went under (that has happened twice); the next editor always seemed to not like what I wrote. It was awful how often that happened over my 32 years with publishers. I guess I am just lucky I was a graphic designer and know my way around computers. I wouldn't be able to do all I do, though, without the roots I acquired by traditional publishing all those years. But I love the total freedom of publishing my own books. I love having total control.

  • Rebecca Forster


    You're bringing me back! What memories. I had one editor I adored and she was let go. Too bad, with her knowledge and willingness to put marketing money behind me I made it to the USA Today bestseller list. Then I was orphaned a zillion times. Still, I think you learned as much as I did from the traditional publishers. Some of it was just lessons in what not to do. One of the key points Brooke made was that a team is still necessary. In the old days the publisher provided us with those teams; now we have to put on our business hats and create our own. I find many new authors unwilling to spend any money intially and that can be deterimental to their books. Even a small investment with the right freelance editor or graphic designer can make a huge difference. We really can't fool ourselves that we can do everything ourselves. That, to me, is the most important mindset an indie author needs - acknowledging that this is a business and books are our products. The rewards are there if indies can wear both a creative hat and a corporate hat. One of the best books I ever read on what creative people need to know in order to make a living from their craft was Six Hats by Robin Blakely. Brooke, thanks for starting a great discussion.

  • Brooke
    I came from the world of the traditional legacy publishers when it took a huge amount of work and time to get a manuscript in front of an editor at a publisher, get accepted and published; stay published. I started sending out hard copy manuscripts in 1971 and I've seen it all. Much of it horror stories. Bad editors, bad finished products and unreadable royalty statements. I never made much money, though my books were well-received, and almost stopped writing a million times. So in 2012, book weary after many years of the publishing rat race, I experimented with self-publishing my first book. I was lucky I'd been a graphic designer before that for many years and knew about computers, formatting, etc. What I didn't know I learned from my last small publisher (asking "how do you do this and how do you do that?") who I still had many books with. I did so well with that first self-published book (Dinosaur Lake) in 2012 that as my other contracts lapsed I took my books back and now have self-published all 22 of them. I do everything - formatting, submitting to all the sales venues, promoting- except design the covers. I have a great cover artist I discovered with my last small publisher for those. I now make more money than ever but it takes a lot of work to promote my book empire. So I guess you could say I'm pure 100% Indie (or self-published) these days. I'm just happy I lived long enough to see this wonderful development in publishing. And yes there is room for all of us at the table. It just depends on what level of hands-on an author wants.

  • Alonna, thank you!

    And yes, good point, Rebecca. Not sure what those standards would look like. It's tough, but maybe it wouldn't be about content but that the first five pages not have typos or gross grammatical errors. At least!

  • Rebecca Forster

    Brooke and Amy, 

    I love the term indie because it describes exactly how I feel - free, independent and able to chart my own course. There is also the difference in industry attitude: indie's are open to sharing information. This was not the case in traditional publishing where sharing marketing, agent, and editorial information might mean losing your own spot on lists. 

    Regarding standards, I think Amazon is actually trying to do that with their stricter guidelines on how the book is presented in terms of formatting and editing. I would love to see an independent 'seal of approval' for that but I would worry about a commission overstepping bounds into content. I have had two instances where New York passed on novels I believed in. I went on to publish them myself and they have both proven themselves with reader's awards and sales. My son writes experimental sci-fi and I could see a problem with a quality control board in that genre also. If we get back to a seal of approval for content then we are right back to one of the things that was a problem with traditional publishing. The cool thing about all this is, like the wild west, it will eventaully be tamed.

  • Chandi Wyant

    Brooke, this point you made stood out to me, "It originated with music and film, two industries that do a much better job of celebrating and embracing their independent artists than the book industry does."

  • So awesome, Rebecca. Thanks for sharing your story here.

    Amy, the problem here  is that it's too late. The term is already part of the lexicon. I am on the board of the Independent Book Publishers Association, and the membership is mostly self-published. Self-published authors co-opted the term "indie," and whether they stole it or shouldn't have or did it blindly is somewhat irrelevant at this point. It's been in use for years and so we kind of have to embrace it---I think. I also feel that there's "traditional" and everyone else, which is a stance that the industry propagates, and so indie authors have somewhat had to scramble to figure out their space. Another tough piece here is that there's this huge emerging middle ground and they don't want to be called self-published and they're not self-published. And these authors---all of them---embrace an indie spirit. So my opinion is that the originally "indie" presses, presses like the ones I worked at for years---should welcome any indie author. It's an energy and a spirit, not something that anyone earned more than another group. So we probably have to agree to disagree on this point. :)

    I do agree with you, though, that there needs to be some standard for self-published authors and that's something we should carve out, because not all self-published books are equal. Some people care about standards and hire a great team, and others put out stuff that is fully not ready and they don't care. No one is really stepping up to create a system that would allow for some kind of seal of approval that a book passes muster, and this would be a huge help to weed out the crap and not continue to have "author subsidy" as that measure. So yeah, lots of work yet to do here...

  • Nancy Chadwick Writing


  • Linda Kass

    Well said, Brooke! I loved your point that the term, "indie," originated with music and film, "two industries that do a much better job of celebrating and embracing their independent artists than the book industry does." I agree that indie speaks to a "spirit of independence." Thanks for this post!

  • Rebecca Forster

    Great article. I recently shed the last vestige of my traditional publishing past (25 years with major houses): I parted from my agent. For the last six years I have written and published my own work with the help of an amazing team consisting of a freelance editor, cover artist, formatter and coach/pr firm. The reason I find this such a joyous experience is that we all have that 'indie artist' attitude that you have identified.  My readers are still the same - and growing all the time. They don't care how I am published only that the books remain professional, entertaining and accessible. I love my second-wind career but I am also terribly grateful for all the professionals in New York who pushed me to be the best I could be when I worked with them. 

  • Amy Wallen

    Hi Brooke, This is a very thoughtful post and it has definitely been on my mind a lot lately. Yet, I feel that the self-published world needs to come up with their own word. I think that "Indie" puts to mind just that, independent small press, as you said. It took a long time for those authors to "own" their status as well. And, I think it's important to distinguish between an author who has gone through the rigorous tests and rejections and editing process of big and small presses from someone who has perhaps gone through as much or more rejection, but has decided of their own accord that they can put their book out there without the vetting process. This in no way implies that the self-published books are necessarily better or worse than the other presses. In fact, the one place we agree here the most is that we see so much bad stuff come from the big publishers. But, just as indie writers distinguished themselves and had to teach the world that what they were doing was legit, shouldn't self-published authors earn this same status by proving that self-published is a phrase they are proud of, and not need to latch on to a word that means they were vetted by others? And, as far as the word "indie" not belonging to writers, but to musicians and filmmakers, I know a lot of very small self-published filmmakers who have gone on to win Emmies. And shouldn't that be what self-published authors should be working on? Not what they call themselves, but what their work is doing out in the world. There are some incredible awards out there that self-published authors can submit to, and do, and when they start winning more, and earning cred from their peers, then I think they will have their own status just like indies have. My own opinion is that no matter who publishes you, Penguin, McSweeney's or your Hewlett-Packard printer, if a book has legs it will find its way into the world. I believe what you are saying is be proud of your work no matter how it has been born, and I think we should all maintain how we came into the world and not hide behind a word that does mean they went through the same process when they didn't. Because, when they do win that award, don't you think it would be really cool to be able to say, "And I am self-published."

  • Alonna Shaw Writing

    Brooke, as always, your integrity and kindness shine in your posts. Your description of an indie is the most comfortable I've come across. "This belongs to any author who's either driving their own publishing process, or being invited by their publishing house to collaborate and/or partner in the creative process." The key to the definition is engagement.