Skip to content

Indie vs Self Published: What’s In A Name If The Game’s The Same?

There's been a growing attempt by some authors to make the writing world a society of classes.  Certain status-hungry authors want to define terms as labels.  The labels  allow those writers to cling to the status that apparently means more to them than their relationships with other writers or their readers. In other words, the name game is really the fame game.

Back in the olden days - a couple of years ago - an author was forced into a system where the people who created the work had to act as beggars, supplicants crawling in mass numbers to bow before the altars of literary agents.  The agents functioned as super readers - if they liked your work they might deign to present it to publishers and rake in 15% of your sales for their efforts.  And the publishers?  Whether they were the "Big 6" or smaller, self owned "independent" companies, they generally published only work that was pretty much cookie-cutter - change the name of the author and the cover and send out the same kind of books over and over.

A writer's only alternative to getting their work to actual readers was to pay to self publish it.  Then they had to drive from bookstore to bookstore, trying to convince owners whose bread and butter was selling the books marketed by publishing companies.  The authors could rent tables at flea markets or stand by their trunks in a mall parking lot like low-rent drug dealers, but none of it was very effective. None of it ever had or ever would have made a dent in the sales volumes of big publishers.

And authors who had clawed and crawled their way to traditional or independent publishers felt that they had "paid their dues."  Their work made the grade. They'd crawled their way to the front of the agent line and their books were enough like all the other books already out there to be published by companies - those owned by shareholders and governed by a board, or those owned by a small group of people who didn't answer to shareholders.  Those authors could look down their newly entitled noses at the fools peddling their work out of their cars.

Then a revolution happened.  In the beginning, the first e-books were sneered at and denigrated by agents, publishers and company-approved authors.  All of them could still  look down their privileged noses at the poor fools who'd just found new trunks to peddle from.  Then the early digital efforts were joined by the biggest bookstore in the world - Amazon.  And Amazon started saying that ebooks were the way of the future and Amazon would make it happen.  That started a rumble of discontent from the agents, publishers and company-approved authors. But the rumble couldn't stop the tide as Barnes & Noble, Sony, KOBO, Google and Apple put out their own reader devices. 

And the car trunks grew and grew until they were as big as the audience to which they could download and deliver.  Readers used to cooking at the speed of the microwave could get their books delivered at the same rate without ever having to leave home. 

The old system shuddered and its walls quaked until they began to crumble.  Today it makes no difference whether a book is uploaded by a shareholder owned company, a self owned company or by the author.  All  the books will sit side by side on the virtual shelves. All of 'em get delivered the same way to readers.

How amazing, right?  Now it's all about the work.  All writers have a shot at building a big enough audience to support their work full time.  So across the globe, more and more writers have the chance to earn their living from writing books. It's a gigantic Kumbayah moment - or it should be.  Unfortunately, it's not.

See, the new world reality doesn't suit a group of those company-approved authors. They want another way to separate themselves from the former trunk-peddlers.  They want a way to make it clear to the world that they are - by God - superior to all other writers on the planet.  Sales figures don't matter because after all - what do readers know?  The disenfranchised former privileged class of writers think they've found their rallying cry in LABELS. 

According to the writers with a company seal of approval, here's how the labels should work.  TRADITIONALLY PUBLISHED should mean only writers published by a big publishing house. That means one of those big ole ' companies with shareholders and a board of directors and all the corporate accompaniments.  INDIE should mean only writers published by a privately owned company.  SELF PUBLISHED should mean those former trunk peddlers who put out their own work. 

Now, wouldn't that make everyone happy?  Well, not so much. 

First, it doesn't make sense.  The former lines are blurred all over the place.  Traditionally published today should mean that there is a company staffed by people who format the work, edit the work, and market the work.  It doesn't matter whether that company is big or small or whether it has shareholders or is privately owned.  An indie company would include very, very tiny companies that might be an author putting out his or her work in the name of a company he or she created that might or might not exist on paper.  That means that self published would apply to Writer X who puts out a book labeled as published by Writer X.  Self published wouldn't apply if Writer X put out a book and listed the publisher as The House of X.  

How about a writer like yours truly who has books out on Amazon that are published by Quacking Alone Romances but has the same books out and about everywhere else as being published by Smashwords?  None of the books are published by Mary Anne Graham. Does that mean I'm not Self Published?  Does it mean I'm not a former trunk peddler?

As it happens, I'm not a former trunk peddler.  I don't deserve the honor of that label.  Those trunk peddlers had guts up the wazoo.  Every man and woman amongst 'em believed in their work enough to pay to print it because they were willing to do what it took to get their work out there.  In the ranks of any idiotic heirarchy, in my book, the former trunk peddlers should be at the very top rung, looking down on everyone who hid behind the mantle of any company.   I wish I'd had guts enough to do that.  I didn't.  I just tried to crawl and claw to the front of the agent's line and kept getting pushed back.  And when I made it to the front, I got pushed back by Publishers who found my work too different from the cookie cutter.  I can't claim the honor of having been a trunk peddler but they all claim my eternal admiration.

None of the labels make sense and none of them serve a single purpose.  Those who advocate for them claim that company published books are edited better and are "more professisonal."  I'm reading one of those now by an author I won't name but adore.  And I've found mistake after mistake in the thing - words that are misspelled, words that are incorrectly used, grammatical errors enough to make an English teacher cry.  But they don't detract from the story.  IT'S ABOUT THE STORY, STUPID. 

Trying to define a term in a way that gives one group of writers cause to feel superior to another group of writers does nothing useful and it does nothing to help any of us. Let's celebrate our fellow authors.  I like the term indie because I've been a rebel since my first breath of blessed South Carolina air.  But whatever I call myself or you call yourself doesn't matter a hill of beans.  All that matters is that the writing community should be a place where we cheer for each other's  successes and mourn each other's failures.  I don't make enough (yet) off my work to write full time but I hope to soon. And on that day of liberation, I'd like to hear virtual cheers from across the Blogosphere, fanned by the Facebook militia, and crowding the Twitterverse.   

The publishing world no longer fits in a box.  The days of one size fits all are over - if they ever existed.  And that's a good thing. That's an AMAZING THING. Let's kick the boxes and the labelmakers to the curb and celebrate the possibilities that are open to all.

We don't need labels.  We need readers to like our work. The books have never been about the authors. IT'S ALL ABOUT THE STORY AND IT'S ALL ABOUT THE READERS. So let's not be stupidly trying to crawl back into boxes.  Let's support each other.

And if you're a writer, you can call yourself whatever you like -  I'll cheer for you regardless.