Traditional vs indie publishing

Part 4: what is meant by vanity publishing, indie publishing, self publishing and traditional publishing, and why should you care?
Let’s face it: self publishing is a dirty term. It has a strong association with vanity publishing; that is, the people who will accept any rotten old manuscript and many thousands of dollars to deliver wannabe authors a couple of boxes of shed-fillers which will only ever be read by family and silverfish.

Can I interest you in a copy of Saving Davey Gravy?     (source)

Although there are notable exceptions, as there are with every rule, ever since Johannes Gutenburg had a brainfart whilst running his clothes through a mangle, traditional publishers have controlled the distribution of books to readers, and therefore publishing itself. The difference is that, like record companies, these middlepeople are facing a new distribution model which views certain functions they perform as redundant.

Wherein I get all huffy

If this new distribution model allows micro publishers and individuals to produce and market content which is close to or identical in quality to that produced and marketed by the traditionals, then I don’t see it as fair that they be tarred by the same brush as the vanity labels. This, especially, when vanity publishers have been shown to have close links with the traditionals, anyway.
In the last article I compared the music and book industries, and for me this holds true when it comes to the indie segment of each market. We’re both putting up the best versions of what we can do online, only replacing the grotty band garage (clichés, clichés) with our ‘studies’. (I’m typing this in a converted dining nook.) We’re paying for professional assistance when we can justify it: editors and designers instead of producers and studio space. By and large, we don’t have delusions of grandeur – we’re doing what we love and hoping other people dig it as well.
The term indie publishing is being co-opted to replace publishing by an individual author, an evolution of semantics which is certainly stirring the hive. The prevailing attitude from established authors and traditional publishers, both large and small, seems to be that self publishing is self publishing is self publishing, and ebooks aren’t going to change a thing. I can respect that. After all, they have the most to lose from any significant change in the industry.

Get off your soapbox, Tate

Now, I don’t want this to turn into a sour polemic against the traditionals, who have failed me by refusing to recognise my genius *throws hand to brow*. That’s simply not true, especially the genius bit, as you can no doubt already tell. My interest in indie publishing is borne entirely by the sense, right or wrong, of the huge upheaval and opportunity currently present for authors. If that upheaval does not make indie publishing easier, then I firmly believe that it will make the path of new authors into traditional publishing much more difficult.
The way I see it, the entry of new authors into traditional publishing relies on two things: (1) that a steady stream of established authors retire and make way for new voices and that (2) traditional publishers enjoy modest but continual growth. Well, everyone knows that (1) authors don’t stop writing until they die at their desks, leaving the kids to battle over the Montblancs and (2) traditional publishers are in a nervous holding pattern, if not contracting.
I’m not going to actually back that opinion up with cold hard facts, gosh. Anecdotally, the steady barrage of events such as the Penguin and Random House merger, the revenue from sales of ebooks surpassing hardcover in the US and well on the way to passing paperback, and Borders going nipples-up in the last year or two seem to suggest a rather large fire somewhere in traditional publishing land.
Edit: I had a recent conversation with a successful author who lamented the local publishing industry and the difficulty she had placing her last novel: “No-one is taking anything at the moment … the big companies are wavering and the smaller ones don’t know which way to turn.”

Evidence of a fundamental shift?

The latest issue of The Victorian Writer, focusing on writing and money, was littered with anecdotal evidence, from an established author having her latest title, just about to go to print, indefinitely shelved, to local publishers experiencing a 20% decline in sales volume during 2012, and Australian authors talking of the complete collapse of advances locally. (Even as I procrastinate during the second draft of this article, attention turns to the sudden contraction of monster US book chain Barnes & Noble’s physical stores.)
If publishers actually do contract – and remember that this can occur in terms of revenue, not just sales – it won’t be the established authors who are first to go. Established authors have established audiences and are therefore publishing currency. First on the block will be the slim chance of new authors making it off the slush pile.
And while we’re on the topic, why should traditional publishers even have slush piles any more? The function of slush reading is effectively being transferred to the public, who will sift through indie manuscripts in ebook form and thrash out the chaff for the books they desire. The thread of comments on this article from Publishing Perspectives deals provides some interesting views and counters on the subject.


In the spirit of playing devil’s advocate, I recognise that there is a glut of badly written, badly structured, badly edited, just plain bad self published books out there. As with any debate over a divide, there is polemic from both sides. Much of this comes from the comfortably uneducated, who are happy to defend their own turf and damn the opposition without attempting to understand them.
It’s gratifying to see established authors like Sue Grafton change their position as new information comes to light. In turn, our job as indie publishers is to deny the temptation to indulge in half-arsed shortcuts, and instead produce professional ebooks which rival the quality of those produced by the traditionals.

Proceed to Part 5: ‘Pros and cons of indie publishing’, or return to the article index.
Return to Re: writing
While I’ve endeavoured to provide you with accurate information, what is considered ‘accurate’ will change over time. If I’m wrong, or you’d like to ask a question or share your thoughts, I’d love to hear your take on things.

Rhys About Rhys

Teacher, writer, editor, cook: a bit like that nursery rhyme, really.
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