What Makes an “Indie” Writer?

Okay, I admit, this entry is a bit later in the posting than I might have liked. I’ve been sitting on it since May 21st, when someone retweeted a comment from agent Sarah LaPolla. Other worthy topics kept coming up that required my attention; in particular, the posts about standards, and blah blah blah. Now I’m ready to climb up on the soapbox.

Let’s start with the tweet in question:

Indie writer = published w/ a small press who gave you a contract & had an editor & packager who wasn’t you or someone you hired separately.

I’ll own it: I saw some red when that came up in my feed. The whole thing smacked of the sort of dismissive attitude that does absolutely no-one in publishing any good, even those who work through the traditional system, though they don’t always realize that. Not having the greatest of days, I tapped out a scathing reply and hovered my finger over the trigger.

Nah, I thought, best to give yourself a second. No need to fly off the handle.

So I allowed myself a moment to calm down, and as I did so, I realized that she might be quoting a source, perhaps a writer. I didn’t agree, but I’d like to see the source  I asked her where it came from, and if this meant that writers like JA Konrath and/or John Locke were not “indie” – the idea seemed patently absurd, but what the hell, she might have been pulling it from somewhere.

Not so much. She sidestepped John Locke altogether, but replied about Konrath:

Both are used because people misuse “indie.” He’s self-pubbed & proud. Self-pubbers shouldn’t hide behind a mis-label.

It seemed fair enough. That certainly makes some sense. No question, the term self-publisher has some negative connotations associated with it that need to be corrected, even if she’s confusing the issue a bit. I decided to take a long time to chew on it.  I can kind of get what she’s saying here, that self-publishing will never lose its stigma until people start owning the term. Like I said, that’s fair enough, and like Konrath, I’ve never been ashamed of being a self-publisher.

But…and there’s always a but, isn’t there? I later realized that this was an offshoot of a blog entry that she wrote about the subject, and got all spun up again. The pertinent quote:

AND STOP CALLING YOURSELVES INDIE. You’re not that either. Using “indie” interchangeably with “self” only confuses people who want to self-publish and pisses off actual independent publishers. There is a clear difference between publishing with a small press (“indie”) and using a vendor (“self”). Misusing/stealing pre-existing terms doesn’t give you credibility; it makes you look unprofessional.

This helped clarify the issue for me, and especially what she was really saying. The gist is that self-publishers shouldn’t call themselves indie because small, independent publishers get butt-hurt about it. Well, okay. The problem is that you can play that semantics game all day long and make any word mean anything you want, but that doesn’t make it so.

“Indie” comes from independent. Period. Not “independent publisher”. This means that self-publishers have every right to use the term indie. Hell, I don’t see anything more independent than running the show yourself, and if that’s not indie, then the word indie has no real meaning. I guess, unless you want to use it as a convenient label (sorry, “term”), yet another gatekeeper device that separates writers from their readers. She made a lot of other points about the “troublesome” element in indie/self-publishing, but JW Manus covered those quite handily.

Oh, and please, one other pet peeve: labeling someone as unprofessional when you write part of that statement in ALL CAPS ARGH I AM ANGRY is pretty hypocritical. It’s okay to be unprofessional on some level – I’d never claim that this blog post is particularly professional – but seeing something like that just irritates me.

Getting back to the label (damn it, I keep doing that, “term”). Look at the music industry, where there is no such arbitrary distinction. For example, I dare you to say Ani DiFranco is not indie to any self-respecting music fan, and yet she began as the epitome of a self-publisher, founding her own label just to release her own music and be free from the yoke of someone else’s label.

I think it comes back to the worship of tradition that runs rampant in publishing. I have my own theories about why this attitude is so prevalent and stubborn; they’re related to some of what JW Manus said in her own entry about how long publishers have controlled writers, but that’s an entry for another time.

But just because something has “always been that way” does not mean that it’s correct. Bottom line is that no one person or group of people owns the term, no matter how long it’s meant one thing. As people who deal with language every day, you should know that language is constantly evolving, and an inability to recognize that is commentary all on its own.

My preferred usage is indie/self-publisher, as it is a nod to the power of self-publishing as well as being independent, but I understand why people would choose to just call themselves indie, and they’re as varied as you could imagine. Some, I think, want to associate themselves with the tradition of indie publishers as they establish their own presses. Others, like me, want to pay tribute to the nature of indie in taking risks and standing on your own. I’m sure some folks might want to deliberately obscure what they’re really doing, which is doomed to failure, but that’s their prerogative, too. The market (aka the readers) will speak on that, not people throwing around definitions on Twitter or their blogs – and that includes this little rant.

At some point, I assume that people will get that readers are now the ultimate arbiters of what is acceptable; clearly, that point is not yet here. It’s time to stop assuming that readers are stupid and respect their ability to discern between works.

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  1. I am impressed. You handle ranty rants very well.

    Words are funny things. For instance, independent publishers. All that means is that they are independent of New York. What do you want to bet that many began calling themselves indies because the term “small press” made them feel less than serious. That’s a bummer way to feel. Independent sounds more powerful than small.

    As for me, I see “indie” as an adjective to describe the noun, “writer,” and it describes perfectly the fact that I and no other control the rights to my creative works. “Self-publishing” is a verb. It describes what I do. Self-publisher doesn’t work that well as an adjective because I don’t put out a work all by myself.

    That said, words have power. The power to name things is a powerful power in and of itself. It can change lives. Ask any kid who’s been tagged with a nickname that sticks. As an independent, I prefer to take the power and responsibility for naming my own damned self, thank you very much. Words and labels can be used to control, to label and pigeonhole and denigrate. They can be used to keep people “in their place.” One sure fire way to tell if you’re dealing with a corrupt despot or a corrupt system is to pay attention to how they try to control the language. Red flag number one is insisting they hold the power to name others.

    • Jonathan D Allen

      Thanks, that’s high praise coming from you 🙂

      Interesting point, and a good one about the kind of power that we give to publishers. I hadn’t even considered that the delineation between “independent” and “small press” was just as much of a semantic game, but you’re definitely right. It also occurs to me that some of this is just about asserting a pecking order, which speaks to your comment about words conveying power. The more legitimacy a claim like the one above gains, the more it becomes reality, and that pecking order becomes more of a reality. It’s an act of power for writers to reject it, as well.

      Also love how you see the distinction between the two…I may well steal that one 😉

  2. I am an indie writer. I self-published a novel and a short story. For my next novel, I may go traditional and publish with an indie publisher.

  3. Sounds like it boils down to small press/independing publishers/whatever you want to call them NOT wanting to be lumped in with “Vanity Press”, which can sometimes mean an old Uncle publishing hundreds of pages of his memories that nobody but himself wants to read. But this is not fair to the independent writers out there who care about their craft and take the time and hard work necessary to produce something good.

    • Jonathan D Allen

      Maybe, but if they do think that they’re kind of out of step with what’s really happening. I don’t think Vanity Press is even a really meaningful distinction anymore, as people who would have once used those can now do what they want. Sure, there’s a drawback to that, but I think the freedom it gives the rest of us makes it worth it.

  4. I call myself an indie writer. I call myself that every single day.

    Sarah LaPolla is not the boss of me.

  5. I am so glad you have addressed this! When I started out self-publishing, I wanted to use the word indie (I like it. And it means independent. Like you said!), but I thought I’d get “in trouble” for using the incorrect label (ahem, term?). Since then I’ve seen other authors call themselves indie and mean self-published, and I certainly didn’t get myself in a knot about it. I think I still use “self-published” more often because that’s what I’m used, but I should also be able to use the word indie for what it really means – INDEPENDENT! – without people telling me that’s not what I am!

    • Jonathan D Allen

      Exactly! When I decided to self-publish, I made a conscious decision to emulate the independent music artists that I admire so much – so it just made sense to embrace the term. I didn’t realize it was such a loaded term until very recently, and even then I kind of scratched my head. I struggle to understand the worship of tradition that goes on in the publishing industry, but as it goes on I think I get it, even if I don’t like it. I say go ahead and stay indie!

  6. Jonathan, that was an intelligent, reasoned response to an opposing point of view on an issue which seems to be problematic for many people. I also think it’s great that you posted this. Just wanted to say all that up front, because what I say next might seem to disagree with your points, but that’s not my intention.
    Because, although I agree ‘labels’, ‘terms’, are important, and Jaye makes the point about the power that names have, very eloquently, I also think that for most ‘indie’ ‘self-published’ authors, the advice should be – just ignore this argument. Yes, these labels may have important ramifications in the way in which DIY authors are perceived by the readers, but for most of us, surely we should be concentrating on the writing, on producing the best, most polished work we can. That’s the way we are going to entice readers to buy our books, and that is the way we are going to answer our critics.
    Dammit, I hope this response makes sense, as I am trying to write this whilst watching the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert with my family. I think it’s taken me about 20 minutes to type this out. Never was any good at multitasking

    • Jonathan D Allen

      Thank you, and I actually agree with you, so no worries. I don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about what I call myself – that was the first time I’d actually formulated that in a coherent, written format. I’d rather be spending cycles on considering what happens next in a story or trying to get a sentence to behave. What you said gets to the heart of what I said about removing the stigma of self-publishing. It’s kind of the unwritten second half of what I’m trying to say here, and I’m saving it for a future post as this one was already a bit too long. You nailed it, though, no doubt.

  7. Excellent response. I’ve had some similar conversations with a member of my local writers group, particularly the small press/indie debate. I’ve always thought indie made sense as a term because what self-publishers do is akin to how the indie label is used in other industries. We’re all artists of some sort, and it makes sense that “indie” should be used in a similar manner in the different branches of popular culture/arts.

  8. Self-published writers are independent artists, period. It’s time we stopped labeling others a certain way, because we think they don’t deserve to be called artists.

    Great article, thank you!

  9. I honestly don’t understand why people get so wound up about self-publishers calling themselves ‘indie’. ‘Indie’ = short for ‘independent’, and that is exactly what we are; we take control of our own work, publish on our own terms, retain the rights to our own books, and so on. ‘Indie’ can also be used to refer to small publishers, and this is an equally valid use. I don’t know why Sarah LaPolla thinks people are confused by this.

    I am an indie. I am also a self-publisher. I use the two terms interchangeably. What other people want to call me is their business, as long as it’s not rude 🙂

    Thanks for addressing this question with such eloquence and intelligence, Jonathan.

  10. I’m an indie author. I have yet to meet anyone, even someone far-removed from publishing and leisure reading, who does not understand what I mean when I tell them I’m indie. I don’t believe anyone is confused by the term, so much as there is a tremendous push to try and use language to force people to conform to an old pattern of behavior. This is the deadly side of words: their ability to be used to coerce and cloud. Oppressors and would-be saviors have long known this; even small children know the power of words to shame and harm. We are uniquely free in our ability to say what we want, to publish the stories we want to tell. When will we – all authors and publishers – be free of petty, autocratic labeling that is only serving to divide, rather bring us together in celebration of the freedom we have?

  11. Jonathan…you earned your Beautiful Blogger Award with this one. 😉
    Seriously, I did not realize there really was a distinction. Our first book went through a small publisher, River Road Press, that we paid for…they did the proofreading and the book layout…got the copyright stuff for us. As for actually putting it onto Amazon, B&N, etc. I did all of that. I do my own marketing and networking. They certainly don’t do the blog posts, Facebook or Twitter accounts. So what are we really considered…Self-published or Independent Authors. For some reason, I thought that Self-published became termed Independent Authors.

  12. I, too, bristled at La Polla’s post. I take umbrage with feeling yelled at, which is the effect her CAPS LOCK had. On the other hand, returning to her site via this post, I see in the comments she reconsiders her position, and notes that the word is evolving and she simply hasn’t made the transition herself yet.

    That’s huge progress, I think, and I think it’s based in large part on rational, reasonable discussion much like in this post. Truly, I think our best response is neither argument nor comment but simply continuing to publish the best, most popular, highest quality books we possibly can, and finding readers who care way less about publishers than they do about stories and the writers who tell them.

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