The State of Indie Publishing


Karen Schechner

The flurry of articles and blog posts about David Mamet’s decision to self-publish Three Stories, a novella and two short stories, and the news that Britain’s Folio prize is open to indie writers, offer a quick bead on self-publishing: Well-known authors still cite control as their reason to publish independently; the number of indie books continues to explode (in an inverse proportion to their discoverability); and any remaining traces of stigma are waning.

Mamet told the New York Times, “Basically I am doing this because I am a curmudgeon.” He also voiced a common complaint among authors: “[P]ublishing is like Hollywood—nobody ever does the marketing they promise.” The thought seems to be, if even the big six publishers aren’t buying enough ad space in the New York Times Book Review or procuring chats with Terry Gross and Charlie Rose, why give up such a hefty slice of the financial pie? For Three Stories, the playwright is using Perseus Books’ self-publishing company, Argo Navis, which partnered with Mamet’s agency, ICM Partners.

The Guardian quoted self-pubbed author Rachel Van Dyken (her e-book, Bet, topped Digital Book World’s e-book bestseller chart, the second indie title to do so and we’ll have an article by her about her career on the site in June), who said authors embrace going solo “mainly because of the freedom it offers….You have complete control over the entire process.” Still, many just consider it more lucrative in the long run. Joe Konrath, in Be the Monkey: A Conversation About the New World of Publishing, said he’d walk away from a large advance: “I have two years of data proving I can do better on my own.”

In “New Publisher Authors Trust: Themselves,” the Times mentions that more conventionally published authors will soon join Mamet; Fred Waitzkin and Maryanne Vollers have also signed on with Argo Navis. Ronald Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis, who’s published a number of books traditionally, just released her self-published novel Till Human Voices Wake Us, one of a planned trilogy. The Guardian casts Mamet as part of a trend that includes Jackie Collins and James Frey.

Particularly with e-books, distribution is “more popular, and more feasible, with an increasing array of options for anyone with an idea and a keyboard,” said the Times. This ease contributes to one of the biggest obstacles for authors—the availability of so many e-books obscures individual titles. More than 235,000 books are self-pubbed annually in the U.S., according to Bowker stats.

Discoverability—the problem traditional publishers also face—is only going to get trickier. Huffington Post blogger Julie Gerstenblatt wrote about trying to grab readers’ attention for her book, Lauren Takes Leave, in her series about her experience self-pubbing. With her HuffPo connection, she figured she had the coveted platform that helps writers launch their careers. Instead, she said, “Turns out that platform of mine is less of a high-dive springboard and more of a children’s step-stool.”

In an article weighing the obstacles libraries face in offering indie titles, The Library Journal noted that the challenges of discoverability affect not just indie titles, but entire library collections: “There is a balance to strike in making access to self-published works a viable option without overwhelming the discoverability of materials for which there is existing and proven demand.” Indie books aren’t necessarily competing only with other indies; they’re competing with traditional formats, as well as films, audiobooks and all other media in the collection.

While getting noticed might be one of the biggest hurdles, writing a book worth discovering may be the biggest. In To Self-Publish or Not? A Word of Warning, bookseller Marion Abbott, co-owner of Mrs. Dalloway’s Literary and Garden Arts in Berkeley, said indie authors should skip her store when selling their books. Every day she sees “writers dropping off unsolicited work in the hope that we will stock books that have had little or no editing, and few reviews or distribution beyond Amazon (always a nonstarter).” As a busy small business owner, she considers ceding valuable shelf space to self-pubbed fiction and nonfiction “a bookkeeping nightmare yielding very little return.” And for the indie author, she said, “[I]t’s a cumbersome process at best to learn how to become a one-person publishing company.” No doubt. A manuscript has had “little or no editing” is a common (but decreasing) criticism in Kirkus Indie reviews.

Still, many booksellers, including Sarah Bagby, owner of Watermark Books and Cafe in Wichita, Kan., and Matt Miller, manager of Tattered Cover in Denver, Colo., have found and sold standout indie books, many of which fill niches too small for most publishers. In the process, they’ve created sustainable business models for working with local writers. (Kirkus Indie has also seen its share of starred and recommended books, including Black Art, Powderhorn and The Middle Kingdom Ride.)

It’s hard to believe in the heyday of all things DIY; stigma is still an issue. In fact, many authors don’t even use the term “self-publiPowderhornshed.” Instead, they opt for indie, as does Kirkus Indie (an improvement on the original Kirkus Discoveries). A recent blog post from the Authors Guild, which is now open to self-publishers, said, “The stigma seems to be fading as the economics of self-publishing improve for some authors.” And Library Journal noted “there is…a growing acknowledgment that the taint surrounding self-published materials is not always justified and that librarians are fallible when it comes to curating collections.”And if it’s disappearing among librarians, who have notoriously tight budgets, that’s saying something. 

I was curious if Edan Lepucki—who candidly called self-published books “dorky” in a 2011 take on the industry in The Millions—had changed her mind. “Although every season seems to bring more news about a self-published book’s success, I haven’t yet changed my tune about it,” said Lepucki in an email. “There continue to be good writers who go for it; I’m thinking specifically of Matthew Allard’s recent story-by-mail project Pops and Clicks….My UCLA Extension Writers’ Program colleague, Eduardo Santiago, will be self-publishing his next novel. 

“I think we’ll see more and more literary fiction being self-published in the coming years, and that perceptions about it will evolve for the better as more and more authors go that route. But I don’t think it’ll become the main way that writers publish, or the main way that readers read.”

Lepucki, whose book, California, will be published by Little, Brown next spring, speaks for more than just herself when she says she’d rather read curated titles from established publishers. In fact, I spent this past weekend pretty happily with a traditionally pubbed book (Don DeLillo’s White Noise). But last weekend it was a literary self-pubbed LGBT novel The Narrows, Miles Deep. Many read eclectically, and sooner or later, their wish lists will probably include unconventionally published work. Besides, it’s a kick to discover someone before they’ve been signed or become another self-pubbed phenom. And given that about one quarter of books sold by Amazon last year were self-pubbed, book-buyers are already reading more widely than ever.

Karen Schechner is the senior Indie editor at Kirkus Reviews.


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