The changing meaning of “Indie Publisher”

When we first created Lee & Low’s twitter account about three years ago, I had to write up a short description of who we are. I wrote: “Hannah talks about the goings-on of an indie children’s book publisher specializing in diversity.” But if you visit our twitter account today, you’ll notice that the word “indie” is missing. It’s not that we’ve been bought by a bigger company – we’re still as independent as ever. But over the past several months, I’ve noticed that the meaning of the phrase “indie publisher” has shifted from referring to smaller, independent publishers who are not part of the “Big Six” to referring to self-publishers.

Wondering how widespread the change in meaning was, I decided to put the question to the masses on twitter. When I asked what people thought of when they heard the term “indie publisher,” a few still said they thought it referred to a small press, independently owned and often with a niche focus. But the majority said something along these lines:

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Although the shift in meaning seemed recent to me, upon digging I found that it’s actually been around for quite some time. The book Indie Publishing: How to Design and Produce Your Own Book was released in 2008, and the Next Generation Indie Book Awards, which have been around for five years, have always included self-published books.

With the boom of digital self-publishing, use of the term grew. By 2010 there were tons of instances where “indie publishing” was used to refer to self-published books, and by 2011, even outside media outlets like TechCrunch were using “indie publishing” in that manner. This Forbes article from 2012 did the same in one of its headlines, indicating that if at first the term was used as a trick to avoid the self-publishing stigma, it’s now become a bona fide synonym. Through sheer numbers and force of will, self-publishers have been able to rebrand themselves completely and change the meaning of the term “independent publishing.”

Does it matter?

The phrase “independent publishing” has always been a big umbrella – theoretically, it can refer to anything from a mircopress to a small house like Lee & Low to a bigger publisher like Scholastic that isn’t considered one of the “big six.” So there’s no reason why it can’t also refer to self-publishers, who, in some sense, are the most independent of them all.

This may seem like just a question of semantics, but I wonder if there’s something deeper going on here. Have self-publishers just changed the term people use to describe them, or have they also managed to change the way people view them? Shifts in language are often reflective of shifts in opinion. Does the fact that readers have accepted the rebranding of self-publishers also mean that readers have accepted self-publishing?

The answer, of course, is that it depends which reader you ask. For some, self-published books are just another component of the literary landscape, and should be approached with an open mind:

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But most readers, especially professional readers like librarians and booksellers, still seem to approach self-publishing – and now, by association, the term “independent publishing”-with some degree of skepticism:

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It seems to me that on the whole, self-publishers have not escaped the stigma of self-publishing by coming under the independent publishing umbrella, but rather have brought the stigma with them. Whether that stigma is deserved or not is a whole different discussion, so I’ll just leave it here: as a small press that is not a self-publisher, what do we call ourselves when all of the terms we have used to describe ourselves—independent publisher, indie publisher, small press—come with baggage now?

We’re proud to be independent, and I think that’s something that readers care about. And there are still lots of great things that people associate with the term “independent publisher”:

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I don’t know whether the term “independent publisher” can ever be separated from self-publishing again, or shake the stigma that seems to come with it for so many readers. But I think if we just resort to labeling ourselves as publishers, people unfamiliar with us may miss some of the things that make us special. So maybe it’s time to generate a new term to describe us. Are we a small publisher? A niche press? Or are we just a publisher with a specialty? I’m not sure, but I hope that in the coming months we’ll be able to work together with readers to find the right language to describe ourselves.

And in the meantime, I hope that readers will keep an open mind, and that the books will speak for themselves, as they always have.

8 thoughts on “The changing meaning of “Indie Publisher””

  1. I saw your tweets earlier this week and was surprised by the responses. Until then, I still thought of “indie publishers” as I always had. Kind of like “indie bookstores” vs the big box stores-smaller, more personal operations run independently of the big companies.

    This is an interesting (and maybe a bit disturbing)change.

  2. I agree. As a person self pubbing, I even used the phrase once in an interview.
    Not in describing myself, but in saying that there are some really good indie authors out and that if you like something please let people know.
    I wont use it again because you are right, that it does kind of muddy, what is what.
    That said this is just one of the many things in the industry that is changing on a daily basis.

  3. I was surprised when Hannah brought this topic up to me. Given that independent publishers have worn this term as a badge of honor for decades it is not something I would relinquish willingly. Why? Well, we’re not done using it yet…

  4. Nobody blinks an eye at ‘indie’ musicians releasing records on their own labels via places like Bandcamp and, increasingly, iTunes. A lot of this independent music is ordinary, yes, but some of it is phenomenal.

    Yet authors are meant to dance the same dance we’ve always danced, via traditional publishers (who are shutting the slim crack in the door on new authors in the current publishing climate anyway). I have tertiary qualifications in writing and editing, I take care and pride in my work and I employ professionals to shape my manuscripts. I’ll be damned if I allow what I do to be tarred by the ‘self’ or ‘vanity’ brush. I’m a proud indie publisher.

    Sorry to turn your comments into a Tumblr rant 🙂

  5. As I think about this more I may have come up with a distinction between independent publishers and self publishers. While independent publishers and self publishers share certain qualities, like being small and independently run, independent publishers publish a host of authors. While self publishers publish just themselves. The term self publisher to me is more accurate in that you are publishing yourself. Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with self publishing, since all the same work goes into publishing a book along with the added responsibility that it is all on your dime – this in and of itself has meaning.

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