What is an Independent Author, Anyway?

So, what is an Independent Author?

Independent authors are a pretty new idea. Up until pretty recently, large publishing companies held the keys to the kingdom. You couldn’t get on a bookstore shelf and thus into the readers’ hands without them. During this time, the closest we had to truly independent authors were those wealthy and foolish enough to have their book printed, and then sell it out of the trunk of their car.

Then, in 2007, a giant smashed the gates in and let the rabble pour through.

Amazon launched a program called Kindle Direct Publishing.  Together with the Kindle e-reader, this allowed anyone to publish a book that could be purchased directly by Amazon customers and loaded on the customer’s Kindle device, ready for reading. This changed the world, for readers and for writers.

Writers set to work on Amazon’s algorithms and the Kindle Gold Rush era began. There was an ocean of readers hungry for easy-to-get content, and writers responded in spades. But the content offered was different than what we were used to seeing from large publishing houses.  The content was often poorly written, riddled with typos, and featured poorly done design and formatting. The gatekeepers had maintained strict controls on the quality of the books (though not always the quality of the stories contained therein) that were for sale, and they had the resources and the infrastructure to make books of excellent quality. The new self-publishing crowd didn’t always have those resources or know where to find them.

A support industry slowly started to take shape.  Websites devoted to putting authors in touch with designers, automated editing tools, and specialized writing software above and beyond your standard word processor came on the scene. Self published books started to look better… more like the kind of quality you’d expect from a publishing company.

So, with all of these tools, the phrase independent author came to mean someone who could publish without the help of a large company behind them, and make money doing it. It was a whole new situation; suddenly authors had control over the look of their books, the pricing of their books, and the release and distribution of their books.  Where large companies sometimes took one to two years to publish a manuscript, the new independent author could release a book once a year, or several times a year.  The independent author became a powerhouse of social capital and maneuverability.

Now, the self-publishing revolution is reaching maturity; e-book sales are beginning to plateau at their new point in the market, and though there is sometimes still a stigma against the self-published, it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell self-published books from books published by large companies. Some established authors are choosing to self-publish some or all of their titles, and some independent authors are choosing to move titles to large publishers.  

So what does it really mean anymore to be an independent author?

I’m not sure.  I’m no expert, after all. I think an important part of being an independent author is an entrepreneurial spirit; the attitude that you have a product to sell, whether it’s sold to a publishing company or directly to readers. I think independent authors are people who are willing to do the legwork necessary to pull together resources that will make their books the best and the most professional looking that it can be. I think that independent authors are people who do what they can to make the industry as a whole better; to mentor and to form communities of readers and writers, and to equalize the balance of power within the industry.

An independent author is someone who takes risks, accepts challenges, and who won’t take “no” for an answer.

An independent author is not simply someone who writes beautifully, but who cares about how the reader experiences that writing, and does their level best to ensure that that experience is the best possible one.

So maybe what it really is is a question of taking ownership.  Rather than shipping your manuscript off to an office full of strangers to review, judge, and then outfit, maybe what matters most about the independent author is that they care enough to take ownership not just of their work, but of their relationship with the reader and the reader's experience with the work in question.