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Monday
Oct252010

Hearing Voices About Indie Publishing

Asking a complex, perhaps unanswerable question (as I did last week with "What is an independent publisher now?") was admittedly a mischievous attempt to elicit observations rather than conclusions. It wasn't even scientific; more like asking, "What is a planet now?" (I'm looking at you, Pluto). But several brave souls accepted the challenge anyway and we'll be hearing their voices for the next few weeks.

Florrie Kichler, owner of Patria Press and president of the Independent Book Publishers Association, offered a straightforward answer: "What sets an independent publisher apart is his/her commitment to publishing as a business. Along with that comes the dedication to publishing excellence, which includes creating and delivering to the reader professionally designed and edited products--whether one or thousands of titles; whether via POD, offset or digital; whether on an e-reader, iPad or smartphone.

"The beauty of independent publishing is that in the end, size really doesn't matter--nor does the technology used to produce the content nor does who the author is. What matters is the independent publisher's focus on his or her publishing business--that blend of sales, marketing, editorial, production and promotion that serves as the launching pad for publishing success."

After a recent MPIBA trade show panel--"Independent Publishers & Independent Booksellers, Can We Talk?"--that generated some heated conversation, Libby Cowles, community relations manager at Maria's Bookshop, Durango, Colo., came away thinking about self-published books in particular.

"As the gal who handles any and all requests from authors here at Maria's, I am very aware of the increase in requests to put self-published books on our shelves," said Libby, who also posted about this issue recently on the bookshop's blog. "Generally, we have carried local authors' work on a consignment basis when it's not available through distributors; this support of local authors feels like an important service to our community. However, as a store with limited shelf space, I'm beginning to wonder how we can say yes to each and every local, self-published author who comes in the door?"
 
Cowles cited indiereaderselects.com as "an interesting idea" and one that might help readers and bookstores "sift through independently published books," but she still wonders "how do 'legitimate' small presses play into this? I've always thought of 'independent publishers' as small presses--you know, not the 'big guys' in New York. But the game has changed so much that now any author who has a box of books and a website can call him- or herself an 'independent publisher'--or, actually, you don't even need the box of books anymore, since we can POD. So... does creating a company name and a website make you a publisher? And if so, can that be okay somehow? I think there's a feeling out there that it somehow delegitimizes 'real' publishers. Doesn't it also increase our access to a variety of voices, opinions and ideas? How can we, as indie booksellers, maintain and protect our core value of getting the unheard-of gem into readers' hands, offering an alternative to the big box sanctioned bestsellers, without getting overwhelmed by the numbers of books out there?"
 
More good questions.

Fred Ramey, co-publisher of Unbridled Books, called the term "professionalism," as I had used it last week to define legitimate independent publishers, "problematic":

"When used by established publishers in the skirmish between self-publishing and independent publishing, I think the word may imply a sad defensiveness. (The source of that sadness, I think, is that--as you point out--these battles are occurring when we are all trying to figure out whether we can, or will be allowed to, fit within a new publishing world.) I so much appreciate the courageous publishers who enter the fray without worrying that worry--publishers like Two Dollar Radio and Archipelago and OR Books, and many independents established long ago--so much that I would rather discuss content. I appreciate these efforts as I admire new local journals (like Denver's Il-literate) and the very concept of samizdat novels--all efforts to bring writing to readers separate from the quick murky stream of corporate publishing, reviewing and bookselling. And as I've said stubbornly for a couple of years, I believe that soon it will matter again what one publishes more than how one publishes it. Quality will out.
 
"So 'professionalism' seems to me a potentially defensive term. It's as though we use the quality of the artifact bearing our colophon as an assertion that we matter. I'm tremendously proud of the professionalism with which the extraordinary people at Unbridled address the world of publishing--from the sometimes perfect beauty of the design and production, to the brilliance of the marketing, the clear structuring of the sales efforts, and the respectfulness with which we try to address the rest of Bookworld. I'm proud of the people who work with me, proud to work with them. I believe them all to be professional. And I believe our efforts in the realm of American fiction over these past six years have been significant. But the professional aspects of the collective effort at Unbridled Books are not the source of whatever significance we may have."

We'll hear more from Fred, as well as other voices in the book trade, next week. Halloween is approaching, so maybe exploring this issue by hearing voices is not such a bad way to celebrate during scary times.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1311.

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