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Blog > Understanding Publishing – Posted on January 10, 2020

What is Indie Publishing? And How to Get Started in 2020

In a nutshell, indie publishing is any form of publishing that doesn’t rely on the Big 5 publishing houses. But dig a little deeper, and the opinions get divided. Is it only small presses? Is it self-publishers?

The truth is, it’s a little of both.

The world of publishing is an ever-changing landscape. In the old days, there was nothing but small publishers. But as with any other industry, modernization in the publishing industry meant mergers and buyouts and corporate giants emerging from the crowd.

So at first, the term “indie” came into the scene to mean small presses. If people are talking about indie publishers, that’s still often what they’re referring to.

However, indie publishing is a much broader term that, more and more, is being used to describe self-publishing.

But if there’s already a word for self-publishing, why do we need to call it something else? Excellent question.

Self-publishing vs. indie publishing

There are two main reasons why many self-publishers are trying to move away from the "self-publishing" label.

“Self-published” is still sometimes associated with inferior quality

While the stigma is fading, there are people who still think self-publishing means poor quality. Before the rise of ebooks, self-publishing largely meant authors giving exorbitant amounts of money to vanity presses to create print copies of their books, most of which never sold.

Then Kindles became popular, and the indie publishing “gold rush” began. Suddenly, anyone with the time to slap a cover onto their book and upload it to Amazon was told they could be making thousands of dollars a month. Understandably, a lot of the books that followed were made quickly and on the cheap, leading to inferior quality.

These days, however, many self-published titles are just as professionally made as the ones coming out of the big publishing houses. But their authors understandably don’t want to be associated with the poor-quality titles in the field. The term “indie publishing” allows them to avoid that.

It ignores how much effort goes into making a book

Additionally, many people are bothered by the fact that self-publishing is anything but DIY. To create a book that will stand up to what the big publishers can produce, you need a small team of your own. Editors and designers are the first and most obvious people you’ll want to work with, but to truly shine, you should also consider marketers and publicists who will help build strategies for bringing your book to the masses.

If this all sounds like it takes work, you’re right. A professional quality book is not a simple thing to produce, and it may be tempting to skimp on the process to save time and money. The problem with doing that, however, is that you’re really not saving in the long run. Readers demand quality, and if they see that you don’t care about your book enough to invest in it, then why should they care enough to buy it?

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Luckily, indie publishing isn’t anywhere near as scary as it might sound. In fact, with a great team on your side, indie publishing is both enjoyable and empowering. But how do you pull that off?

Treat publishing as a business, and readers will view your work the same as if it came from a big publishing house.

Three steps to do indie publishing right

Step 1: Identify your goals

To start with, you’ll want to figure out what you’re hoping to achieve by indie publishing. This means looking at your big-picture goals first, and then breaking them down into smaller stages so you’ll know how to get there.

For example, let’s say you’d like to make this your sole, full-time income. You’re going to want to start by doing some math (sorry).

These are the basic considerations, and you’d be wise to crunch all these numbers beforehand.

Other things to consider include the distribution methods you’ll be using. Are you making only ebooks? Selling exclusively through Amazon, or going wide? Do you want print copies of your work — if so, hardcover or paperback? Are you likely to get into audiobooks eventually?

By making these decisions now, you’ll actually be putting together a business plan for yourself, and taking your work one step closer to a professional level.

Step 2: Assemble your team

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"Teamwork makes the dream work."

As we’ve mentioned, a big part of the reason some people chose to call themselves “indie” publishers is that they’re hardly doing all the work by themselves! To really stand out, you’ll want the best team as possible in your corner.

To start, identify exactly how much you’ll need to hire out — and what you can do yourself.

Even for the things you’ll want to outsource: how much do you need to hire for, and what can you barter for instead? Are you okay asking family and friends to pitch in, at least in the beginning? Do you know someone who’s good with computers, so you can trade favors in exchange for some technical help to get you started?

Next, you’ll want to turn to the professionals. Start by making a list of every job you’ll need to hire for. Consider cover design and illustrations, formatting, and all the different stages of editing. Then go a little deeper: does your business plan include audiobooks or translations into other languages? Are you the kind of person who would benefit from having someone else create a marketing strategy?

Regardless of how many people you’ll need, be sure to do your research. Reedsy lets you browse the profiles of hundreds of industry professionals for free — all of whom have been thoroughly vetted. Remember: indie publishing is above all a business, so take it seriously. Gather quotes, ask questions, and review portfolios and profiles to make sure the people you choose for your team will understand your creative vision.

Indie publishing puts YOU in charge. So make sure you buy a mug that reflects that fact.

Step 3: Create a smart marketing strategy

Amazon ads? Facebook? Giveaways? BookBub? The possibilities for getting the word out there are endless — and daunting, at least when you’re first getting started.

Thankfully there are all sorts of resources out there to guide you — and you could always add a marketer or publicist to your team of professionals if you’re really not sure what to do next!

No matter what your marketing plans are, though, make sure you’ve got a solid foundation by having:

You’ll also want to come up with an advertising plan, whether that’s continually running ads on Amazon or Facebook, or using email-blast services like BookBub to hype up your discounts and promotions. There are plenty of options out there, so don’t get discouraged if the first one you find doesn’t seem to fit within your budget.

And above all, don’t forget to research and identify your target readers. All the advertising in the world isn’t going to do you any good if you’re not reaching the right audience for your book.

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In short, no matter what you choose to call yourself, you’ll need to think like a professional if you want to play at a professional level. That means planning and investment and above all — a quality product! Luckily, there’s an app for that


How do you define indie publishing and self-publishing? Are there any other tips you’d like to share that elevate your work to a professional level? Let us know in the comments!