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Words Mean Things: Indie

Words Mean Things: Indie

The word “indie” tends to get tossed around quite frequently in publishing these days. You might hear of indie authors just as quickly as you hear about self-published authors. You’ve probably heard of “indie” presses.

The term is so commonly deployed, we can easily lose track of its meaning. So what, exactly, does “indie” mean?

An Abbreviation

The term indie, at its heart, really just means “independent.” It first rose to prominence in the music industry. In the 1970s, rock ‘n’ roll and the punk movement (along with anarchist sentiments) led musicians away from “the Man.” At the time, this included the large, established record labels.


Like almost every artistic industry, the music industry was infamous for being not only tough to break into but incredibly exploitative of musicians as well. In the 1950s and 1960s, American record companies would take popular music by Black musicians and simply re-record them with a white musician and market to a white audience. The Black artists were never compensated and the whitewashed versions usually became more popular and outsold the originals.


White musicians had it better, but it wasn’t necessarily easy to get a recording deal. Record labels also tended to be somewhat conservative (see above, racism). They weren’t exactly looking for the next trend in music, and few were scrambling to sign punk bands when they arrived on the scene.


Stickin’ It to the Man

Punk bands weren’t exactly clamoring to be signed by the traditional record labels either. They saw recording contracts as impositions. Signing one would be selling-out. They didn’t want to change their music or their image to be slotted into the clean-cut molds pop music and even “rock ‘n roll” templates like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones offered at the time.


Advancing technology made it much easier for bands to record without the help of an established record label in the 1970s. Distribution also became easier thanks to the advent of 8-tracks and casettes. Vinyl records are more difficult to produce, more expensive to produce, and definitely a little harder to haul around to all your shows.


Punk eventually did “sell out.” Record companies realized it was a popular and profitable genre, and they began picking up punk artists. Even within the punk scene itself, punk bands were “manufactured” for profit. The most infamous example is perhaps the Sex Pistols, who were formed by a shop owner in London. Some members of the band had no musical training.


As technology continued to advance, it became easier than ever to record and even publish. The invention of the copying machine enabled bands to print up flyers for their shows, in addition to ‘zines. ‘zines were produced by others as well: Comics, Star Trek fandom, and so on.

Into the 1980s

Film was probably the next arena to get hit by the “indie” phenomenon. Changes in film technology were also happening around the time the punk scene rose to prominence. Until the invention of the home camera and the VCR, movies could only be played on film reels. You needed a projector and a reel. In the 1970s, the VCR began invading homes, making it possible to watch movies that weren’t on TV at home.


Camera technology was also becoming smaller and more affordable. Film cameras were enormous (and often still are). They thus required crews to truly operate them. As they began decreasing in size, they became more portable and it became more feasible for a lone person to operate them. Suddenly, the camera crew could be one or two people: One with a portable camera and the other with a sound boom. Recordable media like the video cassette did away with expensive and heavy film reels. Much like the 8-track and the cassette, they lowered production costs and made the film more distributable.


The 1970s and 1980s were also a time of another major technological change: the computer.

The Internet

CDs revolutionized the recording world again in the late 1980s. In the 1990s, the advent of home computers became prolific, along with home printers. People could now not only photocopy their flyers and ads, but design and print them themselves.


The Internet then hooked us all together. It wasn’t an immediate revolution, but it was now easier than ever to share particularly written texts. Graphics, and then video, followed. In 1999, MP3s moved us from physical media to digital media. Napster facilitated peer-to-peer sharing of music files (much to the consternation of copyright holders, who were afraid of the scale of the exchange; it’s important to note that music piracy has always happened, however). In 2005, the launch of YouTube, coupled with webcams, made it feasible for people create and edit their own short movies and distribute them to a wide network.

A Respectable Cottage Industry

Around this point, the term “indie” went mainstream. You now had “indie” musicians, those who were truly independent. They played their own instruments, recorded, and distributed via computer technologies. Their fans were often online, and some were able to cultivate mass followings, propelling them to stardom. Countless others remained part of the underground. Nonetheless, they were “independent” in the sense they had no financial backing.


Indie record labels also continued to exist, blurring the lines between “indie” artists and “indie labels.” How can you be an indie artist if you’re signed to a record label, even one billing itself as “indie”?


The term itself began to be curried around less as a descriptor of a particular financial situation and more as a term for a particular genre of music. Thus we ended up with “indie rock” and the more usual connotation—folk music that wouldn’t necessarily be picked up by a big record label because it didn’t have enough commercial appeal. The line between production methods and genre itself were crossed.


Something similar happened in film. At the outset, being an “indie” filmmaker meant you produced films without the backing of a large production company or studio. Over time, however, the term evolved to describe a particular genre of movie. Most often, these are high concept art films with little to no audience appeal. Again, the lines are traversed; indie has now become something of a genre, rather than merely a descriptor of how something was made.

The Publishing World

Of the three major arts industries, publishing is usually the most conservative and the slowest to change. It might owe partially to the fact publishing is older than either the modern music industry and the film industry. Publishing began, in earnest, with the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. Before that, handwritten manuscripts had been “published,” but there was no true industry. By contrast, the music and film industries didn’t get going until the late 1800s because the technology to “record” sound and moving images didn’t exist.


Owing to its long history, publishing has a lot of traditions. At a certain point, tradition becomes ensconced; you do things because that’s the way you do them. Publishing thus becomes much less likely to give itself over to revolution.


Nonetheless, the publishing world has endured the digital revolution much the same as the other two industries. Books were revolutionized last, but the revolution came all the same: HTML coding created digital books, or eBooks. The Internet enabled users to trade these digital files, much the same way it facilitated file-sharing of music.


With the advent of eBooks and the networks to transport them, “self-publishing” could finally take off.

How Self-Publishing Worked Before

Books are expensive to produce. Between editing, proofreading, typesetting, design, and printing, shipping, storing, and distributing them, it can often cost upwards of $10,000 to produce 4,000 or 5,000 copies of a book.


And huge production runs used to be the only way to produce print books. Printing one book would cost you an astronomical fee. Printing multiple copies lowers the unit cost per printed copy. In order to arrive at a reasonable unit cost, you had to print an awful lot of books. This was the largest barrier to self-publishing: You’d need to print, say, 2,000 copies of your book in order to come up with a unit cost of $5. That’s a cool $10k in printing costs. Not many people have $10k just kicking about.

A speech bubble with dollar signs.

You know what they say, more money, more … books?

Then you have to ship the books somewhere and store them, on top of then marketing them, sending them to buyers, and so on.


It’s easy to see why self-publishing also used to be called “vanity publishing.” It was available only to those with the means, or those who were vain enough to believe their work needed to be in print!


Technology changed that.

eBooks and POD

As mentioned, eBooks made it easy to distribute books. You made one copy of the digital file, then uploaded it somewhere. Users could download it, sometimes for a fee. Companies like Amazon and Barnes & Noble began to take advantage of this, since they were already selling print books. They also introduced “eReaders,” devices on which to read your newly acquired eBook.


They then began offering services, which made it easy for authors to make ePubs. Prior to conversion services, you would have either had to pay someone with the know-how to code your book or learn to code it yourself. With services like Amazon’s KDP, you can now upload a Word file and have it converted, for free, in 24 to 72 hours.


Quite suddenly, publishing is easy, accessible, and affordable—to virtually everyone. You need next to no specialized knowledge in order to publish a book these days. Print-on-demand has even made creating print books more affordable; it erases the huge costs of printing thousands of copies and needing to ship and store them.

Indie or Self-Published?

As self-publishing has been revolutionized to be so accessible, there’s some confusion as to whether authors are self-published or indie. Self-published isn’t necessarily an incorrect term, but many authors eschew it because it carries negative connotations. It implies, to a degree, your work wasn’t good enough to get picked up by a publisher. (There are many reasons to choose self-publishing, however, so this is something of a stupid idea.)


“Indie” or “independent” thus becomes the preferred term for many authors. They’ve published independently, without the support of a publisher. It’s essentially the same thing. It’s just being an “indie author” sounds a little bit more respectable than being “self-published.”


What about Indie Presses?

Here’s where we get confused! Who are indie presses and what do they do? Generally speaking, the term is used to denote publishers who aren’t the “big guys,” like the HarperCollins or the Penguin-RandomHouses of the world. They’re much smaller operations.


They’re much like the “independent record labels” of the music scene. But again, if an author is signed to an indie press, the author is no longer “indie.” And what is an independent publisher anyway? Independent authors don’t need publishers, but what are indie publishers independent of?


Another term for indie presses is actually “small press.” There’s no concrete definition, but it’s generally understood they’re running smaller operations, usually without the oversight of one of the big publishers or their imprints.


Will Indie Come to Be a Genre Term?

So far, “indie authors” and “indie publishing” haven’t yet trapped themselves into genre connotations that proliferate in film and music. It’s quite possible that, eventually, we’ll see a sort of “indie aesthetic” emerging in the most popular and laudable indie publishing efforts, much the same way film has created a certain expectation for “indie films” as a genre.

A sign listing different genres.

Genres! Note the lack of “indie.”

Is this a good thing? Probably not. At the end of the day, “indie” really just means independent; it shouldn’t refer to a particular kind of book or story. In fact, if we end up with genre connotations like we have in film, genre books (sci-fi, romance, etc.) will get pushed to the margins of even indie publishing. That’s an unfortunate situation. Although these genre books would continue to be published, most people would conjure a different image when talking about “indie books” or “indie authors.”


It’s important to be clear about what indie really means then. While it has artistic connotations in certain circles, let’s fight to keep those out of publishing. Indie authors and indie presses—or self-published or small presses or whatever we want to call them—are doing important work across genres. Let’s not stick them in a box.

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