What About Indie Presses?

It’s no secret that 2022 was rough for the publishing industry. Book bans took place across the country, a merger between two major publishing houses was blocked by a federal judge, and low wages led to strikes. It’s a lot to unpack, but — at least for me — the question it raises is: What about indie presses?

Why doesn’t the writing community, once and for all, elevate indie presses to the level of cache enjoyed by indie record labels?

In the 1980s and ’90s, the recording industry was large and corporate — a near monopoly. “Only six major labels remained: Warner, Universal, Sony, BMG, EMI, and Polygram,” reported a 2012 “Current Popular Trends in the Music Industry” study. “In 1998, Universal acquired Polygram, and six years later Sony and BMG merged.”

A bookshelf holds rows of colorful books.

Similarly, in book publishing, the “Big Five” publishing houses are Penguin Random House, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and HarperCollins. In October, a federal judge blocked Penguin Random House from buying Simon & Schuster, which would have merged two of the world’s biggest publishers.

In the record industry, however, indie labels stepped up. (And in truth, independent labels and studios had been putting out great music almost as soon as commercial recorded music began — but this blog post isn’t intended as a timeline of the record industry.) I’m thinking of Sub Pop in Seattle, which signed Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Mudhoney; Merge in Durhamm NC, which released albums by Superchunk as well as Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane over the Sea, The Magnetic Fields’s 69 Love Songs; and Fat Possom Records in Oxford, MS, thrugh which The Black Keys released Thickfreakness and Rubber Factory, and Solomon Burke release his Grammy-winning comeback album, Don’t Give Up On Me.

The combination of these bespoke labels that were launching major careers was on the rise at the same time home recording became viable. The GarageBand turned every home into a potential studio and “bedroom” albums were made by the likes of Bright Eyes, Josh Rouse, and Hiss Golden Messenger, among many others. Check out this list of 16 famous albums that were at least partially recorded in home studios.

An old man reads a book on a bench. He's sitting outside a rundown old house.

My point is, small labels and self-released records gained cache. Even though they didn’t have the money to back giant stadium tours by the likes of Taylor Swift and Beyonce, they were able to gain notoriety, big name artists, and major awards.

The same has not happened in the publishing world. The standard remains with the Big Five, though one could argue those major imprints are much more concerned with releasing WHAT WILL SELL A ZILLION COPIES over what is edgy, experimental, culturally prescient, and boundary pushing.

That’s not to say NO important books are coming from major presses. Of course they are. The graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman is one example. Bestseller and Pulitzer Prize finalist There There by Tommy Orange was published by Vintage, an imprint of Penguin.

But the recently banned The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow was published by Algonquin; the trilogy Crank by Ellen Hopkins was published by Margaret K. McElderberry Books; and here’s a staggering list of 35 impressive books released by indies in 2021.

How close are we to considering indie publishers with the same cache and cool as indie record labels? Can we agree that indies are the tastemakers? I hope so.

But self-publishing as a writer is still a long way from self-recording as a musician — at least in terms of acceptability. There’s long been a pall of unprofessionalism cast over self-publishing. Poor editing, grammatically challenged, “hobby” writing, tacky cover art, clunky layouts. And while self-publishing platforms have made serious strides to improve the self-published product, desktop publishing is not regarded with the same welcome as bedroom recording.

I don’t have answers to this dilemma, but I do hope that as the Big Five publishers continue to face turmoil and missteps, independent presses will gain more support from readers. And I have hope, too, for improvements in desktop and self-publishing. To inspire you, too, here is a list of the 30 best self-published books of all time. Happy reading!

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