Going "Indie": Rebranding the New Wave of Authors

Wayne Gretzky used to say that he never worried about where the puck was; he only worried about where it was going. For anyone who aspires to be relevant in publishing ten years from now, we spend much time mulling where that puck is speeding off to.

No doubt, the status quo has already been left behind. New York magazine offered a compelling look at conventional publishers' imminent demise in September 2008, even before the economic meltdown accelerated their demise. The New York Times took a look at publishing's human fallout early this year, making it clear that the old model profits fewer and fewer people.

For most mortal authors, including an imminent first-timer such as myself, conventional publishers have little to offer that self-publishing doesn't -- not even in the area of marketing, as this bit of satire helped make clear.

Yet while I believe self-publishing represents a wondrous portal for newer authors such as myself, it seems we have a lot of work to do to "bring sexy back," as Jonathan Fields wrote about here.

Jonathan is on the money. But bringing sexy back is tough for an enterprise that has never been very sexy to begin with. Here, though, is one simple suggestion for how self-published authors can boost their brand: Stop calling yourself a self-published author. You are an independent author, and you wrote an independently published book, not a self-published book.

After all, it's not as if you chopped down the trees that produced the paper or that you're churning out copies in your garage, next to your brewery.

More importantly, independence is one of the strongest branding concepts for Americans. An independent contractor or consultant sounds more glamorous than a self-employed freelancer. And indie musicians and film-makers wouldn't sound quite so hip if they called themselves "self-recorded rockers" or "self-financed film-makers."

A key reason that independent figures in music and film have a rebel cachet is because a critical mass of critics, insiders and members of the general public know about great films and songs that were produced by people snubbed by the traditional studios. As Jonathan noted, sites such as IndieReader.com can help get the word out about a worthy new wave of books (and they wisely worked "indie" into their name instead of "self-published").

It may seem that indie authors can't have the appeal of an indie director or rocker, because the barriers to entry are so low -- any idiot with a few hundred bucks and eighty pages of text can get in on the action.

But blogging has an even lower barrier to entry -- it's free and you don't have to post if you don't feel like it. And we've seen that mainstream news media have, after a period acclimation, gotten fully comfortable with the concept of bloggers as independent journalists and as resources and commentators. Not only do the major bloggers get on TV and in print, the smaller ones increasingly do.

Indie publishing isn't "there" yet -- but it's darned close. And any good first-time writer, who'll have to do his or her own marketing anyway, unless her name is, say, Hillary Clinton, has to take it seriously as a place to invest one's personal literary treasures. And indie publishing, as its name implies, promises autonomy, freedom from the whims of traditionalists telling how they'll allow you to tell your story.

In my own case, I had a post-9/11 Pakistani-American memoir that an agent had been shopping around a year ago. New York publishers told him my proposal was timely, relevant, well-written -- and just not for them, because they felt the topic "had been played." (Really? How many Pakistani-American memoirs about the conflict of Islam and Christianity have you seen since 9/11?).

I asked my agent if I should go the self-pub ... er, indie route. He strongly cautioned me not to. "It'll kill your credibility with mainstream publishers," he said. So we took another crack at it, making the manuscript and proposal punchier and funnier. This spring, he whiffed again. As the New York mag piece linked above shows, the industry will only gamble on blockbusters, and I in my most arrogant dreams don't imagine my book to be a blockbuster.

My agent dropped out of sight and returned none of my calls or emails. My friend and personal marketing guru, Elisa Wiefel Schreiber, urged me to go indie, speculating that my agent's distaste for indie publishing was fueled by his own selfish desire to cling to his old commission model.

I did the research and decided to go indie, with my first book slated for January. The irony? I finally found my erstwhile agent, on YouTube. Now serving as the head of an alternative media group, he boasted, "Self-publishing has really come of age in the past few years and is now a great option for new authors."

That's the spirit, sir. But please: Call it independent publishing. Proudly independent.