Approximately a month ago, I found out that April is considered the month of the indie authors. Of course, I was completely unaware of it, but hey, I’m still learning. During the months of April, I tried to do my part by reading books from indie authors, but I mainly took the time to think about what does the indie term means to me. Because yes, despite my attempts at pitching events on Twitter, self-publishing still seems the preferred way to go for me.
The first time I heard the term indie, it was referred to music: since the 80s, the term indie rock has been referred to bands who didn’t belong to the mainstream and published their records on their own or through independent labels. The line between indie and not indie got definitely blurred in the 90s, when major labels took notice of the growing interest in alternative rock and post-punk bands, but the term got a kind of second rebirth in the late 90s/early 2000s with the advent of bands such as Arctic Monkeys, The Killers, The Strokes, and more recently Florence and the Machine.
Then I heard the term indie referred to videogames: those games that are usually developed by solos or by a very small team and that aren’t produced by any major label. They are usually distributed by online stores such as itch.io and Steam rather than on physical retailer stores (even though online stores now seem to be the way to go for all videogames). What distinguished indie games from AAA is that they’re usually “simpler” in graphics, animation and gameplay, and for this reason they have to rely on other characteristics to impress the public.
If you’re curious about what makes indie games different and why we desperately need them, and in case you ever considered the idea to make your own game, I suggest you read Rise of the Videogame Zinesters by Anna Anthropy. It was written in 2012 and since then some major game house seems to be moving small steps in the right direction, but her point about AAA games still being targeted at the same audience, creating a new generation of game developers, and self-feeding the bubble is still true to this day.
Even though fiction books are a bit more open when it comes to their theme, I think the points Anthropy makes about videogames can be translated into fiction books: it makes sense since they’re two different ways to entertain an audience and tell a story. Indies retain more control over what they publish in term of story, and for the most part, the publishing of their books don’t depend on what’s already on the market. Because, even if it doesn’t happen as often and in such a tight way as it happens in videogames, but it’s true that big publishers sometimes overlook promising manuscripts because they don’t fit in the current trend of fiction.
This is not to make another “Big houses are bad and heartless” speech, because there are several reasons for them to choose according to what the market seems to require: the survival of the publishing house depends on the profit it makes, and publishing and advertising a book has its own costs. They physically can’t publish everything that gets submitted to them, and so they try to follow trends to maximize their earning. I remember the incredible amount of “occult conspiracies about late Medieval and renaissance scientists” books that came out 15-20 years ago following the success of “The Da Vinci Code”, or all the books (and movies) about a dystopian society and some young chosen one who has to face them that came out later on (e.g. The Hunger Games). How many of them do we actually remember now?
Publishing houses are allowed to make what helps them surviving (real people work there, after all), but then there must be a space for different kinds of stories, and it must be taken seriously at least as much. People always think that indie equals “less quality”, but it’s not the point. It’s not about the freedom to publish whatever crap we feel entitled to publish without polishing, it’s about the plurality of stories we want to see out there. If indies and self-publishing are the only ways to give anyone the chance to see themselves in a story on the shelves, then it must exist and it must be encouraged. You already know what I think about representation, don’t you?
The freedom you get in being indie is balanced by a huge increase in the things you need to take care of: you’re in charge of editing, cover design, marketing, printing. It not only translates into a higher cost in terms of money, but also in terms of time and effort. Is it worth it? For me, the answer is a clear yes. Some days I wonder why it has to be so hard, but the next day I’m super excited about being able to be in charge of everything: the book I’m struggling so hard to publish is really gonna be “mine”. I’ve written both the Italian and the English versions myself, and I’m not sure I could have done both if a publisher had their say about it.
I don’t know about you, but easy things never fascinated me.