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Tracking the Wins: Looking Back on 10 Years of Independent Publishing

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by Brooke Warner, Publisher, She Writes Press —

Brooke Warner

In 2007, an aspiring author reached out to me to ask for support in self-publishing her book. I was still working in traditional publishing at the time, but I’d started to consult on the side. She was adamantly indie, wanting to forego the traditional publishing experience altogether. She had her sights set on the creative freedom and independence that self-publishing could provide her, and I thought she was out of her mind.

I now think back on that phone call as the first turning point in my journey toward becoming the true author advocate I am now—not just the gatekeeper working for a traditional press, but someone who champions the authors who get shut out, or opt out.

Between 2007 and 2012, I worked tirelessly to shepherd my quota of books through the traditional publishing house where I worked, but I was also fully immersed in a parallel world of self-publishing, connecting with authors who had deep frustrations with the industry, who were striking out on their own terms, refusing to shelf their projects just because gatekeepers like me didn’t think their books could sell. The differences between the self-published and traditionally published books I worked on during those five years had nothing to do with the writing or the eventual books themselves and everything to do with what my marketing team thought they lacked in brand and author platform. Those authors who decided to go indie had a can-do attitude that stemmed from taking rejection in stride. They came to the process with a can-do, entrepreneurial attitude. They were not known entities, and they wanted to use their books to build their brands and platforms. They were outsiders to the industry, and I was blown away by their sense of purpose—and they knew a heck of a lot more about publishing than their traditional counterparts did.

I gravitated toward hanging out with this new crop of authors, not realizing at the time I was part of a movement I’ve since dubbed The Green-Light Revolution. In 2012, I left traditional publishing to cofound She Writes Press, a hybrid publishing house that sits transparently and proudly outside of the traditional paradigm, offering a platform to women writers whose work might be rejected by the traditional houses for reasons that have nothing to do with the writing or the story or the message and everything to do with questions surrounding author brand (or lack thereof), P&Ls, and the bottom line.

Since that first author client in 2007, I’ve been fighting in the trenches alongside other indie authors against a self-publishing stigma that’s been hard to kill because the traditional publishing machine has a vested interest in keeping it alive. A black-and-white, either/or mentality persists in book publishing because it’s easier that way—easier to disqualify certain books from review and award consideration and certain authors from membership in book organizations; easier to qualify, instead, those books and authors that benefit from traditional distribution systems and marketing dollars big publishers can put behind their books.

Despite this stigma, however, early indie authors have persisted, and many more have joined their ranks. There are countless “hybrid authors,” those authors who publish traditionally and independently. Self-publishing has grown up, and in the process many authors have turned into bona fide publishers. They’ve learned a thing about publishing according to professional standards, and they’ve earned their seat at the table.

I commend Ingram Publisher Services for the warm welcome and home they gave She Writes Press when I sought out distribution, because this was a first and important step toward legitimacy. In the past four-plus years since securing that distribution relationship, I’ve been focused on furthering a broader indie agenda, including but not limited to She Writes Press and our sister imprint, SparkPress. I’ve also been grateful to find a partner in the Independent Book Publishers Association, whose Advocacy Committee is working to level the playing field for independent authors and publishers everywhere.

When I started She Writes Press, I was wary of the reception we’d get from traditional publishing. I remembered my own reaction to the author who wanted to self-publish back in 2007, and the way I’d so strongly embraced a two-tiered system, not because I knew traditionally published books were better, but because I didn’t know self-published books were equally good.

This year, She Writes Press was honored with the Industry Innovator Award at the Book Industry Study Group’s (BISG’s) annual meeting. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more traditionally oriented bunch of folks than the people at this meeting. During lunch, before I received the award, a publisher I’d met a few times tried to convince me that She Writes Press would be more successful if we downplayed the fact that our authors pay to publish. The irony, of course, is that our model, nontraditional as it is with authors paying and receiving a much higher royalty on their books, is what makes us innovative. The full transparency of how our two presses operate is built into our broader mission and agenda to destigmatize books for how they get published, judging them instead, as they should be, on their merit.

On this decade anniversary of my own mindset shift and embrace of indie publishing, I’m most struck by the wins. This year at BookExpo, for example, the Authors Guild expressed interest in partnering with hybrid publishers. Indie authors are facing less resistance from traditional media outlets, evidenced by so many wins for indie authors, including notable ones like Finn Bell, whose self-published novel Dead Lemons won the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel, and Kate Johnson, who was named winner of the new category, Paranormal or Speculative Romantic Novel Award, for Max Seventeen, and was also the first self-published author to win a RoNA.

Those of us in the trenches, including the IBPA staff and Board of Directors, have been fighting the good fight, and this will need to continue. Indie publishing is still hurt by authors who publish too soon and by self-publishers who don’t adhere to professional standards and publish subpar books. This means that IBPA has much work ahead of it in continuing to educate emerging authors and publishers, as well as keeping traditional publishers in line. IBPA’s message is simple and clear: judge the book, not the business model. To drive this home, we have to change hearts and minds with hard evidence in the form of excellent books. And because the journey will be long, it’s right to stop and give the occasional shout-outs and high-fives, hopefully putting a little spring in our step as we carry on.

Brooke Warner is publisher of She Writes Press and SparkPress, president of Warner Coaching Inc., and author of Green-light Your Book (June 2016) and What’s Your Book? She writes for Huffington Post and SheWrites.com, and sits on the board of the Independent Book Publishers Association.

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