What's an Independent Publisher?

So, I was astonished earlier this month to find myself elected president of BAIPA — the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association.

You may call me Mr. President.

Born in the early, heady days of the desktop publishing revolution, BAIPA is a wonderful collection of folks involved in various parts of the non-corporate end of the publishing industry who get together to swap knowledge and offer services and listen to expert speakers give information about the esoterica of the publishing craft. We’ve got authors, editors, designers, publicists — if it’s got to do with the creation of books (in whatever form) and their sale, there’s someone there who can help. The collective is capable of creating books that are every bit as polished and attractive as those put out by the Big Five publishers. (Is it still five, by the way?)

I’ve learned a lot at BAIPA meetings. I’d like to think I’ve also managed to share some helpful information.

Meetings always start off with a free-form Q&A session. It gives people the chance to ask whatever burning question they may have up front; the BAIPA hivemind then sets about answering the question.

A few weeks ago, at the first meeting that I ran as president, no one had any questions to ask up front. This sometimes happens, so I threw out a question that I hoped would spark some interesting conversation: What exactly is an independent publisher?

Members gave a number of very interesting, insightful responses, but in every case it was clear that their actual answer to my question was someone who publishes his or her own books. Self-publishers, that is.

Well, that didn’t quite sit right with me, but I didn’t want to make a big deal about it — a large percentage of our members are in fact self-publishers. Self-publishing has become a huge industry in recent years, accounting for a large and growing percentage of the new books produced and sold.

These folks are all indeed independent publishers. But that’s not the whole answer.

I’m an independent publisher — or rather Stillpoint Digital Press, which I own, is one, though we publish books by nearly twenty authors in addition to a couple of titles of mine.

The Joseph Campbell Foundation, the small not-for-profit with which I’ve worked for the past decade and a half, is an independent publisher as part of its mission, putting out ebooks and recordings of lectures by the late mythologist.

So is New World Library, who publish all of the Campbell print books that I’ve worked on, and whose offices are about a mile from BAIPA’s meeting space, though NWL put out over thirty books a year, have a budget in the millions, and have a building full of (very nice) staff.

So what the heck is an independent publisher, anyway?

It’s a publisher not affiliated with any large corporation or conglomerate. That’s it.*

What makes independent publishers special — what makes them the life blood of the publishing industry — is that independent publishers are independent. They make their own decisions. When it comes to publishing, that’s very important, both as a matter of freedom of the press, and as a matter of insuring that tastes can’t be defined solely by small groups of decision makers whose only concern is maximizing profits.

As several BAIPA members pointed out, they are publishing out of a passion — whether that’s a passion for a particular subject, or a particular story, or even a particular style.

Now, as we discuss  regularly at BAIPA meetings, that passion must be tempered with a good sense of the business of publishing. Creating books is hard; selling them is even harder.

But still, the current marketplace allows independent publishers the same access to sell their books internationally as the subsidiaries of huge multinationals. With the ebook explosion and the proliferation of lower-risk printing options, anyone with a passion and a book can join the swelling ranks.

Come on in, the water’s fine!

* * *

* Cf. from the website of the Independent Publishers Assocation: https://www.ibpa-online.org/what-is-an-independent-publisher/

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