The Moving Target of Indie Publishing: What Every Editor (and Writer) Needs to Know

green canopyI’m a writer and an editor. I’ve written and published novels, short stories and non-fiction books with traditional publishing houses and indie publishers, and I’ve self-published. As editor, I serve as in-house copy-editor for a publishing house in the United States and have acted as acquisition editor for several anthologies put out by a local indie publisher. I also coach novice writers to publication and edit in that capacity. So, you could say, I know the industry from many angles and perspectives. That’s been good for me, because this industry is a moving target and it’s good to triangulate on a moving object. The entire publishing industry is evolving and it’s a slippery evolution.

Even the words we use are slippery. Indie. Hybrid. Publisher.

Many people, like award-winning author Kristine Kathryn Rusch, when they use the terms indie-writer and indie-publishing include what some call self-publishing in their definitions of indie, “because so many [professional] writers who are not with traditional publishers have started their own presses. It’s not accurate to lump all writers who are not following the traditional route into the self-publishing basket any longer.” According to Rusch, an indie publisher, then, is anyone who is not a traditional publisher. For the sake of this article, I’ve adopted Rusch’s definition to provide the full range of expectations for editors working with writers in the indie field. I define a traditional publisher as an established and often larger publishing house or press that: 1) follows traditional submission criteria; 2) does not charge writers; 3) pays out royalties; and 4) employs in-house editors.

Indie writing and publishing can then be described in several ways depending on where the writer submits, by what mechanism and what model they use. All of these will affect a writer’s needs and perceptions for an editor and, in turn, an editor’s expectations as well.

I overview five major models of indie writing and publishing in Table 1, below.

Table 1: Types of Indie Writing / Publishing Models:
1. Small Independent Press

(not writer’s)

Author submits to a small press that does not require author to pay for publishing costs; house may pay small royalties; acceptance criteria limit submissions; there may or may not be formal distribution
2. Small Independent Press

(not writer’s)

Author submits to a small press that may require author to pay for part of publishing costs; house typically does not pay royalties but may provide complementary copies and/or author’s rate for copies; acceptance criteria may still apply to submissions; distributor tends to be Ingram/Amazon model
3. Small Independent Press

(writer as sole proprietor or part of a consortium; also called self-publishing by some)

Author can pretty well write and publish as she pleases; costs of publication are born solely by the writer(s) and royalties come straight from profit; no acceptance criteria apply; distribution typically Ingram/Amazon model
4. Service “Publisher”

(e.g., iUniverse, Friessen, etc.); this is self-publishing, even though the “publisher” name appears on the work

Author can pretty well write and publish as she pleases; all publication costs born by writer; service will include various services, including: copy-editing, layout, cover design, printing, some distribution, some promotion—all at cost (based on service package); distribution typically Ingram/Amazon model
5. Self-Publishing

(e.g., the publication is in the author’s name)

Author can pretty well write and publish as she pleases; author uses a la carte style of self-publishing in which she hires various experts—or herself does—the production of the work (e.g. editing, layout, cover, printing, distribution, and promotion).

Depending on which model an author uses for their work, their perceived need and actual need for an editor prior to submission and publication will be affected. I make the distinction between “perceived” and “actual” because, unfortunately, in many cases these diverge: an author may not think they need a certain kind of editing for their work when they do. The opposite is more rare: the author thinking she needs an editor when she doesn’t. I will talk more about this in a later article.

The availability of these models and their hybrid cousins has provided writers with a cornucopia of often confusing choices. In many cases, I am finding—particularly with my clients—that writers don’t even know which choice is best for them. Part of the reason for this is that writers carry forward ideas from the old model and create a misconception of expectation. Unfortunately, this often translates into misconceived ideas about and expectations of editors. That’s another article too.

For editors, it’s important to recognize these different models and what they, in turn, provide and expect from authors. A savvy editor translates into a savvy author. Your advice, if driven from a place of publishing industry knowledge, will be invaluable to authors seeking your services. And they will come to rely on this as much as, if not more than, your actual editing.

By its very nature, indie publishing has given the freelance editor an opportunity to take on a new role—a service that agents used to and still do provide many traditionally-published authors: that of industry consultant. In the traditional model, an author would seek an agent who would then not only sell their work to a publisher but also provide advice on what to expect in the market as well as help with career-longevity choices (which include “branding”); questions many novice authors haven’t even considered, never mind answered sufficiently. Most indie authors will not engage an agent; but most will (should) hire an editor. So, instead of an agent, the freelance editor becomes the first stop in the publishing industry for an indie author. This has become one of my primary roles as editor and writing coach. And this is again because most writers, when they start out, do not know what direction they want to go—mainly because they aren’t familiar enough with what is available to them and the ramifications to their careers.

Here’s an example: one client, working on her first novel, wanted my advice on whether she should try with a traditional publisher or just forgo and self-publish. An editor, if possessing savvy knowledge of the industry and now knowing something of the author’s work and ambitions, can bring informed and constructive advice to the author.

The ramifications on how I handle and edit a story directly follows which route the author has decided to follow. This is every bit as relevant to an author publishing with a traditional publishing house, an indie press, or self-publishing. Style—whether it is that of a publishing house or the author’s brand—relies on consistent application of voice and tone. Just as publishing houses embrace different and unique styles, so do authors. In fact, if they are self-publishing, this is even more important.

The editor plays a crucial role in helping an author establish their “voice” and “style”, and ultimately their “brand.” And, perhaps, this becomes one of the principle differences between traditional and indie publishing. While voice and style is pre-determined to some extent by traditional publishing houses (hence they employ their own editors to impose a style in some cases), it is left to the author—and her freelance editor—to determine this in the indie scene. The structure of traditional publishing is both more orderly and more confining. Indie publishing—particularly self-publishing—is an infinite melting pot of creativity. Some view it as one big mess. In fact, it is a chaos of astonishing opportunity. It is a chance for intimate collaboration that demands mutual respect. Freelance editors are poised as both gatekeepers and enabling wizards of the indie world.

Table 2, below, describes a freelance editor’s focus in the five indie models I described in Table 1.

Table 2: Editing for Different Indie Models:
1. Small Independent Press

(with submission criteria similar to a traditional model)

Authors often think they don’t need a freelance editor if they are submitting to a press with in-house editor; this is incorrect. Those who have had their work edited prior to submission to a press—even a small press—will have a much higher chance of being accepted. The freelance editor’s job, then, will include attending to the style of the publishing house.
2. Small Independent Press

(without submission criteria)

While authors may not recognize the need for an editor in submitting to an indie publisher without submission criteria, the need for editing remains—particularly because many of these presses do not employ or have sufficiently qualified editors. Excellence in presentation and nurturing a strong author voice are the freelance editor’s responsibility.
3. Small Independent Press

(writer’s own press)

Given that the author has pretty well carte blanche on what to write and publish, a freelance editor’s role in recognizing, harmonizing with and helping to establish a genuine and strong author’s “voice” becomes most important.
4. Service “Publisher” Authors have misconceptions about service “publishers” and particularly their editors. I have had several clients come to me after recognizing that their works were not well represented by the provider’s in-house editor. Service “publisher” in-house editors do not represent a particular style, voice or brand (given that most are underpaid students and there is no style identity); the freelance editor role is as with #3.
5. Self-Publishing The same criteria exist here as for model #3.

The take home is that freelance editors can flourish in the indie writing and publishing field by: 1) establishing their expertise in the industry and what it requires (taking on the role of consultant, which agents normally provide in the traditional water drops on leafmodel); 2) recognizing a need for strong authorial voices and helping to foster them; 3) promoting point #2 with consistency in style, tone, etc.

Hope this helps. Let me know.

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

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