Starting Your Own Indie Publishing Company

This piece, the first in a three-part series by Amy Rogers, originally appeared on the Publishing Renaissance site—an excellent resource for indie authors and small imprints—on 4/21/09.

or How I Learned to Stop Grousing and Make Something Happen in My Own Backyard – Part 1 of 3

If you’re a writer, you probably spend a fair amount of time complaining how hard it is to get published. (It’s in our job description, right?)

So over the years, conversations in my lunch-bunch of writer friends eventually progressed from whining to full-on fantasizing. “Someone should start a really cool indie publishing house,” somebody said.

“Yeah, we’d publish all the good stuff that New York ignores because we live in the South and we’re not hip or famous,” someone else added.

“Yeah!” everyone agreed.

“But we’re writers. We don’t have any, you know, money.”

This conversation repeated itself many times, starting back in 1999, when I was part of a small-but-feisty band of writers who set out to empower and raise the profile of our literary community in Charlotte, N.C., despite our lack of resources, benefactors or any expertise whatsoever.

Three of us researched small presses around the country, networked like crazy (difficult for us introverted writers, so we told ourselves it was investigative journalism), and scribbled on yellow legal pads in an attempt to come up with something that might one day resemble a business plan. It was hard to get our minds around such a large, complex and changing industry. But we worked at it for a year while doing our freelance jobs.

One day everything fell into place when we realized that most traditional trade publishing entities (non-self-publishing) can fit into one of just a few categories.

1. Mainstream Commercial Publishing: Think Random House, HarperCollins, all the giant power players with global influence and products. Through acquisitions and mergers, many of the former household names have been consolidated in recent years. Big ambitions, big sellers, big dollars at stake.

2. University Presses: These books are often ambitious and expensive but must be viable commercially; they also fulfill the institution’s educational mission. Example: the University of Chicago publishes books about art and architecture.

3. Specialty Presses: Targeted products for specific audiences (can be religious, how-to, business-related, journals, etc.).

4. Indie Presses: Visionaries or devoted lovers of literature who often put their own money into the company and rarely garner fame or fortune. Widely seen as doing “God’s work” since they publish the books large companies won’t touch: poetry, untested writers, regional and non-mainstream works.

Suddenly, publishing started to make sense. Almost everything from international bestsellers to local, grassroots books could be pegged somewhere in this model. We could really see the proverbial forest – and the trees. It was exhilarating. And it allowed us to focus.

We knew right away we could never attempt to become a large, mainstream publisher. We weren’t academics, so that was out. And we couldn’t open a specialty press because we didn’t have a specialty.

Cha-ching! We were indies! Yes! We’d be like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and his beat-poet friends who founded City Lights Publishers and their legendary bookstore in San Francisco, back in the ’50s.

We’d discover and nurture new literary talent in our own region, we’d launch emerging writers, and we’d put our city on the national literary map.

But there was still one problem, and it was a big one. We had absolutely no resources and we had no idea how to find them – if they even existed.

Read the part two, and follow the link to part three, on the Publishing Renaissance site, where you can find many more articles and resources of interest to indie authors and small imprints.

Amy Rogers is the author of Hungry for Home: Stories of Food from Across the Carolinas. She is a founder and the Publisher of the award-winning Novello Festival Press. NFP is the nation’s only library-sponsored literary publisher, part of the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, N.C.

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