Rise of the Indie: Print Markets and the Road Ahead

When publishers rejoice at the “failure” of the digital market, they aren’t actually celebrating the preservation of print: they’re reacting to the preservation of their market share as compared to the self-published industry. But print isn’t safe from the rise of the indie market, and it’s important for publishers to be prepared to compete where they have for so long dominated.


When tablets and the modern electronic book hit the publishing scene a decade ago, industry professionals suggested that ebooks sales would take a substantial share of the market (some claimed at least 50% by 2014).1 What they didn’t predict was that more than half of that new market would be dominated by the independent and self-publishing industry (hereafter referred to as the indie market).

The ways in which the traditional industry looks at data and the trends that data predicts has grown complicated. However, one thing is clear: digital is the purview of the indie market, and traditional publishers are struggling to maintain their market share, both in unit sales and revenue.

It’s no wonder then that, since early 2016, articles heralding the return of print sales and the decline of the ebook have given publishers and booksellers alike a reason to celebrate. With ebooks taking up only 18% of the total publishing market in Canada2 and a stagnant 23% in America,3 a market trend that suggests a worldwide return to print would mean publishers could blame an under-performing digital market as a reason to go back to doing what they’ve always been good at: publishing print books. Fortune Magazine’s digital editor, Andrew Nusca, relates some of why the traditional publishing industry celebrated the leveling out of the ebook market at the beginning of 2015:


Between 2008 and 2010, e-book sales skyrocketed 1,260%—a sign that the platform had matured and also a sign that it hadn’t quite gained traction up to that point. Amazon began shipping Kindles like mad. Barnes & Noble threw its hat into the e-reader ring. (A fateful decision, it turned out.) Print sales (especially for cheap paperbacks) slipped, bookstores large and small—but especially large—began to close up shop, and the entire publishing business was left shaking. A reprieve from that narrative is obviously welcome if you’re in the book business.4


Of course, it could be argued that there are specific reasons that the ebook market was willfully left to stagnate, but only some of those reasons are important for the scope of this essay.



Author Earnings - Trade Books by Format

Author Earnings, 2016.

The Situation Right Now

According to a report released by Author Earnings at the Digital Book World conference in January, 2017, the indie and Amazon Imprint ebook market accounted for 54% of total ebook sales in 2016.5 These numbers included ebooks sold through Amazon, iBooks, and other retailers that Author Earnings’s “spider” software could crawl for sales snapshots. Author Earnings itself admits that there are some limitations to the methodology for their quarterly reports (from which this data is compiled):


[E]ach of our quarterly snapshots, no matter how comprehensive, is only an X-Ray of the US ebook market at that exact moment. It’s what’s called a cross-sectional study. Like a freeze frame photo, it can only tell us how the ebook market is faring as a whole, rather than predicting the future prospects of any particular author along any particular publishing path. […] each data set can only tell us how each individual author’s books happen to be selling at that precise instant in time.

The picture painted by each quarterly report, taken on its own, is thus necessarily incomplete.

They tell us nothing about the consistency of those individual authors’ earnings over time.6


However, despite the “incompleteness” of the data, there are some trends, when taken with the contextual history of how the market has adapted to include self-publishing over time, that can help predict where the next big upset in the publishing landscape might occur.


Bodice Rippers and Coloring Books 

Author Earnings - Online Sales by Genre

Author Earnings, 2016. (Pink circles added)


The outliers of the publishing industry have a story to tell about what gets printed and what doesn’t.

Author Earnings says that Adult Fiction has moved online, but a majority of this is because of the booming romance category, which runs differently from the rest of the fiction market to begin with.7 Romance is also one of the many indie market’s digital-first genres, where authors test the reception of their work in ebook format first, before adding on a print edition. (The difference with romance being that the “insatiable readers” of romance will often buy a book twice to support the author, with whom they often have access to through author-moderated fan communities.)

Author Earnings reports that the other major outlier, coloring books, which sold almost 12 million copies in 20158 and 14 million in 2016,9 have not only shifted heavily into the indie market sector (with indie authors making up 60% of the market share), they’ve also stayed in print.


Sales of Coloring Books Went Indie - Author Earnings, 2016.

Author Earnings, 2016.


The magnitude of this trend should not be overlooked, especially when thinking about the future of the print market. In comparison to other types of books, coloring books have the fewest barriers to publication. There is little to no editing skill required, minimal production (layout, typography, and color printing knowledge are unnecessary), and anyone with basic knowledge of Word and PDF creation can make a book as professional as Penguin Random House in half the time. More importantly, the audience for these books care very little about who published it, so long as it fulfills their reasons for purchasing it. Most importantly, authors within the indie market can competitively price their books with the click of a button, undercutting their competition in much the same way that Amazon has been undercutting brick-and-mortar stores since 1994.

Print Isn’t “Safe” from the Self-Publishing Industry

Looking at the data, it is easy to see that the ebook market is dominated by indie publishers and will continue to be so—but with that comes the assumption that the print industry, while shrinking or stable, will remain firmly in the realm of traditional publishers. I argue that isn’t the case. The demand for self-published print books is growing,10 and will only continue to do so. Once the accessibility of print services open up in the same ways ebook technology did, a surge similar to what happened with digital publishing will occur on the print side of the industry.

I am not arguing that indie authors will (or won’t) overtake traditional publishers in the print market; rather, that it is short-sighted to assume that there won’t be a point in time at which those authors won’t be competing with traditional presses by taking up a larger slice of a shrinking pie. And, should traditional publishers not gain the sort of flexibility that they failed to exhibit throughout the growth of the digital market, they may find themselves not only unable to depend on title P&Ls for their business decisions, but repeatedly being challenged by the innovative spirit the indie market has demonstrated throughout their domination of the digital market.

However, there are a couple of issues that stand in the way of the indie market’s ability to compete within the print industry:

  1. Bookstores, libraries, and other stores that carry books have not yet shifted their policies regarding independently-published books. It is a fact taken for granted that the publishing industry is a consignment industry, and until a POD printer allows returns, or bookstores revoke their demand that a book be returnable (a pipe dream), indie authors will have to struggle, case-by-case, to be stocked on shelves.
  2. The technology that makes print paperbacks and print hardcover versions of books are not all that accessible to indie authors. By this, I mean that the software have high barriers to entry in the realms of functionality, costs, and flexibility.


Independent Bookstores on the Rise

Selling books in a brick-and-mortar store is fundamentally different from selling a book online. Chain brick-and-mortar stores are like Starbucks, the same no matter where you go. That homogeneity may be the reason sales are depressed, because there’s no reason to browse if every bookstore you go to has the same featured books that Amazon and other online retailers are carrying—and carrying at a much deeper discount.

One of the reasons that indie bookstores are on the rise may be because they bring flexibility and ingenuity back into the mix. Local communities care about whether their store survives. Titles feel handpicked and employees seem to have a more personalized touch when handselling.11 Independent bookstores still play a major role in deciding bestsellers. While some of this may be a collective narrative and no more, a narrative is more than powerful enough to make an idea succeed. And an environment that values locality and autonomy is an environment where indie authors can excel.

Hardcover and print unit sales for traditional publishers in 2016 were around 790 million. (Author Earnings, 2016). For self-publishers who have consistently been outselling and outearning traditionally published authors in the Amazon ebook market, print unit sales in the same year were closer to 22 million. The gap is clear. However, if print technologies through Createspace and Ingram become more accessible and fair, there’s no reason to think this won’t change. Despite the sound argument by Alison Strobel in her essay “Self-Publishing’s Limits”—regarding the need for distribution centers, warehouses, and upfront monetary investments the indie market will need in order to succeed in the print sector12—there is evidence to suggest that the market is leaning the other way: indie stores have a long tradition of hosting local author books and events, and Barnes & Noble is one of the few and notable chain bookstores that does the same. It may even be that, despite Barnes & Nobles’s questionable business decisions in the last few years, its flexibility in working with the indie communities is one of the reasons it has been surviving.13

Show Me the Money

Print remains the place where publishers receive the largest profit margin, even for POD printing. Traditional publishers sell less units of ebooks, but earn more revenue overall from each sale due to higher pricing structures. At first glance, it seems that many indie authors sell not only more units but earn more revenue, but the low price points for ebooks mean that many authors earn less than $500 a year.14


Sample print royalty rate for the book

Sample print royalty rate for the book “Darkly Never After,” a self-published anthology.


While an indie author will rarely have the advantage of bulk pricing for larger print runs, they will still see more from the sale of a $14.99 print book than a $2.99 ebook (the current median for ebook and print pricing in the indie market).


Sample Ebook Royalty Rate

Sample ebook royalty rate.


In addition, an indie author can undercut many traditional publishers in the print arena as print books for both paperback and hardcover have been steadily climbing.15 So long as the quality from one matches the quality of another, consumers won’t care. What happened to bookstores when Amazon reset the entire industry’s price point expectations will happen again, except this time with indie print books in opposition to traditionally-published print books on retail (and online) shelves. And with Amazon increasingly marketing its own imprints where it dominates online retail channels, this trend will only continue.


School Library Journal Average Book Prices for 2016.

School Library Journal, 2016.


POD Printing

In 2008, at the height of IngramSpark’s print-on-demand reign, Amazon, which had recently acquired a POD printer called BookSurge, made a startling demand: if publishers wished to have their POD books carried by Amazon, they would have to use BookSurge, or their “BUY” buttons would be removed. Within a month, an antitrust lawsuit was filed against the online retail giant by small POD publisher BookLocker. The lawsuit would last two years and $300,000 in lawyer fees for the owners of BookLocker, but Amazon was forced to settle (and pay the lawyers). Not long after, Amazon rebranded BookSurge as CreateSpace, which is now one of, if not the largest POD printer for indie authors on the market. Ironically, despite its antagonistic history with Lightning Source/Ingram, it now relies on its competitor to make its Expanded Distribution Channels possible (an optional service on CreateSpace that makes a book published on Amazon “available” to bookstores and other retail outlets). Meanwhile, Ingram tends to market itself to established mid-sized and small or micro presses, leaving the bulk of the indie market to Amazon’s discretion. There are other competitors, such as Smashwords and Lulu, but it’s hard to argue Amazon’s power when it comes to being able to print a book, upload an ebook, and distribute it to a massive consumer base all on one platform—and now, with the introduction of KDP Print, all on one website.

If You Build It They Will Print It

Traditional publishers have been slow to adopt XML workflows, a process that would arguably speed up the entire publication process and transform production into a lean, efficient, metadata-rich system. Self-publishers, on the other hand, who aren’t indoctrinated by old standards of the publishing industry and prioritize digital-first environments to test out what is and isn’t enjoyed by their base, are primed to adopt XML with little resistance. Roadblocks to independent publishing in the past have included clunky and confusing PDF submission guidelines (in many ways necessitating access to Adobe products, which largely are only accessible through monthly subscription models—a system with little value proposition to an individual not planning to use the software more than 1 or 2 times a year). Guidelines for places like Ingram or Lightning Source run 30 to 40 pages; an overwhelming and confusing process for most indie authors.

However, last month, Amazon rolled out KDP Print, which, while in beta, seems to answer the frustrations long-expressed by the indie community by offering a way to turn their ebooks into a paperback—much like an XML workflow. This (along with companies like Draft2Digital, which make the process of formatting a book as simple as uploading a common document type), will facilitate the future of the indie market’s printing boom.

In the end, it is an oversight to assume that indie authors are only in the digital realm because that is where they want to be. In fact, many authors desire print versions of their work, and it is the technological capability alone that stands in their way.16 While in the early 2000s, this set indie authors up to be taken advantage of by predatory vanity presses like Author Solutions, in recent years, support communities like SFWA’s Writer Beware and Absolute Write have banded together on the shared desire to accredit publishing service providers both big and small.

KDP Print: Amazon is Moving In on Production

Earlier this year, Amazon unveiled a new service for its indie authors: KDP Print. In effect, this service gives a much needed facelift and UI improvements to CreateSpace. One of the most notable and massive changes is the marrying of ebook and print production under one URL (and therefore, one user account). All of the functionality of CreateSpace remains, except Amazon is flipping the traditional publishing process on its head: start with digital, then move to print.

This logically makes a great deal of sense. Amazon’s massive self-publisher market is already familiar (and loyal to) Kindle Direct Publishing, and the use of the similar interface takes away a lot of the confusion and mistrust with CreateSpace’s clunky and outdated interface. Gone are the pixelated instructional menus—authors can now glide through the print process as easily as uploading a Word or PDF document, and correct errors that CreateSpace would normally flag. In the past, platforms like Amazon Advantage and CreateSpace separated the two production processes for books so much that, for some authors, it was simply not worth the trouble.

What does it mean for KDP to now be offering print? In addition to a single space within which to view sales data for both print and ebooks, preorders may soon be on the table, a functionality Amazon added to KDP for ebooks a couple of years ago. Expect that indie authors will respond positively and aggressively to that change.


As barriers for self-published authors continue to diminish in making a product that rivals traditionally-published books, the lines between the two industries will further blur. If the traditional presses do not actively reflect on the aspects of their businesses that failed to make them competitive in certain digital genres, they can expect that when the print “boom” happens (and it will), that expansion for indies will be coming out of their own market share. With the state of the publishing industry already so precarious (especially in the United States and Canada), the upset could be far-reaching and intense. It isn’t about digital vs. print. It isn’t even about online vs. brick-and-mortar. It’s about two very different industry models vying for the same market, and as the digital realm has shown, consumers don’t prefer one over another—they just want good content.



1. Flood, Alison. “Ebook Sales Pass Another Milestone.” The Guardian, April 15, 2011, sec. Books. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/apr/15/ebook-sales-milestone.
2. “Canadian Publishing in 2016: A Review.” BookNet Canada. Accessed March 25, 2017. http://www.booknetcanada.ca/blog/2017/1/30/canadian-publishing-in-2016-a-review.
3. “E-Book Share of Total Consumer Book Sales in the U.S. 2009-2015 | Statistic.” Statista. Accessed March 25, 2017. https://www.statista.com/statistics/190847/ebook-share-of-total-consumer-book-sales-in-the-us-till-2015/.
4. Nusca, Andrew. “Print Books Are far from Dead. But They’re Definitely on the Decline.” Fortune, September 24, 2015. http://fortune.com/2015/09/24/print-books-ebook-sales/.
5. “Print vs Digital, Traditional vs Non-Traditional, Bookstore vs Online: 2016 Trade Publishing by the Numbers” Author Earnings. Accessed March 25, 2017. http://authorearnings.com/report/dbw2017/.
6. “Individual Author Earnings Tracked across 7 Quarters, Feb. 2014 – Sept. 2015.” Author Earnings. Accessed March 25, 2017. http://authorearnings.com/report/individual-author-earnings-tracked-across-7-quarters-feb-2014-sept-2015/.
7. Ha, Thu-Huong. “Maverick Women Writers Are Upending the Book Industry and Selling Millions in the Process.” Quartz. Accessed March 25, 2017. https://qz.com/711924/maverick-women-are-upending-the-book-industry-and-selling-millions-in-the-process/.
8. “2015 U.S. Book Industry Year-End Review.” Nielsen. Accessed March 25, 2017. http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/reports/2016/2015-us-book-industry-year-end-review.html.
9. “Is the Adult Coloring Book Trend Coming to an End?” Time. Accessed March 25, 2017. http://time.com/4689069/coloring-book-bubble-bursts/.
10. “Technology: Self-Publishing – From Blog to Book: How Self-Publishers Yearn for Print.” Print Week, no. 18. Journal Article (2012).
11. “Read All about It: Print Might Be on Rise but Book Sale Figures Incomplete.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Accessed March 21, 2017. http://www.post-gazette.com/ae/books/2017/02/05/Read-all-about-it-print-might-be-on-rise-but-book-sale-figures-incomplete/stories/201702050052?pgpageversion=pgevoke.
12. “Self-Publishing’s Limits.” Thinkubator: R&D at Publishing @ SFU. PUB800, December 9, 2015. https://tkbr.publishing.sfu.ca/pub800/2015/12/self-publishings-limits/.
13. McIlroy, Thad. “B&N to Sell Self-Published Books In Stores.” Book Business, July 8, 2016. http://www.bookbusinessmag.com/post/interesting-twist-bn-sell-self-published-books/.
14. Flood, Alison. “Stop the Press: Half of Self-Published Authors Earn Less than $500.” The Guardian, May 24, 2012, sec. Books. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/may/24/self-published-author-earnings.
15. SLJ. “SLJ’s Average Book Prices for 2016.” School Library Journal. Accessed March 25, 2017. http://www.slj.com/2016/03/research/sljs-average-book-prices-for-2016/.
16. Rich, Motoko. “As Publishers Cut Back, Self-Publishing Booms Print-on-Demand Houses Make Money on Books That Sell Almost No Copies.” International Herald Tribune, January 29, 2009, 4 edition, sec. Finance. http://global.factiva.com/redir/default.aspx?P=sa&an=INHT000020090129e51t0000s&cat=a&ep=ASE.

3 Responses to Rise of the Indie: Print Markets and the Road Ahead

  1. haiqind says:

    Thanks Ariel for this interesting topic! Indie authors and self-publishing market as part of the whole publishing business has its own characteristics and occupied more than half of the e-book market share last year based on the data from Author Earnings. This intrigues me to think deeper in indie publishing.

    Why traditional publishers do not care so much about e-book market or why e-book market share is mostly in the hand of indie publishing, there are several reasons. I think one is that traditional publishing is very conservative and responding very slowly to new technology, especially now they have a relatively stable print market and no worries for new format. Another reason is that compared with print market, e-book market is much less profit, which indicating that there is not much profitable space in the e-book market for traditional publishers. For the indie publishing, it is much easier for them to handle the low cost e-book version than the print version which might have to involve in all efforts from editors, designers, typographers, printer, and so on.

    As we see, e-book version is more like an additional product to create for most traditional publishers at the same time they send those document files ready to go to print. Their comments on e-book in this case are more like “Since e-book creation is not that costly, why not?” This idea can be seen clearly from Thomas Woll’s book . But what the future of e-book market will be, promising or depressing? Considering the factors including technology development, e-readers behaviours, encryptions and DRM, and so on, it is really hard to predict. The sales data of e-books in recent years is not open to the public and some of those sales data available to us is usually incomplete, the e-book market is kind of a mystery to us.

    Ariel points out a good point that print is back to the indie that the demand for self-published print books is growing. An interesting phenomenon is “start with digital, then move to print”. The technology is ready, the distribution system is there, the independent bookstore is there, and the authors and the reading fans expect the print version, and POD printing is a way to save cost, with all these factors combined together, it seems a big advantage for indie publishing to scramble for the market share in print market as well.

    Indie publishing as a different publishing model from traditional publishing has its own strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats. In all, Ariel did a very excellent and persuasive argument in this essay!

  2. hmcgregor says:

    This is a really thoroughly researched and carefully argued essay that attacks the assumption that print “belongs” to traditional publishing and dismantles that assumption point by point. At the heart of the argument is the distinction of indie vs. traditional publishing as a difference of publishing models rather than mediums. There is nothing inherent to the indie model that precludes incorporating print, and thus traditional publishing is perhaps foolish to bank on print fetishism as a guarantor of their long-term survival. Your “so what” is particularly impactful: traditional publishers have some meaningful restructuring to do. I also drew a little cartoon heart next to your point that “a narrative is more than powerful enough to make an idea succeed.” YES. The stories we tell about ourselves are not simply illusions or pretenses, they are fundamental to the choices we make. If small bookstores succeed, surely it’s because people tell stories about themselves as the kind of people who go to those kinds of stores. So what kind of stories is traditional publishing telling, what kinds of stories are indie publishers telling, and whose narrative is more convincing?

  3. JMax says:

    Really well done! I am not so convinced as Hannah is. But this line is a great framing:

    two very different industry models vying for the same market, and as the digital realm has shown, consumers don’t prefer one over another—they just want good content.

    You’re spot on here… except I don’t believe the two models are actually competing for the same readers. Here’s why:

    The traditional industry relies on scale; that was Gutenberg’s innovation. You put time and effort into creating something really nice, then you industrially manufacture it. The sunk costs — for editorial, design, and production, but also for marketing and distribution — are amortized across large print runs. The resulting product isn’t just a text, bound or otherwise; it’s a complete, multidimensional phenomenon, spanning literary (text), visual (design), material (paper, binding), and social (marketing, promotion, visibility) aspects. The value that the publisher creates is on all of those levels, and the cost and pricing structures reflect all of those, in varying amounts (design and materiality vary hugely between pulp and hardcover, for instance). But the $12 or $24 that you pay for the book has to be thought of in terms of the whole gamut, and the cost structure thought of in industrial terms: amortized over a whole run.

    The self-publishing industry has a different model entirely — and I think this is true regardless of whether we’re talking about ebooks or POD books. The model is individualistic: a single text (or a small number of texts), produced in as close to a just-in-time model as possible. The sunk costs are limited to what will allow single sales to trigger single productions. There is no incentive to develop materiality, nor to do industrial-scale marketing and promotion, because these things don’t make sense in an individual sales model; they are fundamentally industrial activities.

    The rise of ebooks has shown the limits of both models. The traditional industry has, unsurprisingly, attempted to look at ebooks as if they were yet another format — like mass-market paperbacks except different. It hasn’t worked well for them, though, because they realized late in the game that their traditional distribution networks no longer applied, and Amazon’s ecommerce platform would rule the day. Plus, there turned out to be almost no benefit in economies of scale, except in the case of an ebook purely as extension of the print book’s market (the classic case is the Kobo edition of the Sentimentalists).

    On the other side, the ebook proved really effective in allowing would-be self-published authors to get their books out there, especially when Amazon embraced this model. Here, the low-cost, low-price single-sale model can run almost frictionlessly. The resulting price points bear almost no resemblance to the traditional industry, because they are based on a completely different model: one which is radically simpler: the text is the thing that has value. Design almost doesn’t play in, except in the label that goes on the tin (I mean, on the Amazon entry for the book). There is no materiality, there is no marketing or promotion budget; the text is all.

    The latter model works frighteningly well. Enough to scare the pants off the traditional industry. But I still think it only makes sense in the ebook space. The reason is that the desire for print is nowhere near enough to offset the trouble it takes to actually pull off print. It takes care and attention: to design, to materiality. It takes sunk costs. Once you sink costs into design and production, then you have to start thinking about economies of scale again in order to amortize the investment. Then you have to think about marketing budgets, which further digs you into the industrial model. It simply can’t be done on a single-sales model.

    Of course it can, you say: that’s what CreateSpace is for. But, I would counter, it’s not really. What CreateSpace will do is allow you to pump out the print equivalent of ebooks: bland, cookie-cutter templated objects with no actual value put into their design or materiality. You get something kind of like a mass-market paperback, except worse, because it is completely generic. It’s a simulacrum of a print book, but it’s not a real print book because it misses the physical, visual, material, and social value of a real print book. And, I think, ultimately no one cares about such things; they will not inspire sales. Why would they? If the text is the important thing, then why would I bother paying a premium for a printed version when I can get the ebook *instantly* for less.

    The value proposition is different. The value proposition for ebooks is different than for printed books. The value proposition of the ebook lends itself very well to the new indie market, which organizes itself online, in forums and communities around certain genres — where the social context of the book is provided in the online space. The value proposition of the print book requires something different: it requires an investment in physicality that demands a bunch of other things: care and attention to design, care and attention to materiality, care and attention to building a market large enough to make all of that worthwhile.

    Because of these different value propositions, I think these two markets are actually really very distinct. What we have yet to realize, and what will be super interesting to watch in years to come, is how many and which genres fall — over time — into which category.

    I think also that Amazon is key to all of this: Amazon holds the lions share of book sales in BOTH camps. And in that, I think there are two red herrings in your argument: the first is that indie stores will make a difference. I don’t think so. I think the rallying of indie bookstores is comparable to the rally of vinyl records: very interesting, but hardly enough volume to move the overall needle. Indie stores fit very nicely into hip, urban neighbourhoods, but they don’t, and won’t, serve the mass of readers that live in suburbia.

    The other red herring is XML workflows. I have spent more than a decade arguing that this is a red herring. XML is an industrial strength technology designed to support the massive documentation needs of the aerospace industry. If industrial publishers can’t figure out how to leverage XML workflows (and they haven’t, for over two decades already), indie publishers certainly won’t. Where it may make some difference is behind the scenes in some black boxed conversion process inside CreateSpace (or equivalent). But then, in a black box, it is simply a conversion tool… it doesn’t supply any leverage to the production of real print books.

    OMG I wrote an essay. Well, kudos to you, Ariel, for inspiring me to write to voluminously!

    Fabulous piece, Ariel… I look forward to watching this space and seeing how wrong I turn out to be :-)

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