Issue 171,  published July 31, 2018

The Evolving Role of Independents

How should independent podcast networks change as the environment around it industrializes?

One thing I’ve been thinking through lately is what, exactly, does it operationally mean to be an independent network, perhaps in the vein of Radiotopia or RelayFM, and more to the point, how does its responsibilities evolve as the environment around it continues to industrialize? Particularly as we continue to see podcasting perhaps inevitably grow to reflect the structures of every other kind of media industry — or industry in general. (I mean, it happened to tech. And comic books. And punk rock, I guess?)

For some insight into how independent outfits function within an industrialized creative world, I reached out to Alia Almeida, a marketing manager who has held roles across the book publishing world, including a stint at the independent publisher Akashic Books. Almeida went long on the topic, and I thought there were a bunch of ideas in her response that can be directly applied to the podcast world.

So I’m running it in full:

Almeida: The goal of all publishing is to create a book, make it known to society, with a digestible value/price point, and get people to read that same book. The role of independent book publishers, though, is to ensure what they’re putting out is of value to society. Indie books are iconoclasts or disruptors… they’re of higher quality than its more commercial counterparts. These publishers are filling a space on the shelf that we didn’t even know was empty.

It’s funny because what happens is that the Big Five companies like to paint themselves as these better equipped groups who can take chances and acquire these (disruptive) kinds of books. But due to the bureaucratic processes endemic to those companies, what generally follows is a rejection with the explanation of “[x] book is too niche,” or alternatively, those books end up getting smaller marketing and publicity budgets. And so if more is done for a book, it’s because those marketing and publicity people truly believe in the book and love it. Believe me — that is the case in so many instances. To qualify, Big Five companies do get behind different books…but it happens less often since they’re such behemoths.

Since independent publishers are smaller, it’s easier for everyone in-house to pivot on a title. At an independent house, you can acquire a book for less money, and still get that book treated as the Next Big Thing. And it’s lovely to see a book engender so much in-house appeal that they get more resources across marketing, publicity, and sales.

In the grand scheme of book publishing, independent presses are defined by their speed. They can be nimble and timely in ways bigger publishers cannot. As a result, the work of independent book publishers is more oriented around cultural experiences. In order to be timely—in order to make an impact — you must be on top of the media and the culture to ensure a book’s relevance and ability to attract the right audience.

Like the Big Five, some independent publishers have backlists that blew up, allowing them to acquire more experimental manuscripts (such as Abrams and Press Here, Akashic Books and Go The F*ck To Sleep, or Grove Atlantic and A Confederacy of Dunces). Another trend we’re seeing with the bigger independent houses is that they are feeling big to acquire (see the Quarto Group acquiring Harvard Common Press) or they lose the head of their company and are forced to get acquired (see Perseus Books sold to Ingram and Hachette Book Group). Which is typical of an industry, right? When you are a large company the only way to grab new technology or fresh blood is through company acquisition…or to stay in the game, you must merge.

You would think as a result that these smaller — what feels like micro-presses because of all these mergers and acquisitions — houses have no chance against growth… but they’re still standing tall! And they’re still publishing the freshest of takes, and they’re doing it in their way.

The smaller presses have the most fleshed out missions. You know the book’s agenda based on the publisher’s agenda. Look at Akashic Books’ quick motto, “Reverse-gentrification of the literary world,” and then look at their backlist. You’ll think “wow, they’re really standing by what they’re saying.” Another excellent example is Melville House, which turns out thoughtful (and usually political) books in response to the American consciousness. See A Citizen’s Guide to Impeachment, which came out in September 2017 in response the 2016 US presidential election. They even sent a copy to every member of the House and Senate. It was such a punk rock move… and honestly, indie publishing is punk. These are the staunch houses and presses that simply won’t go gently into the night.

Thanks, Alia.

So, I’m not going to break this down and spell out the whole “main takeaways” or “what podcasts can learn from indie publishers” thing. You can draw the big adaptable ideas yourselves. Look, I don’t like telling people what to think! I believe in you! You’re great.