Indie Publishing ≠ Self-Publishing



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Ultrasociality—our capacity to cooperate in societies of millions of genetically unrelated individuals—is a huge puzzle. Readers of this blog know that trying to solve this puzzle has been the central question of my research into social and cultural evolution. Some time back I resolved to write a popular book about the puzzle of ultrasociality. I contacted several literary agents with the idea. I had good discussions with one or two of them, but eventually they all declined to work with me to make this book a reality.


Meantime the landscape of book publishing has been utterly transformed. Many writers of fiction books have gone the “indie” route, bypassing the world of traditional publishing, dominated by the Big Six (now Big Five) trade publishing Leviathans—Penguin Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster. (Disclosure: my previous trade book, War and Peace and War, was published by an imprint of Penguin Random House). Some of them, like J. A. Konrath, whose blog I have been following for many years, became very successful and made a lot of money in the process.

As far as I know, there has been no comparable successes in the world of trade nonfiction publishing, at least the kind of nonfiction books that I read. Best-selling authors, such as Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker, Thomas Piketty, and Ian Morris, all publish through traditional channels. Another cohort of trade nonfiction authors has been published by university presses, such as Oxford and Princeton (I’ll write about this trend in another post; of course, Piketty’s book was also published by a university press). But I know of no reasonably successful books, in the fields I follow, that were published independently.

However, there is no reason why this should continue to be the case. So decided to go with an independent publisher—Beresta Books, an imprint that I started earlier this year. And now I am about to publish the book on the puzzle of ultrasociality—it should be out in two or three weeks.


There are several reasons to go the indie route, and money is not necessarily the most important one. By going independent you assume the burdens of the book production, distribution, and advertising. But the weight of these burdens has been diminishing as a result of advances in electronic and print-on-demand publishing. On the positive side, you gain freedom to do things your own way. I’ll give you two examples.

If you publish with a traditional publisher, whether it’s a university press or a commercial house, it takes literally forever to get your book out. OK, not forever, but at least a year after you have finished the final draft. If you go the indie route, it can take a few weeks. It all depends on how you organize the production process yourself.

Second, when publishing traditionally you have little or no control over how your book is edited and produced. An author I know actually hired a professional line/copy-editor at his own expense to get his book in shape, before he sent it to the publisher. And there is no guarantee that the publisher wouldn’t hire another editor who will mess all the good editing done by an editor author likes.


Another example from my own experience is the publisher changing a visually striking cover art, which was used for the hardback edition to an utterly undistinguished cover for the paperback (which is now the only version offered for sale).

You might counter, the publishers know what they are doing. Wrong! Yes, they are professionals and have much more experience than most authors. But nobody really knows which books will become best-sellers and which will languish. Or what needs to be done to make a book a best-seller.

It’s a lottery. We know quite well how to sink a worthwhile book—a poor conceptual structure, bad editing, an unprofessional or undistinguished cover—but nobody knows how to create a winner.

Additionally, publishers and authors have a conflict of interest. Publishers, especially the commercial ones, only care about striking big, proiducing the next bestseller. Authors, of course, would love to write a bestseller, but are usually willing to settle simply for making an impact. Many of us have academic positions, so if we don’t make gobs of money, it’s no big deal. If the book is read and discussed, that’s already an accomplishment.

And here I finally come to the main idea of the post, reflected in the title.

Indie Publishing Is Not Self-Publishing

I am not publishing my book about the puzzle of ultrasociality by myself. It’s a cooperative process (yes, the book is about cooperation, and publishing it is cooperation in action). I work together with a team of talented people, each with his or her own area of expertise.

The team includes Ed Lake, the Deputy Editor of the Aeon Magazine, who has transformed the structure and flow of the book. It also includes Simon Reynolds, an accomplished wordsmith who has been hammering my prose into cohesive sentences and paragraphs. I have also engaged three (!) designers to work on the cover art (I’ll explain the method in my madness in a subsequent post), and finally I am about to hire a typesetter who will produce the PDF for the print-on-demand paperback and Kindle and epub files for electronic versions. And I haven’t even started talking about what comes after the publication. Publishing a book is a collective enterprise, in which the author is just one member of the team.

To be continued

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Ross Hartshorn

Yayyyyy!!! Glad to see there will be at least a paperback option (although I prefer to pay a little more for hardback). Even though (or perhaps because) I’m a computer programmer by trade, I prefer to read books in the tactile form.

So, basically, you’re saying that I can put this book on my Christmas wish-list, and my wife will be able to get it for me? 🙂 (with a lot of eye-rolling, probably)

Stephen Greenleaf

I find your post encouraging on two fronts. First, as a fan of War & Peace & War as “translation” of your more technical work about secular cycles and historical dynamics, and as a fan of cliodynamics in general, I’m pleased that you have this new work nearing publication. Second, as someone who’s contemplated writing a book that would not have wide appeal (putting it most gently), your alternative path to publication presents an encouraging option. Thanks for your work and your suggestions.

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