Independent Publishers: A Closer Look at Various Nonfiction Publishing Models

01 Sep 2021


In the world of publishing, there are two primary players: mainstream and independent publishers.

With the prestige often attached to mainstream publishers, they tend to draw writers like bees to honey. Because of this, they are frequently misjudged as being profit-driven content machines.

On the flip side, independent publishers generally cater to a niche audience. “Indie” publishers often respond to a literary philosophy that conveys a specific message to a pre-determined target audience. Consequently, indie publishers have lower circulation numbers but often stand true to their convictions.

Ultimately, an independent publisher is a company that publishes authors. What distinguishes an indie publisher from a mainstream one is their inclination toward one genre or another. In some cases, indie publishers dabble in just a small handful of genres. In contrast, mainstream publishers will generally produce anything profitable.

In this article, we will focus on how independent publishers vary their models, thereby catering to their audiences. Specifically, this discussion will focus on successful models and their commitment to a literary philosophy.

Mainstream vs. Independent Publishers

The mainstream publishing world headlines some of the biggest players in the literary world. Their clout resides in their circulation and overall turnover.

Moreover, these major publishers base their decisions on what the public demands. Many times, though, this approach has led to mainstream publishers turning down literary hits.

For example, several publishers turned down the now world-famous Harry Potter series on numerous occasions.

The series eventually reached publication and went on to become a worldwide phenomenon, likely leaving many publishers kicking themselves for the overlook.

Jayce O’Neal, a best-selling author of Christian books, offers this insight into the mainstream publishing world: “You can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can sure sell a bunch of books if you have a good one.”

Indeed, looks are not everything. Nevertheless, sales are everything to mainstream publishers.

The profit-margin-driven approach of mainstream publishers frequently puts up-and-coming authors on the outside looking in. Consequently, new and unknown writers have very little chance to get their foot in the door. Naturally, the major players, such as Penguin Random House, Harper Collins, and Simon & Schuster are looking for the next big thing. That mindset typically gravitates toward proven winners. As a result, renowned authors always take precedence over newcomers.

Undoubtedly, mainstream publishers are corporations looking to make a profit. This ideal squeezes out less profitable genres from publication. Consequently, this approach leaves a gap in the literary landscape. And that gap is what independent publishers seek to fill.

Indie publishers emerge from the lack of coverage in specific niches. The large players overlook these niches due to their relatively small size compared to larger niches. For example, perennial moneymakers such as romance novels get the nod over less profitable niches like travel diaries.

However, just because a niche is less profitable does not mean it is not profitable at all. Thus, the difference between indie and mainstream publishers boils down to one element: scale.

Mainstream publishers are profit-oriented entities because they have a large overhead. Their costs are far greater than those of any indie publisher. Therefore, they aim to maximize revenue, thereby recouping their investment.

In contrast, indie publishers have less overhead due to their smaller scale. As a result, independent publishers can afford to tackle less-profitable niches. The outcome leads to a profitable venture.

Stellar Communications

Independent publishers get it right when they know their values and whom they represent. As such, their identity resonates with their intended audiences.

In turn, this approach allows the publisher to showcase authors who highlight the publisher’s message.

When successful, this formula allows both authors and readers to connect. The publisher then becomes the element that enables this conjunction.

Stellar Communications is one such independent publisher out of Houston, Texas. Stellar Communications stands out among the rest, thanks to their commitment to quality content in a sea of indie publishers.

With “quality content,” Stellar Communications focuses on delivering relevant and engaging content readers can utilize in their day-to-day lives. Needless to say, delivering such content is no easy task.

Initially, Stellar Communications focused specifically on business communications. This genre requires tremendous attention to detail. In particular, the work Stellar Communications has done on market research has attracted notoriety among business circles.

Successful indie publishers generally trace their achievements back to a dedicated founder. In the case of Stellar Communications, founder Ella Ritchie started the company in 2012 with a goal in mind: to combine great people and content.

Particularly, she aimed to bring “joy” and “clarity” to the world of business communication. Indeed, Stellar Communications has married both concepts perfectly. As such, its publications strive to provide useful content readers can truly enjoy.

By 2015, Ritchie and her staff had developed a streamlined publishing process. This process has led to several publications in the business communication sector, ranging from full-length nonfiction books to journal articles. Stellar Communications’ process covered everything from content writing to designing, to printing, to publication.

Experience and savvy led Stellar Communications to pivot into the broader nonfiction content domain. This newfound approach enabled it to cast a wider net across various subgenres and topics. Stellar Communications’ hard work and vision paid off in 2017 when Bill Herrington’s “Contraflow” won the Independent Publisher Book Award in the category of Best Regional Nonfiction. This crowning achievement has served to validate the years of painstaking diligence and effort.

Stellar Communications’ success story underscores the importance of indie publishers in the broader publishing world. Without smaller publishers, talented writers would never have the opportunity to see their work come to fruition.

Also, indie publishers have a core ethos that drives their efforts. Stellar Communications was the result of Ella Ritchie’s desire to provide substance to the literary world. While independent publishers need to profit to stay in business, this motivation is not their main one. Instead, indie publishers seek to transmit a message to the world. That message comes through the voices of skilled writers who only need a chance to show what they have to offer.

Ultimately, Stellar Communications accentuates one crucial factor: Everyone loves what they do. It may seem like a cliché, but the results go above and beyond industry standards when people love what they do. Passion and dedication truly shine through at all times.

Greenleaf Book Group

A defining trait of indie publishers is pragmatism.

Independent publishers must be practical in their offerings to their target audience.

After all, indie publishers need to distinguish themselves from the rest. Otherwise, it may be nearly impossible to differentiate an indie publisher’s value proposition.

Practicality is what the Greenleaf Book Group is all about.

The Greenleaf Book Group is an independent publisher out of Austin, Texas. This publisher espouses a no-nonsense approach.

In other words, what you see is what you get. This ethos manifests itself in the following statement:

“We are not in the business of selling dreams; we are in the business of building brands and creating powerful spheres of influence. And we’ve been doing it for over 20 years.”

This statement encapsulates the Greenleaf Book Group’s value proposition. This proposition aims to empower authors by enabling them to build their personal brands. In turn, the Greenleaf Book Group acts as a platform that facilitates the entire process.

Indeed, the Greenleaf Book Group’s approach has paid dividends. More than 45 different publications have hit the bestseller lists in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. These results are living proof that focusing on empowering authors and not the company’s bottom line can create a win-win situation.

As a full-service publisher, the Greenleaf Book Group applies its core ethos to every step of the publishing process. As a result, readers can reap the fruits of authors’ efforts and talents. As writers build their brands, readers can become acquainted with the unique value proposition of both author and publisher. In the end, this convergence enables quality material to reach audiences, be it in book, seminar, audiobook, or webinar formats.

Akashic Books

Based in Brooklyn, Akashic Books is an indie publisher dedicated to featuring authors left behind by the mainstream publishing media.

In particular, Akashic Books focuses on urban literary fiction and nonfiction.

As such, their ethos looks to capture the spirit of free-thinking writers who do not fit the 'traditional' mold of mainstream publishers.

Akashic Books is a clear example of how independent publishers strive to serve the target audience. Consequently, Akashic Book’s laser-sharp focus enables it to feature writers who would not otherwise have a chance.

A glowing review from the Los Angeles Times captures Akashic Books’ essence perfectly:

“As many in publishing struggle to find ways to improve on an increasingly outdated business model, independents such as Akashic – which are more nimble and less risk-averse than major publishing houses – are innovators to watch.”

Undoubtedly, indie publishers are much more willing to take a chance than established brands. Therefore, independents have a real opportunity to become disruptors in the publishing world.

Bellevue Literary Press

Bellevue Literary Press is the quintessential example of an independent publisher. Since 2007, its core ethos has led it to pursue publishing “literary fiction and nonfiction at the intersection of the arts and sciences.”

This core ethos seeks to explore the “nature of perception and the underpinnings of the social contract.” As such, there is a clear intent to produce high-caliber material for a demanding niche audience.

Originally a nonprofit, Bellevue Literary Press does not serve corporate interests. Conversely, this indie publisher seeks to cater to a philosophy.

The result has yielded a host of successful publications.

The following review by Gale Scott of Crain’s New York Business sums up Bellevue Literary Press’ commitment to its ethos:

“At a time when publishers increasingly see books as products and need to be convinced of their chances of selling at least 25,000 copies, Bellevue Literary Press thinks smaller and aims higher.”

Indeed, indie publishers are free to aim higher because they do not have a large corporate structure weighing them down.

C&R Press

C&R Press is an indie publisher dedicated to the world of literature. Its main focus lies in creative writing.

In particular, C&R Press showcases both established authors and up-and-comers.

Since 2006, C&R Press’ core ethos has centered on providing works that link literature with the essential parts of life.

As such, C&R Press looks to demonstrate how literature can serve to improve people’s lives.

By focusing on creative writing, C&R Press allows both readers and authors to explore their imaginations. As a result, this approach enables the human spirit to manifest itself through words.

Surely, this ethos would be difficult to find in a profit-driven firm. Hence, indie publishers, as disruptors, can afford to take chances traditional publishers cannot.

Catapult Books

A persistent myth surrounding indie publishers is their supposed lack of quality material. This misconception stems from the confusion between independent publishing and self-publishing. Indie publishers, much like their mainstream counterparts, demand top-notch works. This search for quality is Catapult Books’ core ethos.

Catapult Books focuses on producing critically acclaimed fiction works. The result has been a plethora of awards for its distinguished writers. Thus, Catapult Books can boast critical and commercial success as a result of its dedication to excellence.

The main difference between Catapult Books and other large-scale publishers lies in Catapult Books’ attention to detail.

Large, mainstream publishers are only interested in winners. Often, this approach means investing in “finished” books. In contrast, indie publishers have the wherewithal to develop both books and writers. This approach is evident in their writing classes.

Ultimately, taking the time to develop writers creates a steady stream of proven winners. Unfortunately for mainstream publishers, their lack of dedication to writer development causes them to miss valuable opportunities.


Independent publishers are an essential part of the literary ecosystem. Without them, there would be very little innovation. Indie publishers often play the role of disruptor, and rightfully so. Traditional publishers seek to pad their bottom line. After all, they are no different from other major corporations.

When profit becomes the main driving force behind publishers’ efforts, creativity falls by the wayside. Corporations thirst for winning formulas they can replicate over and over again. Sadly, the literary world is no exception.

Conversely, when an indie publisher emerges, their core ethos focuses on serving a specific niche. Regardless of the niche itself, an independent publisher wants their voice heard. As a result, their unique value proposition must resonate with their intended audience. An indie publisher’s core ethos, coupled with passion, translates into an effective formula for success.

Zach Richter 

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