I guess a better question would be "What Was Indie Publishing?" Short for "Independent Publishing," it signified those publications not coming out of the mainstream publishing houses such as Knopf or Simon and Schuster, who hope to make money by publishing titles that have a chance of selling huge numbers of copies or winning major awards (and thus selling huge numbers of copies). Independent publishing also did not include the university presses, such as Yale University Press or Pittsburgh University Press, who publish titles that they consider important to the continuation and increase of knowledge.
Indie publishing, then, like indie records, is performed by small companies (or individuals) operating on a shoestring that have serious, new, unique, avant garde, ideas on what should be published and read rather than what the major publishing houses and universities are publishing. Independent literary magazines are examples, especially those operating outside of the university community. Then there are the small presses. One of the most famous examples of a small press--at least in its infancy--is City Lights books, publishers of Allen Ginsberg and many other beat and avant garde poets and artists. At first, this company was just an offshoot of a California bookstore whose owner, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, wanted to make this new kind of literature available throughout the country and the world.
The fact that one of the poets that Ferlinghetti wanted to make famous was himself suggests another group of writers that should be included in the independent group: self-publishers. A self-publisher, of course, is someone that publishes their own books, paying all expenses. Ferlinghetti was therefore a self-publisher, but so was Walt Whitman. So was Virginia Woolf, whose books were published by her own Hogarth Press. So were many other writers who have become household names.
But with the advent of e-book technology, the definition of "indie" publishing is changing. Smashwords, the ebook publishing giant, used to blatantly flash the motto, "Ebooks from independent authors and publishers." Well, although that message is not as obvious on their site as it was, it's still true; hundreds of never-before-published authors are showing up on Smashwords every day. But that's not everybody that shows up on Smashwords.
If you read my last post, "What Is a Full-Length Book?" you'll remember that I posited two reasons for the recent increase in full-length novels on Smashwords. First, because most authors formatted their smaller stuff first and second, because e-book publishing began to seem a happy alternative to sending out endless queries to agents whose interests are so narrow that it is almost impossible to get them to read even t a small sample of writing. But there is a third reason.
In another of my earlier posts, I mentioned that Norman Spinrad had joined the ranks of e-book authors on Smashwords. Popular with both mainstream and cult sci-fi readers, Spinrad was the first really famous author that I spotted on the Smashwords "New Releases" page. Since then I have seen many others. Laurence Shames, for instance, who writes quirky mysteries, many of them set in Florida, should be a hit on Smashwords--I know I plan to download several. They are worth it just for the covers. Are you a fan of fantasy writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch? She has dozens of titles on Smashwords. Robert Daley, author of Prince of the City is there; so is the book. The late best-selling author Irving Wallace has made a comeback due to his children publishing several of his books on Smashwords. Harry Mark Petrakis, A. A. Attanasio, Mike Resnick--they're all there. Any why not? Their old publishers are too busy trying to sell John Grisham books to pay much attention to keeping their old stalwarts in print. This way, not only do we get to read the works of these fine authors, but we only pay what we would pay for a used paperback and the author gets about 70% of the selling price.
So. Indie Publishing? I'd say it's good for everybody. But with so many authors bringing their back titles from print publishing houses to Smashwords, it is a term whose meaning will continue to change.