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Independent publishing can be difficult to define, but generally refers to publishing on a small scale by companies operating independently, rather than as imprints or subsidiaries of larger companies. Definitions of independent publishing can revolve around volume of sales, business models, or how many books are put out every year, depending on who is doing the defining. Generally speaking, an independent publisher could be thought of as a small business of the publishing world, with modest yearly sales, generally producing fewer than 50 books each year.
Some people use independent publishing to refer specifically to small presses, publishing houses with a limited output and a tendency to focus on a specific type of material, such as poetry or guidebooks. Others include print on demand publishing, as well as vanity presses under the independent publishing umbrella, arguing that these are alternative methods of distribution available to authors who have trouble publishing work in larger venues. Academic presses may also be independent publishers. Independent publishing can cover companies distributing electronic books only and focusing on a limited number of titles each year as well.
A typical independent publishing company is a standalone business. It is not owned by a larger publishing or media company, nor is it run as an imprint of a larger publishing house. Imprints are essentially divisions within larger companies; Publisher A could be an imprint of Publisher B, with all the books it prints being branded as Publisher A's titles and its own personnel, but it is still owned and controlled by Publisher B.
As in other industries, the publishing industry has become dominated by a limited number of publishing houses with substantial control over content. It can be challenging to get works published with these companies, as people are competing with thousands of other authors, and usually literary representation is required. Independent publishers are smaller and operate on a more reduced level, although they can rely on large distributors to get their books are widely disseminated.
Many people believe independent publishers are more willing to accept potentially risky content, and think they may have a higher tolerance for unknown authors. This is the case with some small publishers, but others are highly selective and careful about the content they publish. For vanity presses, where anyone can publish a book with enough money, selectivity is not an issue, but limited distribution can be. Vanity presses also lack editors who can improve the quality of content, and their offerings tend to be viewed askance by book stores and distributors, making it hard to break into the market through such publishing houses.