Thursday, July 12, 2012


I recently had a brush with the effect poor word choice can have. In the wake of all that, now I’m wondering: are we really all speaking the same language?

I used to think that the terms “self-publishing” and “independent publishing” were interchangeable terms, albeit with different spin. I typically favored “indie” because it has less baggage, but used “self” when I wasn’t thinking too hard about it (or needed that one extra character).

But thanks to Kriss Morton, who recently commented here on SYEWW, I had an interesting change of perspective regarding some of the terminology we throw around in this world. “Indie” and “self” don’t have to mean the same thing, and the differentiation can actually be a handy tool by which we separate the wheat from the chaff. But I’ll get to that in a moment. 

I want to start with a few other terms that frequently get tossed into this mix, which are patently not interchangeable with either “self” or “indie.” For reference, I also submit Exhibit A,  the "indie triangle."

Vanity Publishing – This is quite a nefarious term—the negative connation is right there in the words! According to the folks that coined the term (the origin is in question), an author who goes this route is vain. It’s not a compliment.

Vanity publishing has a long and storied history (pardon the pun) and still exists today, preying on the young and the weak of the indie movement. Vanity presses charge authors money to put out their books, while at the same time, making the authors feel all warm and fuzzy. The whole deal is plain sleazy. Authors who go this route are not usually vain, but rather na├»ve—not understanding Yog’s Law. (Thanks to Dan for making me hip to this handy term.)

It is very important not to confuse vanity publishing—which is basically falling prey to a network of evil hucksters—with any of these other terms. It may not be used coincidentally with “self” or “indie” because, while the author made the decision to publish, the vanity press is doing the publishing. Only two sides of the indie triangle are at work.

E-Publishing – Due to the recent years’ upsurge in the accessibility of e-publishing, coupled with the upsurge in the demand of e-books, e-publishing is definitely a thing. Because you really only need a Word file and a good service or software, anyone can e-publish a book with zero dollar investment. But it’s funny to me that this is a “new” term, and newly associated with books specifically. People have been “e-publishing” (making their content publicly available via electronic means) since the dawn of the Internet. Yes, I include blogs in that. I include e-magazines like HuffPost and even your Twitter feed. I include anything posted online for all to see. I would hazard that nearly everyone reading this right now has e-published something.

But what gets my goat about the term “e-publishing” is that it’s so conflated with self-publishing, as if that’s the only route indie authors have. Now, I have absolutely no statistics to back this up, but my gut tells me that most self-published authors are also only e-publishers. However, with the availability of CreateSpace, Lulu, and Lightning Source (to name a few), it’s a wrongheaded assumption to think no self-publisher is publishing in print. (Speaking for myself, it was essential to me that a paperback of my book be available. I’ve sold more paperbacks than e-books. And I get to sign them and dedicate them and that makes me feel all gooey inside.)

So this term may be used coincidentally with self-publishing or indie publishing; however, the terms are not interchangeable nor redundant of one another. One can independently e-publish. One can be e-published without being self-published. E-publishing is a reference only to the mechanism by which your work is available; it’s only one side of the triangle.

Now, to the draw some lines in the sand. I am making a promise right now to abide by these definitions on this blog and in other discussions. I think it’s a useful distinction to make, and I encourage others to start making it as well.

Self-Publishing – This term is for authors who make their own books available to the public independently of a “traditional” or “legacy” publishing house. (Let’s visit those terms another day.) In other words, the person who made the decision to publish the book, the person who publishes the book, and the person who wrote the book are one and the same. All three sides of the indie triangle are present.

But the defining characteristic of the true “self-publisher” is that he or she does everything by him or herself, including editing (or not), cover design, layout, etc. For better or for worse, the self-publisher does not get others involved, and does not necessarily follow all the steps of established publishing processes.

Independent Publishing – This term encompasses the same definition as the first paragraph of the “self-publishing” definition. In addition, the indie publisher/indie author understands the importance of quality and that having mad skillz in writing does not necessarily mean one has talent for editing one’s own work, or knows one’s way around InDesign.

The defining characteristic of the indie publisher is that he or she recognizes that going it by one’s self is not in anyone’s best interest. The indie publisher will seek training, obtain assistance, and/or hire people with the necessary skills to turn out a high quality product worthy of the reading public.

There is danger here of inadvertently conflating the no-no-badness of vanity publishing with hiring help to put out your own book; Yog’s Law is easily misinterpreted. Here’s my law: Thou shalt not pay to be published; however, thou shall treat publishing as a business and invest appropriately in that business, with time and/or moneys (usually both). Just remember: hire someone to do a job. Don’t pay them to stroke your ego.

I’m not looking to cement anything as a pejorative, and I realize I am walking that line. I’m not here to say, “Whenever I use the term ‘self-publish’ I’m speaking only about crappy books.” If people want to use the term “self-publish” free of negative connotation, I bid them good luck with it, and I promise not to pre-judge. I’m sure there are some wonderful books available that have been truly self-published with no outside assistance. But by and large, self-publishing has a terrible, terrible reputation, and the reason for this is that so many authors don’t invest in their books to the degree they should have. The result is a lot of first drafts floating around as finals.

What I am looking for is a semantic way to distinguish myself and other high-quality independent authors from a term that stuck its foot in the Bog of Eternal Stench. I choose “independent publisher.” These are the authors who approach publishing their own books in exactly the same way a publisher would approach publishing someone else’s book. As author Shauna Kelley points out in a recent post, you don’t go from typing “the end” directly to pushing the publish button. I have personally gone through the entire cycle as a professional publisher of other people's books, from acquisition to final print, through marketing and publicity—there are lots of steps if you want to do it right.

“Self-publishers” (and you know who you are): you can bring it to the next level and become independent publishers. Help our community improve its reputation as one of quality, professionalism, and above all, creativity. We owe this to ourselves, to each other, and—most of all—to our readers. 

What are your thoughts on semantics? Is it worth making this distinction? Is it fair? Maybe we should just stick to judging each book individually? Leave your thoughts in the comments. 


Whitney said...

I think it is worth making a distinction. Great post. I think in this day anyone calling themselves a self-publisher is either crazy or grossly misinformed. If you really want to be taken seriously (besides putting out quality of course) you have to either say Indie or leave publishing out of it and just say you're a writer published by XYZ Press etc.

David Skarjune said...

Self- vs Independent Publishing is more about who owns the ISBN, because that's the publisher, to narrow the semantic definitions. But, there's much more to the practice of publishing than semantics.

Authors who self-publish can and should collaborate with editors, designers, marketers, and publicists; but they retain control, take any financial risk, and reap all rewards. Indie publishers handle everything for the author, similar to traditional publishers, but financial arrangements vary widely—as does professionalism and quality. Luckily, there are more respectable indie publishers than so-called "vanity" publishers, who should really just be called out as "grifter" publishers.

I don't think that self-publishing has such a terrible reputation. There is plenty of crappy writing and production to spread around. E.g., I would consider most trade paperbacks crappy writing. On the other hand, I'm finding brilliant self-published authors giving away some of their back catalogs that their former publishers could not or would not market for them.

Independent publishing is the real threat to traditional publishing, but the old-school industry is flinging mud at self-publishing with the notion that it's all just an inflated form of vanity publishing enriching Amazon.

As you conclude, self-publishing authors are the vanguard of the new trend of independent publishing and are taking it to the next level in so many ways.

Dan L-K said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dan L-K said...

Not that I don't think there are useful distinctions to make in these categories, but the one danger I see is that this could easily fall into a kind of I-you-they construction: I'm an independent creator, you're self-published, those people are vanity authors. But I think the call to independent writers to produce works of quality on every level is well-made.

OTOH, I think the world of letters can also use some widening of what it considers a legitimate work. My music collection has CDs from major labels, from independents, from tiny houses that put together their packaging with rubber stamps and cardstock, from artists who burn CDRs themselves and write the labels in Sharpie, and from sources that only exist as datastreams. By and large, my ear can't tell the difference. The explosion of ebooks is expanding the frontier of what we mean (or can mean) by a "book," but I think there's more territory to explore there. Which I think means this is an exciting time to be a writer; there's a universe of possibilities out there that we're just now beginning to take advantage of, and I look forward to seeing where it goes from here.

(Corrected from previous deleted comment. Dammit, Blogger, get an "Edit" function already.)

Lauren said...

We need to be careful about defining our world to the point where we exclude those who go a different way (as the traditional publishing houses have done).

Not all of those who "indie" publish have done enough editing, but our society says the money they put into the process makes them "legitimate."

Many of those who self-publish have taken the necessary steps, and yet the emerging definition attempts to lump them in with those who have not.

I agree that distinctions are necessary. However, we risk putting a "label" on those who do not share the same definitions, thereby limiting them to "mere" status.

CC said...

No. Indies - independent publishing - is small houses. Not the big six. Google the definition. I read tons of small and independent presses - but no self published. At least according to google when you put in independent publishing definition.

The problem with your trying to distinguish the good self-lubber works from the bad is that this becomes subjective. Good according to your standards or mine? What is the minimum quality as far as proof reading and grammatical errors go? Who decides this?

With a publisher - independent/small press - or large press, you know what the minimum expectation is.

Does anyone else see the irony in the fact that you didn't google what an independent press was before you posted something about language breakdown?