"Words don't mean. People mean." That was our mantra when I was a doctoral student in interpersonal communication many years ago. The point is that words themselves don't mean anything. Rather, people create meanings by the way they use words. If you want to communicate clearly with someone, it is important to have agreement about the meaning of the terms you are using in your conversation.
Unfortunately, there is little agreement among authors and publishers as to what they mean by the terms self-publishing and POD (print-on-demand). The term self-publisher has strayed far from its original meaning, as pointed out in an excellent article by Norma Lehmeier Hartie in the February 2008 issue of PMA's newsletter, Independent. Hartie, the grand prize winner in this year's Writer's Digest International Self-Published Book Awards, formed her own publishing company to publish her book, but she now rejects the term self-publisher and refers to herself as an independent publisher because of the confusion surrounding the term self-publisher. (You can read her article on her blog, Norma's Journal).
Back in 1984 when I became a self-publisher, the meaning of that term was much clearer. Self-publishers owned their own businesses, got their own ISBN numbers, hired editors, typesetters and graphic designers to get their books ready for printing (or, if qualified, did those tasks themselves). They contracted with offset printers to print the books, set the cover prices, managed the books' marketing, filled orders. They did everything. Self-publishers had all the responsibility and all the control of their books.
And in fact, true self-publishers still do all this and more. But the term self-publisher has expanded to include a much different group—subsidy publishers. With the advent of digital printing—also called print-on-demand or POD printing—anyone can get books out without having to print and store a thousand or more copies. So digital printing and the internet made it easy for subsidy publishers to spring up offering to publish almost any author's manuscript for a fee. Subsidy publishers don't invest in printing, storing and distributing large quantities of books the way traditional publishers do. Most of them use their own ISBN numbers, set the books' selling prices, which are higher than similar traditionally-published books, and sell authors marketing packages, editing services, cover design services, etc.
Somehow authors whose books are published by subsidy publishers are now referred to as self-published, even though they don't have the control or responsibility that true self-publishers have. At other times, they are called POD-published, even though POD is a method of printing, not a type of publishing.
Many traditional authors and publishers have very negative attitudes about subsidy publishing, partly because they believe that the companies mislead and take advantage of authors. Whether or not authors whose books are published by subsidy publishers share those negative attitudes—an whether the negative attitudes are deserved—is another matter. I'm not willing to give an opinion until I find out more about what these authors think.
But I share Ms. Hartie's unhappiness that the confusion of the meanings of the terms has led the negative attitudes about subsidy publishing to be attached to true self-publishers. I also wish everyone would understand that POD is simply a printing method—and one that has major advantages. Printing books on an as-needed basis prevents waste (because you don't end up with boxes of unsold books), allows for immediate corrections and changes (because you don't have thousands of books already printed that you can't change), and saves money on storage.
Can we untangle the meanings of these terms? Or should those of us who are truly self-publishers follow Ms. Hartie's lead and call ourselves independent publishers?