Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Who Are You Calling A Self-Publisher?

"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?


  1. Lynn,I agree with your perspective; perhaps its is time for truly independent publishers to actually call ourselves by the term. I have the books in the basement to prove that POD technology is so much better than "the old days" when one had to stockpile their titles. Great opinion!

  2. I do think that "independent publisher" or "small press" or "micro-publisher" are better terms. After all, once you've gone to all the work to set yourself up as a publisher, buy the ISBN block, register your name, and start paying sales makes no difference whatsoever how many books you publish and who the author is. The horizon is open and the sky's the limit: you're a publisher.I recently did some research and started compiling a data base of subsidy/vanity press companies, and I was rather surprised. Right now I'm up to 84 active "self-publishing companies" and that's not all of them. I found a couple of local ones doing a different project that I haven't added to my list yet. They all sound the same and say the same things: "it's never been easier to publish your book!" Well, guess what: it's incredibly difficult to *really* publish a book, by yourself or anyone else. We all know what snake oil smells like. Since these companies have effectively claimed the term "self-publishing," I think a different name is in order for people who do it all as independent entrepreneurs. Anyway, the prefix "self-" tends to give a negative impression. "Self-proclaimed" or "self-taught," for example. "Entrepreneur," though, will always sound impressive. :-)"Micro-publisher" has a nice ring of specialization and high standards--like "microbrewery." Language is so strange, isn't it!

  3. Thank you for your comments on my article in PMA, "The New – and Disimproved – Meaning of “Self-Publishing." To read the article, go to my blog: I wish to clarify a few points.You wrote that "Somehow authors whose books are published by subsidy publishers are now referred to as self-published." The "somehow" is the subsidy presses, who renamed themselves that.Back in the Fifties, subsidy presses were called vanity presses. Everyone knew that they published works for those people who couldn't get a traditional publisher; they were simply "vain" and wanted to see their bookk in print.Some smart marketing person renamed vanity to subsidy. Currently, with the advent of cheap POD publishing, everyone wants to be part of the very lucrative subsidy press business.Thus, the smart marketing people at the subsidy presses renamed themselves "self-publishers."In fact, I wrote the article because of an 8-page ad/advertorial in Publishers Weekly, costing the subsidies approximately $50,000. 4 pages were an advertorial, boosting of the success of the subsidies and how they had titans in all fields of business now working at the subsidy presses.The reality is that the publishing world--reviewers, bookstore sellers, and librarians--not just authors and publishers--have negative views of subsidy published works. Subsidy books are notorious for being badly edited, with poor covers and poor layout.No reputable reviewer will review subsidy published books. Bookstore clerks smirk when authors try to get their books in bookstores. (I have a buddy manger in a Barnes and Noble who informed me of this.)I don't see how to "untangle" the terms--the damage has already been deliberately done. As I wrote in the article, I now refer to myself as an independent publisher.

  4. I think "subsidy" publishing is simply an alternate way for people who wish to self-publish (in the traditional sense) but cannot afford to retain 500 copies in their basement, or to have to apply for a business license as a "business" to get their book out.I could not afford to self-publish in the traditional sense, I did consider it at one point. I just didn't have the overhead. So what I did was select I guess what is called a "subsidy" publisher to print my book. Yes, I paid for their time to set up and adjust my manuscript to be printed, but I did everything else. I would expect no less from a printer who would be printing my book (interior and cover), formatting it to print (interior and cover in 4 color print) locally. I might pay a little less, with no guarantee the quality would be any better.I had a resource to create a cover I wanted - not forced on me by an graphic artist who had no clue as to what my book was about. I had the talent to format my book the way I wanted with the font I wanted, not chosen by someone in a room that I have never and will never meet. It was really like giving birth to a product that I was proud of and willing to promote without shame. I don't have the overhead other publishers do. My "subsidy" publisher pays royalties even on books I order to re-sell, and they provide me with a return policy for brick and mortar bookstores, whether those stores choose to take advantage of it or not.I have sold just about 100 books and all I've had to do is promote it the way I want (yes that is time consuming) and I never have to worry about whether my book is going to make a billion dollars for a company, and if not, I am dropped tomorrow and my book is essentially out of print forever because I have lost all my rights to the product I created. They can be in print as long as I want them to.So if "subsidy," the dirty word on the street, is what my chosen path is, so be it. I am not offended. My POD/subsidy company (whatever one wants to call it) uses the term "author originated work." I think I like that term better.

  5. From a publisher’s standpoint, subsidy is just an alternative model. First and foremost, publishing is a business, and in order for the business to continue, it must acquire a profit greater than its expenses. The basic nature of business is somewhat the same from model to model (independent publishers agonize over the same issues the Big Six do).The difference is a matter of ‘business philosophy’: what do I want to be? There are many types of tools filling many needs of those who use them. Is one tool better than another? Yes, but only relative to the job. Subsidy publishers have found a profitable niche and are filling it. Are they the best tool for the job?As an author you must ask yourself difficult questions: is this the best book I can offer; what is it I want to accomplish with this book; who will read this book; and so on. These are also the same questions a book publisher must ask. If the writer cannot answer these and other questions, they leave themselves open to abuse. Let’s face it, predators are out there and prey on the unwary. Should subsidy publishers be ostracized for what they do? Writers need to take some responsibility for their own work, which includes understanding the various types of publishers and what they offer.The dynamics between self publisher, subsidy publisher, independent publisher, small press or micro-publisher, and the negative press concerning subsidies poor quality control, should be explained at every opportunity. One of my jobs as a publisher and business entity is to differentiate my work from the masses and to show my clients why I’m better. Do I like having to explain my company and what separates us from ‘those other guys,’ not all the time, but there it is.I need to come with a new paradigm.

  6. Vanity Publishing - bring back that as a term for people who pay to publish, for the point of being published, but not to be on the market and face the harsh reallity of life - the discerning book buyer.For those of us who slave away on a book and work so hard to bring it to market, I'm using the term Indie Writer. The term Indie has a good history; Indie Film Maker, Indie Band.Remember: The Indie Writers have to keep ahead of the Vanity Hordes.

  7. I agree, those terms cause huge confusion for authors and it seems like it would be possible to fix if everyone would decide to play nice with one another. Until that point though, I also lean toward the term independent or micro.You've also mentioned the stigma attached to books published any way but traditionally, and this too is unfortunate fallout from the subsidy/fee based arena. I hope authors will continue to stand up for themselves so that we can finally get the same kind of respect that indie scriptwriters, musicians and artists have achieved without apology.Cheryl Pickett