Self-Published Authors Don't Need a New Term

04/15/2014 05:22 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2014

A couple weeks ago I had an article published in Publishers Weekly about third-way publishing, something I've blogged about A lot of the comments, especially those that stirred me up, had to do with terms -- who gets to call themselves what; how She Writes Press is or isn't different from self-publishing. The article was timely because just one week later, Amazon's John Fine spoke at the Publishing for Digital Minds conference in London, where he noted that the term "self-publishing" may have outlived its usefulness.

The book industry is full of people who care about words. Editors can spend weeks brainstorming book titles; marketing heads spend countless hours on author positioning, sometimes in an effort to nail down a single tagline or hook. Conscientious authors belabor sentences and agonize over word choices. So it shouldn't be a surprise to any of us that so much ink is spilled over terms.

And yet there aren't many terms more controversial than "self-publishing" (other than "vanity publishing," I suppose). As new models like ours emerge, they're trying to distance themselves from self-publishing, for reasons that are probably obvious. Self-publishing is a free-for-all. For every successful self-published book, there are thousands of books riddled with problems -- ranging from books that were published before they were ready to books with no editing and bad design, books that have failed to meet even the simplest publishing protocols.

Self-published authors themselves have tried to distance themselves from the term by calling themselves "indie." But I've always taken issue with this because I come out of traditional publishing, and indie publishing is and has been (for years) a term used by independently owned (as opposed to corporate) presses. I grew up working for indie presses: North Atlantic Books and Seal Press. So self-published authors taking that term for themselves feels a little like a new sandwich franchise popping up and trying to call itself Subway.

At the heart of this desire to re-term ourselves is the fact that self-publishing still carries a stigma, and yet we'll never get to distance ourselves from it completely, no matter how much momentum we might be able to muster, and that's because in addition to being a free-for-all, self-publishing is also a catch-all. To explain what self-publishing is in relation to other models, I'll give a memoir analogy. When my memoir students ask me what the difference is between memoir and creative nonfiction, my standard answer is this: "All memoir is creative nonfiction, but not all creative nonfiction is memoir." The same holds true for the difference between self-publishing and hybrid publishing (and any other term you want to apply this to --partnership publishing, third-way publishing, indie publishing, author-assisted publishing). All hybrid publishing is self-publishing, but not all self-publishing is hybrid publishing. What this means, of course, is that there are many ways to self-publish, and hybrid publishing is just one avenue.

Self-publishing speaks to one commonality only: that the author puts up the money for his or her own work. Although I've been forced to some extent to differentiate She Writes Press's model from self-publishing (just as I have from traditional publishing) so that people understand how it's different, I'd rather spend my efforts on changing the current way the industry thinks about author-subsidization as dirty.

This is a much more important conversation, because we are the 99 percent. Most authors pay for some portion of their editing, production, and/or printing. Most authors are putting money toward publicity. We are all, therefore, self-supporting, and if we were to look at all things equally, we'd discover that many traditional models have had systems in place whereby authors pay for their work through shared costs and revenue sharing. I personally don't take issue with the term "self-publishing," and I'm proud to be an author who subsidized my own book, who's now reaping profits from my investment in myself. The problem with trying to re-term and invent new labels to make ourselves feel better misses a larger point, anyway, which is that there's only one label that really matters: "published author."