« Editorial

Our Evolving Publishing Vocabulary: Why Do We Use the Words We Do?

• The traditional vocabulary we’ve used to describe publishing is breaking down. We now have traditional publishers, digital first publishers, self-publishers, and quasi-professional vanity presses all vying for our attention.

• When is it appropriate to use each term? What are the differences? Here, we at Publishing Perspectives will try to explain the words we use and why.

Editorial by Edward Nawotka

As we’ve seen time and time again, there’s a great deal of confusion as to how to talk about publishing today, particularly when discussing individuals who have opted to take a so-called non-traditional route.

For starters, I should state that what I mean by non-traditional is an individual who is not publishing a book by first acquiring an agent who then sells it to a publishing house; the publishing house then take takes on the bulk of responsibility for editing, printing, distribution, marketing and sales. Traditional publishing encompasses the Random House/Grupo Planeta/Bloomsburys of the world.

Some new publishers suggested calling this old guard the “legacy publishers,” but that makes them sound as if they are outdated and, as such, is ultimately too pejorative to put into common usage. Traditional publisher, I believe, still fits what they do: buying, printing (for the most part) and selling books. It also indicates that there’s a track record there — a tradition — and suggests standards that must be upheld.

As for companies that publish only e-book or books as apps, I prefer the term “digital-first publishers,” or sometimes simply, “digital publishers” — which could also encompass companies that offer most of their work via Web-based downloads from their own site. Should the same publisher also offer print-on-demand editions, then we might add POD to the description as well.

So, what to do with the whole other category of publishers:  those individuals who publish their own works? The simplest solution has been to use the catch-all phrase self-publishers.

Unfortunately, that term still — rightly or wrongly — retains a negative connotation that dates back to when self-publishing was the option of last resort for a writer. Yes, that is changing, but if we are honest, there’s no getting around the fact that self-publishing is still perceived by many as being inferior to traditional publishing.

My preference has been to describe these types of publishers as “DIY publishers.” DIY, or do-it-yourself, has the aura — in America at least — of robust get-up-and-go individualism. It implies a degree of competency and professionalism, even if that is not always the case. And it is respectful.

Things get much trickier when the DIY publishers have simply paid another company to do the bulk of the work. In the cases where they rely on publishing service providers such as Lulu, to use one example, or Smashwords, to publish their work then I still believe that DIY publisher is appropriate. Why? The assumption is that the writer took responsibility for the writing and editing, and when required, the images, design and layout of the book.

On the other hand, there are the vanity presses. The term “vanity press” to me suggests that the author has paid for something that goes beyond the mere production and distribution of a book, something that’s difficult to define. The connotation of describing a publisher as a vanity press is the author is paying the publisher not just to publish a book, but to show them a respect that most likely was not extended to them by the traditional publishing trade.

Who is truly a vanity press these days? It’s difficult to tell, but I suppose it’s a bit like what people say about pornography: you know it when you see it.

Today, we have hybrid companies that operate under a model which incorporates models from both traditional and vanity publishing. They often describe themselves as offering “publishing services” (editing, design, et al.) as well as “publishing solutions” (printing, distribution and sales) companies.  The best of them are highly selective in the clients they will work with, as they believe putting an inferior book in the marketplace reflects poorly on their brand, thus jeopardizing their relationship with the buyers at retail. Of course, digital distribution outlets, such as Amazon, Apple and soon, Google, have no buyers, so this point is moot.

I suppose that what truly distinguishes a “publishing services/solutions company” from a “vanity press” is whether or not an author is paid an advance (which are also shrinking in traditional publishing) and/or royalties on the book. Unfortunately, such companies often structure their contracts in such as way that it appears the author is paid royalties against copies sold, when in truth they paying themselves, since they (and their circle of friends and relatives) are in fact often the only customers for those books.

Accordingly, our assumptions about the definitions of “royalties” and “profit-sharing” are being strained and challenged.

This leads me to my final point: the frequent use of the word “independent” by the self-publishing community. While technically true, to me, an independent publisher implies the existence of an actual company. And a company implies a certain amount of mass, or rather, a publishing program that goes beyond merely publishing books they they themselves have written. An indie author is one thing, an indie publishing company is another thing altogether.

It’s commonplace today for DIY publishers to brand themselves as an independent publishing company when the only books they produce are their own. To me this is somewhat disingenuous, if completely unavoidable. An indie publishing company is one, like Akashic Books, OR Books or Open Road Integrated Media. Each has a “publishing program” — the implication being that the ambition is present is there to produce more than just a single series of books by a single author or, perhaps, two.

Three authors — that seems to me to constitute the foundation of a publishing company.

Think about it this way: One person is an individual. Two is a couple. Three…that’s a family. Or a company.

A family — and by extension, a publishing company — implies obligation and responsibility to someone other then oneself.

What about the term “indie,” which is both more casual and still identifies one as being independent. Well for that, see, Publishing Perspectives on Monday, when Amy Edelman, founder of IndieReader offers her thoughts on this very issue.

Edward Nawotka is the Editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives.

DISCUSS: When does a self-publisher constitute a publishing company?

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  1. Posted September 24, 2010 at 3:17 am | Permalink

    Some useful hair-splitting in this post, I believe. Hybrid publishing forms are necessarily going to be increasingly amorphous as e-books with bonus features begin to appear on the scene.

    My motto has been for over five years, as my blog indicates frequently, DIYLBM… that’s Do-It-Yourself Low-Budget Media. At the time I was concerned to transition in a future-proof way from mainstream ‘legacy television’ (I produced about 800 episodes of soap opera!) to something simpler and with fewer creative restraints.

    But although I would still term myself a storyteller I am now concentrating on a words-on-paper mode, albeit in digital form.

    I firmly believe that all forms of storytelling… and I include interactive gaming… are converging as technology offers new opportunities. I think, Edward, that in just a years time you will face a further need to re-define appropriate vocabulary.

  2. Margot Atwell
    Posted September 24, 2010 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    To me, the primary difference between a hybrid publisher and a vanity publisher is that a hybrid/DIY publisher (even one with a non-traditional financial model or one where the author pays for some/all of the services) has the ambition and plan to market and sell the books. Vanity publishers simply produce books with no plan or intention to actually sell them to readers.

  3. Posted September 24, 2010 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    I read this article with considerable satisfaction. The publishing world is really beginning to acknowledge openly the huge changes sweeping within and without its industry.
    Just yesterday, I saw that Publishers Weekly is now inviting “self-published authors” to submit their books for listing. If the staff feels that the work merits review, it will do so. Fair enough. It’s a real beginning.
    As an indie author, did I apply? Of course, I did. Indie authors have learned to seize the day. This editorial and the offer at PW shows me that perhaps the time of accommodation has arrived.
    On another level, I wonder if the name given to an author or publisher is important. While the traditional publishing world has been the “gatekeeper” for many years, that model no longer seems to serve very effectively. The traditional publishing world has not been able to cope with the deluge of writing that is now driven, in large part, by technology. Anyone can write and anyone can publish. The traditional publisher’s nightmare of wading through the slush pile may be on the wane.
    If we are witnessing a democratization or ‘grass roots-ism’ in writing and publishing, how does the ultimate consumer [the reader] separate the wheat from the chaff? This was of course the role of the agents and publishers in the traditional world.
    From the indie author’s perspective, the near impossibility of finding an agent or publisher has been very frustrating. After innumerable rejection letters, an author may well give up in the belief that the work has no merit.
    Now writers don’t have to suffer— at least not in this way. As everyone knows, there is another gatekeeper after the publication of a book. The author walks through the door marked “you’re published” and what does he or she find? It is the clamor and crowding of the global marketplace, which is not for the faint of heart. This problem of trying to be heard is shared by all who seek to publish, not just the indie author.
    It would be wonderful to not worry about finding names for writers and publishers. If you believe as I do that today, everyone has to take his or her chances in the global marketplace, then the name you use doesn’t really much matter.
    I’m an indie author, having published four novels with iUniverse over a number of years, with great attention to editing and all the usual aspects which must be considered. I have constantly met with the perception, subtle and not so subtle, that “self” published is automatically considered second or third rate before the book’s cover is even opened. It’s time to call an end to the “name” calling. A work is either good or it isn’t. Let the authors promote and the readers decide.

  4. Posted September 24, 2010 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    Nice piece, Edward. Words do mean something. And I think we need to define things a bit more. And I think we will, and it will probably happen over the next few years as things shake out. After reading this, I guess I would describe myself as an Indie writer, rather than an Indie publisher. DIY is a good term, but I am not a publisher. I’m a writer, and all writers are DIY, unless you’re a big, branded powerhouse writer, writing one a year, with a staff.

    Although I have been commercially published in the past (Carl Melcher Goes to Vietnam, Thomas Dunne), lately I have been ‘uploading’ my books to the public, independent of commercial houses or vanity houses. I write ‘em, edit ‘em, road test ‘em (solicit readers and pick their brains), and then upload the ‘files’ as ebooks and PODs.

    And, I should add, at the same time, I’m attempting to entice agents and publishers to take a look. But I’m afraid that it’s becoming more and more a waste of time. Given the depression we’re currently in, agencies and commercial publishers seem focused on the trite and trendy. And there’s the time element: agents, responding to your initial query five months later, ask for the first three chapters. Then six months later, ask for the whole book. Then… Still waiting. And many agents today will tell you outright they don’t respond to queries (unless your letter hints at the latest Twilight or Zombie/Historical figure mash up nonsense.)

    Anyway, we’re all doing the best we can.


    Paul Clayton, author of Carl Melcher Goes to Vietnam, 2001 Frankfurt eBook Award Finalist.

  5. Sulaiman Adebowale
    Posted September 24, 2010 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    The process is a key determiner in this realm. The fact that one sold a million copies of a selfpublished book through B&N, Amazon or Lulu does not necessarily make one a ‘publisher’, perhaps a ‘selfpublisher’ or a ‘DIY’ pub as Nawotka notes above. A ‘company’ on the other hand depends on the commercial laws in your country of operation. There is an element in the publishing process, ie how the products are generated and packaged in whatever end formats, that clearly distinguishes what makes a company a publisher. Nawotka alluded to that element with his definition of ‘…a publishing company — implies obligation and responsibility to someone other than oneself’. We all know we are not talking about shareholder obligations here, but something much more akin to the value that is added to a society, which can be hampered or enriched during the publishing process.

  6. kate
    Posted September 24, 2010 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

    Words and labels are of importance when you try to describe what you do and how it differs from what others do. That said, I disagree with some of the terms you’ve chosen here. ‘Traditional’ works as a way to describe the companies who follow the print publishing model, tho I prefer to call them Established publishers, it’s not enough of a difference to quibble about. And I’ll grant the ‘digital publisher’ title to companies that go the ebook/app route.

    I think the simplest definition of a vanity press involves the pricing structure. If the menu is X $ gets you Y level of service, it’s a Vanity press; if the services are a la carte, it’s not.

    My biggest disagreement here is with the assumption that you cannot be an Independent publisher unless you have staff or partners or some such. I see no reason why calling myself Independent would lead someone to assume I am a company. I am publishing my work independent of a larger corporation or media conglomerate. I am no less an indie in this case than an Independent Filmmaker is because we are both working outside the Establishment in our respective fields. ymmv…

  7. Posted September 24, 2010 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    Edward, I did a piece a good while back on this, and I agree there are a lot of labels on what ‘publishing’ really is, but I think the truth is, everyone in the industry, and outside it, has their own definition for what tags like ‘traditional’, ‘indie’, ‘DIY’ and ‘self-publishing’ really mean, but the bottom line is: the buyer wants a good book, well written, of quality, and they don’t give a shit who or how it was published, so long as they can find it, connect with it and get hold of it.

    So many of the tags now in publishing are so spurious and misleading, it defines logic. To me, ‘indie’, is well-used by authors who self-publish, but they could be using Xlibris, Lulu, or truly self-publishing using Lightning Source or their own local printer. Yes, there are the ‘big six’ NY publishers, but it seems everything outside of that has its own tag and credential. For me ‘indie’, could be ‘Joe Blogs’ Publishing with one self-published book or large houses like Canongate or Faber, not owned by one of the large media and print corporations. So many of these tags are about saying what they are not, rather than what they actually really are.

    Just my thoughts.

  8. Posted September 26, 2010 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    From a purely utilitarian standpoint, the attempt to label is an attempt to categorize quality for marketing purposes. The more accurate the label, the better indication of the quality of the product.

    The problem isn’t with the vocabulary. The problem is that publishing is an industry in flux. At one stage in publishing history pamphleteer was a pejorative, but pamphleteers also produced classics, ie Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense.” Recently, so called traditional publishing applies as much to celebrity drek as to quality literature, so this isn’t really about quality either.

    The identification by the public of the publisher “type” is the duty of the publisher. The publisher has to communicate to its audience who they are and what they do. A good publisher will be able to do that. A poor one won’t.

    Publishing is about providing words to the public. The hope remains that despite the categorization of the publisher, in the flood of words, quality will still float.

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