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

In Guest Contributors by Edward Nawotka

• 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Some new publishers suggested calling this old guard the “legacy publishers,” but that makes them sound as if they are outdated and, as such, is ultimately too pejorative to put into common usage.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?

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.