by RS Mellette
I've been noticing around the industry lately that people are starting to use the terms "Independent" and "Self" synonymously when it comes to publishing. I find this quite disturbing, as there is a tremendous difference. Sure, among the Big Six publishers or the average bookstore owner the variances might be too small to see, but to the writers in the trenches – or the online shoppers – they are worth noting.
A good independent publisher is also a traditional publisher. What makes them independent is that they are not a part of the Big Six (is it still six?) major houses. Fine, then what is traditional publishing in the online world?
There are several hallmarks that make a publisher "traditional." First and foremost, they take no money from the author. More on that later. They employ professional editors, which might sometimes be the publisher himself or herself. They will also employ a copy editor who is not the actual editor. No one can do a copy or line edit of their own work. A traditional publisher will also employ a professional artist to design their covers. And finally, a traditional publisher will generate financial reports for the author according to a pre-agreed upon time table listing income, costs and payments to the author (if any), etc.
Regarding the money, a few decades ago this was an easier puzzle to solve. If the author was expected to put in any money at all, then the publishing company was disreputable. If there was no advance, then the publishing company was disreputable. The author's risk was in the time taken away from his or her life during the writing of the book; the publisher's was in the investing of money into production, distribution and marketing.
For whatever reason, the majors started cutting back on marketing authors, so some writers started putting in their own money to promote both their books and themselves. Often, the money came from the ever-shrinking advances. As that has become the norm in major publishing, one cannot fault independently published authors from taking the same route. But that doesn't change the rule of thumb regarding which way the money should flow in legitimate publishing. No money should go from the author to the publisher, period. If a publisher says, "If you hire our publicist, you'll save money," then the author is not dealing with an independent publisher, but a con artist. The author is not being published independently, but is self-publishing.
On the other hand, if the publisher says, "If you want to go out and hire your own publicist, that's up to you," then that's the same as than the major houses.
What difference does independent or self-publishing make to authors and readers?
No matter how many hired guns a self-publisher brings into polish their work, the bottom line is, the only person willing put in their time and money on the project is the author. That's generally not a good recommendation. More on that below. The best editor in the world can't fix a bad manuscript, and even the best authors can get too close to their work to know if it's any good or not. But there is no, "We're going to pass on this one" in self-publishing. Every word, worthy or not, gets printed – or transmitted – and the consumer has no way of knowing what's good and what's not.
Traditional publishing, independent and otherwise, starts with the premise that a book is so good that the house is willing to bet their own money on it. For independent publishers, it's often literally their own money. How good does a book have to be for a person to say, "I'm going to dig into my own savings to invest in this stranger's story"?
Personally, I'm more impressed with that than I am Harper Collins saying, "This is one of the hundreds of books we're going to put our stockholders' money into, and whether it wins or loses we've mitigated our risk by the volume of our library."
The independent publishing approach is also more intriguing than, "I've written a book, and since no one else will publish it, I'm going to put my own money into it."
I should close this essay by pointing out that I do not mean to speak about the quality of writing on any individual project in any of the three forms of publishing, nor the levels of success, but rather potential quality. Some absolutely horrible books are published by majors, independents and self-publishing houses every year. On the other hand, some of the contributors to this blog have made a good living self-publishing extremely high-quality work.
All I'm saying is that there is a difference between independent and self-publishing and that we who are in the business of words should not causally make them synonymous when they clearly aren't.
Look for R.S. Mellette's new book, Billy Bobble Makes a Magic Wand in December from the independent publisher, Elephant's Bookshelf Press.