Friday, August 22, 2014

What's the Difference Between Independent and Self-Publishing?

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.  

R.S. Mellette is an experienced screenwriter, actor, director, and novelist. You can find him at the Dances With Films festival blog, and on Twitter, or read him in the Spring Fevers, The Fall: Tales of the Apocalypse, and Summer's Edge anthologies.  


Sandra Almazan said...

Sigh. Let me clarify a few things here.

Traditional publishers are businesses. Their idea of "quality" is something that makes them a bazillion bucks. This is why we have books like 50SoG. Editors look for books with wide commercial appeal. I'm not faulting them for that, but as a reader, I don't want editors restricting my range of books to something narrow. That bores me. I don't care if an editor bought the book; I decide whether I want to buy the book when I read the sample. Not all indie books are well written, but they tell the stories that need to be told.

"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."--Sounds like no matter how professionally an author prepares her work, she will be faulted for going indie. But why should authors accept pittances for advances and give up their rights so an editor can validate their books? Readers validate books, not publishers.

Finally, some authors who were traditionally published self-publish their own work when they get their rights back. Where do they fit in this picture?

No matter what you call it, an author's ability to present her work directly to the readers is a boon for both writers and readers.

RSMellette said...

Hi Sandra, thanks for reading!

Actually, 50 Shades of Grey was first self-published. It would be one of those examples of self-publishing success.

You've also done the synonymous thing that bugs me so much, when you say, "Sounds like no matter how professionally an author prepares her work, she will be faulted for going indie."

If the author hires people to publish or edit his or her book, then that's not indie - that's self. If the publisher does it (be they a large house, or a small one), that's traditional publishing. It becomes indie if the publisher is not under the umbrella of the Majors.

I don't agree that an author being able to present directly to readers is 100% a good thing. I call that "raw art" and as a screener for a major film festival in Los Angeles, I see a ton of raw art in movies. 90% of it is a horrible waste of time.

As a consumer of entertainment (or, if you prefer, art), I don't have the time to go through the world's slush pile. I want a professional opinion about what is worth my money and more importantly, my time.

What has changed the dynamic a great deal, is online reviews. Self-published authors can gather several fair and honest reviews, which make choosing a book easier for the reader. Still, the reader has to take the time to learn which reviewers are unbiased and share their taste - but it can be a way to sort the slush.

Richard Pieters said...

Interesting that you should write on this. I'd thought, until recently, that how you differentiate indie v. self was the norm. Indie, to me, meant traditionally published by an independent small house. It seems that, for the most part now, indie is being used for those writers self-publishing, which is, indeed, an independent endeavor, but a confusion of terms, leaving the writer who's traditionally published by a small, independent house (I would be one) in a sort of no-man's land.

That said, I think the term indie may have been co-opted by self-publishing authors, which is fine. But now where does the author publishing through a small independent house fall? What do I call myself? (Smart-ass remarks welcome.) I feel more akin to indie authors than those pubbed by the big 5 (I think there are just 5 now) since I bypassed the agent part. I'm sure there are many of us. You'd say we're indies. So would I. But those self-publishing would disagree, which, no doubt, comes from the past stigma attached to self- or vanity-pubbing. And it can't be denied that they are independent, can it?

JeffO said...

To me, self-publishing is a sub-header of independent. Indie to me happens outside the bounds of so-called 'Big Publishing', and can be small, independent publishers or self-published. Matt Sinclair's Elephant's Bookshelf Press is an indie publisher; I have two friends who each published a book with a small, independent press and followed up with self-published books. They are independent authors, and were even before they self-published.

Sandra points out something very important that a lot of people forget: publishing is a business. This goes for Random Penguin on one end, Elephant's Bookshelf on the other. Regardless of what goals a business may have, one thing they must do is make money. There's nothing wrong with this, and there's also nothing wrong with authors who hope to make money, too.

I am curious, though, about where you draw the line with 'small indies' and 'Big publishing'. How big do you have to be before you become part of Big publishing?

RSMellette said...

@Richard - maybe we call ourselves Traditionally published and leave it at that.

@JeffO - To me, Matt is the model of Traditional/Indie publishing. He's putting out my book and I couldn't be happier with the way it's going.

Where do we draw the line? The film industry has the same issue with defining independent. I think if a company's funding doesn't come from one of the Big 5 or 6, then they are independent - no matter how big they get.

Marie King said...

Great post and advice! I always find it interesting what people have to say when it comes to different forms of publishing! Self publishing can be scary, daunting, even stressful, but it doesn't have to be impossible. There's a book that has a ton of great information for self publishing called "Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook” by Helen Sedwick. Her website, is worth checking out; it's got more information about her and the book. Thanks again for your post!

JeffO said...

RS--pardon for coming back and resurrecting this post. I wonder why we even need a line. It seems like it's nothing more than something for authors to fight about, and it's not really doing anyone any good.