A self-published book is “independently published” in the same way a home movie is an “independent film.”
Yesterday, when I tweeted the above, it took off in a way I didn’t expect. Loads of people - readers, bloggers, authors, and publishers - RT’ed the line, and I got everything from “hear, hear” to being called nasty names. As much as I love Twitter, it’s wicked tough to have a hearty discourse 140 characters at a time. I’m taking to Tumblr to allow for a bit of further explaination.
The trouble with analogies is that they are, by nature, imperfect. The point I was trying to get across is that the terms “self-published” and “independently published” mean different things, and define different types of books. It came across as far too derisive to self-published books, as though they inherently have less value than any other book. Sturgeon’s Law is, as always, in full effect - though 90% of self-published books are crap, 90% of all books are.
In my mind, the difference between independently published books and self-published books is semantically clear. If a book is published by an independent press, it’s independently published. If a book is published by the author, via digital services or a P.O.D. press, it’s self-published. The distinction says things, good and bad, about the path the book took from manuscript to final product - just as the distinction between “independent” and “traditional” publishing says something about a book.
The differences between the three terms may not be important to a majority of readers, but they are important to some, including reviewers and retailers.
One of the responses to the tweet suggested that the view was “obnoxious and elitist,” which I’m certain is true… if you’re stuck on the idea that self-published is inferior. Again, it wasn’t a perfect analogy, and I wish my follow-up - “Which is not to say there aren’t great self-published books - there absolutely are many. But the terms mean different things” - had been retweeted as much as the first line.
Ah, the joys of a 140 character limit.
Another common response was that self-publishing authors should feel free to appropriate the term, since there’s little difference between independent and traditional publishing houses. It’s an argument that, to me, simply doesn’t carry water. The main similarity between independent houses and the “big six” is that they all make books. From the core missions to editorial process, from submission guidelines to financial structures, there’s little that the independent guys have in common with the biggies. Even among houses, there’s huge differences. Down East Books, Chelsea Green, and Two Dollar Radio are independent publishers, but they couldn’t be more different.
Another responder made a convincing argument that the terminology of the book world is evolving, and any author that hires outside help (editors, designers, etc) should be able to call their book “independently published.” It’s a point that I initially agreed with, though it got foggier to me as I thought about it last night. Though I agree that the terms we throw around in bookselling and publishing will evolve, I think an author who hires an editor, hires a designer, but publishes the book themselves is still self-publishing. It’s a much better end product, but the printing of the book, and the direction of the hired help, is done by the author - the “self.” There isn’t a third party in an overseeing role, a role otherwise filled by the publisher (traditional or independent).
I am all too aware of the baggage that comes with the term “self-published author.” It’s a term that’s been poisoned over the decades, with bad books and badly-behaved authors drowning out the truly impressive and important self-published work out there. It’s a field that will become even more crowded with good and bad work as the years go on, as distribution gets simpler and cheaper. Just three years ago, over three-quarters of all the books published were self-published.
The practice of borrowing the term independently published - a term that already describes a type of book and a type of publishing - to avoid the association with self-publishing is a bit disingenuous. It’s better to own the term “self-published” (and, with Christopher Paolini, Oscar Wilde, and others, it’s not exactly bad company) than to piggyback on a term that means something completely different.
The point I was trying to make wasn’t that self-publishing is inferior to independent (or tradtional) publishing, but that the terms mean different things.