This blog was featured on 08/30/2016
Self-Published Authors Don’t Need a New Term

A couple weeks ago I had an article published in Publishers Weekly about third-way publishing, something I’ve blogged about here at She Writes. A lot of the comments, especially those that stirred me up, had to do with terms—who gets to call themselves what; how She Writes Press is or isn't different from self-publishing. The article was timely because just one week later, Amazon's John Fine spoke at the Publishing for Digital Minds conference in London, where he noted that the term “self-publishing” may have outlived its usefulness.

The book industry is full of people who care about words. Editors can spend weeks brainstorming book titles; marketing heads spend countless hours on author positioning, sometimes in an effort to nail down a single tagline or hook. Conscientious authors belabor sentences and agonize over word choices. So it shouldn’t be a surprise to any of us that so much ink is spilled over terms.

And yet there aren’t many terms more controversial than “self-publishing” (other than “vanity publishing,” I suppose). As new models like ours emerge, they’re trying to distance themselves from self-publishing, for reasons that are probably obvious. Self-publishing is a free-for-all. For every successful self-published book, there are thousands of books riddled with problems—ranging from books that were published before they were ready to books with no editing and bad design, books that have failed to meet even the simplest publishing protocols.

Self-published authors themselves have tried to distance themselves from the term by calling themselves “indie.” But I’ve always taken issue with this because I come out of traditional publishing, and indie publishing is and has been (for years) a term used by independently owned (as opposed to corporate) presses. I grew up working for indie presses: North Atlantic Books and Seal Press. So self-published authors taking that term for themselves feels a little like a new sandwich franchise popping up and trying to call itself Subway.

At the heart of this desire to re-term ourselves is the fact that self-publishing still carries a stigma, and yet we’ll never get to distance ourselves from it completely, no matter how much momentum we might be able to muster, and that’s because in addition to being a free-for-all, self-publishing is also a catch-all. To explain what self-publishing is in relation to other models, I’ll give a memoir analogy. When my memoir students ask me what the difference is between memoir and creative nonfiction, my standard answer is this: “All memoir is creative nonfiction, but not all creative nonfiction is memoir.” The same holds true for the difference between self-publishing and hybrid publishing (and any other term you want to apply this to—partnership publishing, third-way publishing, indie publishing, author-assisted publishing). All hybrid publishing is self-publishing, but not all self-publishing is hybrid publishing. What this means, of course, is that there are many ways to self-publish, and hybrid publishing is just one avenue.

Self-publishing speaks to one commonality only: that the author puts up the money for his or her own work. Although I’ve been forced to some extent to differentiate She Writes Press’s model from self-publishing (just as I have from traditional publishing) so that people understand how it’s different, I’d rather spend my efforts on changing the current way the industry thinks about author-subsidization as dirty.

This is a much more important conversation, because we are the 99%. Most authors pay for some portion of their editing, production, and/or printing. Most authors are putting money toward publicity. We are all, therefore, self-supporting, and if we were to look at all things equally, we’d discover that many traditional models have had systems in place whereby authors pay for their work through shared costs and revenue sharing. I personally don’t take issue with the term “self-publishing,” and I’m proud to be an author who subsidized my own book, who’s now reaping profits from my investment in myself. The problem with trying to re-term and invent new labels to make ourselves feel better misses a larger point, anyway, which is that there’s only one label that really matters: “published author.”


What do you all think? Do you embrace the term self-publishing, or do you prefer to call yourself by another name?

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  • Loved your post. I've enjoyed following all the SHE WRITES posts. Let's me know I'm not alone in all my writing problems and endeavors. Thanks Brooke.

  • This is awesome, Nina. :)

    Kathryn, totally agree. Keep on!!

  • Nina Gaby

    I would think about this a lot more if I had time! Between my anthology project with She Writes (DUMPED: Women Unfriending Women)and my very full-time job, I can put this issue on the back burner much of the time. At my age, 63, "publishing" is still very much the image of taking the train to NYC as a male in a suit and a fedora with tortoise shell glasses and a cigarette dangling. But this as a new world and I believe that She Writes stand with great flexibility on the ever shifting cusp of that world. I realize it was with a somewhat apologetic explanation that I would describe my project- "NOT REALLY SELF PUBLISHING," I would say, rushing through the rest..."it's a hybrid model, very cutting-edge." Now I'm just saying, "OMG I am so far behind with my book, you know, the anthology I'm publishing with She Writes?" No one else bats an eye. I am so glad to have come across this conversation.

  • Brooke,

    I agree. It will change. It has already changed in some ways/places. Now some review sites, which never had before, are allowing you to submit your self-published books for review. Same with some contests like the EPIC. Also, I had a book over 20 years ago (Dinosaur Lake)that my then-publisher (Kensington) dumped at the last minute because my editor said, "People don't like to read about dinosaurs"...and 6 months later Jurassic Park, the book, came out. And, many years later I resurrected it, rewrote it, and self-published it in 2012. So far, it's my biggest seller and was an EPIC EBOOK Awards Finalist this year. So...big publishers and their editors don't always know best. I will self-publish from now on.

  • Suzi, thank you so much! What a nice response. I agree with the very real problem (read: discrimination) of these contests that do not allow for author-subsidized books. It's backward and punitive. But with time it will change. I think it'll have to. It makes me upset, too, because it relegates self-pubbed authors to a second-class tier, and we do not belong there just because we have dared to put our books out into the world on our own dollar. Well, don't get me started.... I'm glad it's going well for you. Wonderful to hear and I'd love to work with you down the road!

  • Juliana Lightle

    Some women do both successfully.  Some small presses are using self publishing venues to publish as well.  You have more control over your product when you self publish.  You do have to market, but friends who have used traditional publishers tell me they feel they still have to market themselves.  

  • suzi banks baum

    I feel like that old TV ad "When...speaks, we listen" was an ad for a financial institution...but in my writing life, when you speak, Brooke, I listen.

    I self-published An Anthology of Babes: 36 Women Give Motherhood a Voice, financed the whole thing including an excellent editor who worked hard on the content. I am very proud of the resulting book and am in the midst of my second year promoting it. I am taking it on a book tour this August. WHAT A HELL of a lot of work this is- to pay for it, promote it, think about how else to market it, all while living my life as a mom, artist and writer....sheesh.

    And yet, I learn so much while doing it. I shied away initially to say "self-published"- tried "Indie" but that rang so wrong, I just went back to the original and accurate description of my book. I get tweaked when I read contest guidelines that say "no self-published manuscripts may apply". Is it my hair? Do I have bad breath? Or this body of work just automatically does not meet a standard of quality you are striving to uphold?

    That is exhausting to me. So I don't put my book up for contests much- it is so expensive anyway. I sell it at live events, which I love doing because I create a reading and discussion which yields inspiration to me by the bucketful. And, maybe not hundreds of sales, but some. Each reader is a walking billboard. I sell it on my website and on Amazon too.

    I really hope I get to work more closely with you Brooke on my next two projects. I have to put those on simmer while I dedicate the next 6 months to planning and implementing this book tour and the other teaching opportunities I have. Every time I am in front of audience or class talking about writing, She Writes and SheWritesPress are mentioned as great opportunities for women writers. Thank you for sustaining and developing great content.

    Best, Suzi

  • Published Author sounds great, but I suppose I mostly had to write my own paycheck and was quite proud to say that I was 'self-employed' so, I think 'self-published' should be something to be proud of.  Nevertheless, as you mentioned many times before, one has to do your homework and be prepared to get professional help before putting one's baby out there in the big, wide world of books and publishing.  So, thanks to you and others like yourself, who keep encouraging us to be the best we can be! :-)

  • @Janine, you guys are so great and I'm really really hoping to make it to the Deisel reading to celebrate the Write On Mamas!!

  • @Ester, Amen!!

    @Renate, thanks for bringing this up. I think the thing about traditional vs. self, for me anyway, is that at least there is the knowledge that it would have been vetted and edited. You're totally right that there are junk and gems in the traditional world as well, but it's more prevalent in the self-pub world, unfortunately, because there are—as I write about in my book—so many renegade authors. And not enough self-pub authors opt into the Look Inside feature, though of course they should be, and readers are just getting more and more discerning.

  • Renate Stendhal

    Love this discussion and all the voices here. B.Lynn's comparison with movie making reads to me like, this is the future! Book making will get there, too, maybe faster than any NY publisher can imagine...
    In your PW article, Brooke, you say "But self-publishing presents its own set of problems—the primary one being that there’s no easy way for the reader, at first glance anyway, to separate the junk from the gems."
    The same is true for all books. Nothing in traditonal publishing separates the junk from the gems either. Most of their books are anything but gems, and the reader also has to sort through piles of junk to find them. So few of all these books are being reviewed, and even when they are, all you get is just one opinion. The most democratic source of info, I find, is in the "Look inside" function online: the fast and easy way to check out book affinity and find the gems. Plus there are the readers' reviews and comments - another equalizer. I don't see that self-published books have much of a disadvantage there, or do they?

  • Well, in the case of my writing group Write On Mamas, we controlled each stage of our book Mamas Write, but it was anything but "self" publishing. We hired bona fide professionals at every step of the way. To call it "self-publishing" gives us more credit than we deserve!

  • I like to say either "Self Published, " or "Independant Publisher." Both have been well accepted and when I give my talks and sell lots of books, 600 in one year since self-publication, it doesn't make one iota of difference to anyone how my book was published, as long as it's well written and has a well-designed cover. I've found more people ask for details about my self publishing curve than those who turn their noses up and secretly wish they had achieved anything similar. I think "Indies" are terrific for taking care of all the complex details without the help of big publishers.

  • Jacqui Brown

    I have self-published all of my books and have no problem with the term self-published. It means nothing either way. I have total control, I am in charge of all marketing and promotions and I get all the dough! If you are diligent and consistent you can make grand things happen too. I have even gotten Barnes & Noble to carry one of my self-published (non-returnable) books, yes, I know, that's unheard of but they've reordered them three times after they sold out. I am currently submitting my last book to them now and am sure I will be able to get them to carry it as well. My secret: believe you can do anything...and you can! So self-publish away my friends! It's a win-win situation!

  • Mary Lou Gomes

    Lets face it, there are thousands of people who want to be published. Self-publishing is one way of doing it. We are not all going to be picked up by an agent but that doesn't mean what we have to say isn't important. I think just getting our work out there is an accomplishment regardless of how we do it. You may go with a traditional publisher or self- publish or simply blog your story if you just want to get it out there. Go for it and forget what others think. Be proud of your accomplishments.

    And I agree with what Renate Stendhal says  below. Lets not kid ourselves into thinking it won't cost us to use a traditional publisher.

  • Renate Stendhal

    Great questions raised, Brooke, so totally on target! I remember hearing stories from the late boss of Abrams in NY about how some of their most exquisite art books were OF COURSE financed by the authors! A top secret? As everything is hierarchy in our crazy world, there has to be elite publishing and, as you say, the other 99 %. So how about calling it "99 % Publishing"? :) Love your being "an author who subsidized your own book"! I am, too, and my 99 % book is just out, as of last night! I happily call it a Kindle-Amazon book, as that is what it is: Lesbian Marriage: A Sex Survival Kit.

  • After giving my name,I often introduce myself as: I am a writer and author and I have self-published my first book, Before I elaborate with other details and information, I feel it is my responsibility to acknowledge where my writing has taken me. I was responsible for the cover, the writing, editing,the uploading of text and files to the printer and everything else, except for the printing. And after receiving the books, I was also responsible for selling them. Have I learned a few things about this process? Yes. And, I suppose I would do a better job of it next time, should I choose the same route. I did find, that readers who are interested in your writing or your book, are more interested in where they can buy it and not who published it. Exposure (advertising)or lack of, was a very important aspect, if your main concern is selling copies.

  • @B. Lynn. You are so right! I  am always talking with people about this and I can't understand why what's okay in film is not okay in publishing.

    @Kathryn. You're awesome!! Good for you. A success story. :)

  • I don't care what I "call" myself or what anyone else calls me...all I know is that since I "self-published" my 16, 17, 18 and 19th book to Amazon Kindle I'm making more money than I ever have since 1984. Ever. In the end, after starving as a writer for endless years, what has opened my eyes is that now I am FINALLY making something from so many, many years of my hard work. I can't wait until my other 15 books' contracts run out with my publisher (a good publisher, but alas, so little money dwindles down to me) starting next year and I can self-publish all of them.

  • Rebecca M. Douglass

    I recently found the term "author-publisher," and I like it because it describes exactly what we do--everything!

  • B. Lynn Goodwin

    Many famous actors produce the works that they star in. How is self-publishing or independent publishing different?

    I honestly don't know, except that one has a more positive history. People embrace the film, not the producer. Some day I hope independently published people will have the same status. I guess I prefer "independently published." Writer Advice, is definitely independently published.