I’m not attempting to give a definitive answer to this question. It wasn’t even a debate five years ago. It’s been brought to the forefront by the rise of online book sales, print-on-demand, eBooks, and enabling technology. There are those who still cling to the absolute thesis that there is no difference. If you publish your own work you are a self-publisher no matter what you call yourself. And by that narrow definition, I have to agree. But fundamentally, I believe a difference is evolving and I’d like to contribute to the debate even if I can’t openly declare a winner.
Self-publishing is a long and honorable tradition. John James Audubon self-published his magnificent volume of The Birds of North America in 1838, producing one of the most luxurious and respected volumes ever seen. Walt Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass in 1855. Ben Franklin, using the pen name Richard Saunders, published Poor Richard’s Almanack in 1732. In congress, Franklin was often accused of quoting himself. Ernest Hemingway self-published his first book, Three Stories and Ten Poems in 1923. The list goes on, now including best selling authors J.A. Konrath, Cory Doctorow, and recently Barry Eisler who reportedly turned down a $500k advance to self-publish his newest work. (Read a dialog with J.A. Konrath and Barry Eisler at http://bit.ly/gTWNrd.
But the fairytale stories of these authors pales next to the more common story. Who ever heard of The Journey Through the Forest by Daphne Wright, Ontario Lacus by J. Matthew Neal, Buddha’s Thunderbolt by Jacob Asher Michael, or Steven George & The Dragon by Nathan Everett? These books haven’t exactly hit the best seller list or made the authors rich. But that doesn’t say anything about the quality of the book or its production. Any of those books might be the best read you’ve ever encountered. (Can’t say. I’ve only read one of them!)
So, self-publish or independent publish. It can’t be determined based on who the author is, their successful book sales, or the quality of the writing. So what makes the difference?
I submit that the difference is a business decision. I can’t think of a time when I didn’t want to publish things. I self-published a little chapbook called “The Book of Wesley” back in 1983. My friend Don still quotes it to me. It was carefully composed on a Selectric typewriter, the pages imposed 4-up on 8.5x11 inch paper, and saddle-stitch bound with a trim-size of 4.125x2.625 inches. If you don’t know what composition, imposition, binding, and trim-size are, chances are you are not an independent publisher. Those are part of the language of publishing and if you are in the business of publishing, you have to learn the language.
There are six distinct job areas in publishing and they overlap significantly when you are doing it all yourself.
A self-publisher is focused on—in fact, consumed by—content. After all, if it weren’t for the content none of the rest of this would exist, right? But the fact is that there comes a time when you have to set the content aside and declare it finished. From that point on, the publishing work begins. A self-publisher will spend as little time and effort on the next five areas as possible, even going back to content in order to avoid dealing with another area. She will upload her content to an eBook or POD publisher and move on to the next writing project, wondering why week after week there are no sales reported.
An independent publisher first and foremost takes on the role of management. If you were doing legacy publishing, that’s what your editor would do. The term editor in today’s industry doesn’t really have much to do with proofreading your book, correcting grammar, or even counseling you on your story arc. The editor manages all the pieces of getting a book to the public. The editor will take input from marketing to determine marketability of the book, pricing, promotion, and title of the book. The editor will manage the schedule for printing, release, and promotion. The editor will make sure the author’s work is given the best chance for success that the publisher can afford.
You thought that “creative” applied to the work you did as an author. But in the publishing world, creative is the design and artwork for your book. What is the best look for the cover? How does it compare to other books that might be shelved near your book? What is the best typographic treatment for your content and market? What is the best look for margins and line-spacing? How should chapters be headed? Today, the creative process has to cover both print and electronic versions of the book.
Then the book has to actually be produced. Putting your precious text into a layout is no trivial matter. Following the designer’s specifications, the production person will need to control page and line breaks, problem spacing, insertion of illustrations or graphics in the right places, and printing parameters, eBook readers, and bindery limitations.
Once the book is complete, it has to be distributed. If there is no plan and execution of the distribution process, books will sit gathering dust and mold in the garage, or will never be printed by the POD service. Distribution is the art of putting the book in front of potential buyers.
I didn’t skip marketing because it is unimportant, but rather because it will permeate every activity listed above. Market research will show where the book should be shelved, what its title should be, how its cover should be designed, what the price should be, where it should be sold, and how to reach its market. It will set the schedule for readings, author appearances, interviews, and publicity. It will determine what the website looks like, who promotes the book, and who will be promoted alongside the book.
Of course, one person doesn’t have to do all of the above. There really aren’t that many authors who can design and produce a decent book. But as the manager of the process, the independent publisher has to be able to acquire the right talent and pay for it so that the book has the best possible chance of success. I suggest that the independent publisher is one that has embraced the totality of the publishing process. The self-publisher is one who does not really understand what publishing is all about, but just wants to see their content in print (or eBook).