The Death of “Self-Publishing”

It’s time to just say it. “Self-publishing” is dead. I’m not talking about the act of self-publishing a book. I’m talking about the phrase itself. “Self-publishing” now means two different things that are miles apart. It’s time to kill this useless phrase.

Barbara posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I am confused by all the different terms in current publishing. Like “indie publishers,” “traditional publishers,” “ebooks,” “ebook indie publications,” “small presses” “small publishers,” “independent publishers,” “print on demand,” “hybrid authors” and whatever it is that Amazon does.

I am former Washington, DC newspaper reporter writing a novel about the newspaper business. Though I have finished a first draft and am working one revisions, I am not quite ready to submit a manuscript yet. But I need to know what all these terms mean and how to go about deciding where I belong. Thanks always for your great blog and for answering my question.

Randy sez: Let’s start with the most confusing term of all—“self publishing.” This used to have a single meaning. But in recent years, it’s come to mean two massively different things:

  • Vanity publishing
  • Indie publishing

Let’s look at these and define them clearly.

Vanity Publishing

“Vanity publishing” means that you pay somebody to publish your work. You typically pay them a flat fee and with that money, they then hire editors, proofreaders, typesetters, graphic designers, marketers, and whatever else. They take care of the printing, warehousing, shipping, distribution, sales, etc. If there are any profits, they distribute them to you, usually taking a cut.

In vanity publishing, you do the writing and you take all the financial risk. The vanity publisher does all the other work and takes none of the risk. The profits can be divided up various ways.

It should be obvious that vanity publishing is wide open to abuse. When you are fronting the money and taking all the financial risk, the vanity publisher has little incentive to keep costs down or do a good job or give you a fair shake.

It is possible for a vanity publisher to give you a fair deal, but most professional authors, editors, and agents will tell you that vanity publishing is almost always a terrible deal for an author. David Gaughran does a great job of explaining why on his blog, so I’m just going to refer you to him. Here’s one of his articles to get you started.

Indie Publishing

“Indie publishing” means that you act as your own independent publisher. You write your book. Then you do all the tasks that a publisher would typically do, or else you find a specialist who can do the ones you can’t. These tasks are:

  • Editing
  • Proofreading
  • Cover design
  • Typesetting (for print books) or formatting (for e-books)

Indie authors often do all of the above themselves. Then they upload their finished book files to the various online retailers—Amazon, B&N, Apple, Kobo, Smashwords, Google Play, etc. Or they may work with a distributor, such as Smashwords, who will deal with some or all of the retailers.

The key thing here is that the author gets a large percentage of the money—typically between 35% and 70% of the retail price of the book. The indie author takes all the financial risk and gets most of the rewards, so she has a high incentive to keep costs down and do a good job.

As it turns out, indie publishing can be a great deal for authors. The very best-paid indie authors are earning millions of dollars per year, and a surprising number are earning hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. For a superb analysis of how much indie authors can earn, see the Author Earnings web site run by Hugh Howey.

Why “Self-Publishing” is Useless

“Self-publishing” used to mean essentially the same thing as “vanity publishing” and very few professional authors would have anything to do with it.

In recent years, “self-publishing” has also come to mean “indie publishing,” and a great many professional authors are doing it very successfully.

It ought to be obvious that “self-publishing” is a term that is too ambiguous to be useful. It needs to be thrown away.

We have two other perfectly good terms we can use instead: “vanity publishing” and “indie publishing.” So use whichever is appropriate, and nobody will be confused.

Let’s remember that there are some other publishing options. Let’s look at those.

Traditional Publishing

“Traditional publishing” means that you work with a publishing company that puts up all of the money to publish your book. They pay you some money upfront as an “advance” in exchange for the rights to publish your book for a certain length of time. They also pay for all the editing, proofreading, typesetting or formatting, printing, warehousing, sales, and distribution. They collect all the money earned and pay you a percentage as royalties.

In traditional publishing, you do all the writing and the publisher does all the other work and takes all the financial risk. You split the rewards with them.

What’s not to like with this arrangement?

Let’s be clear that this can be a great deal for authors. Until very recently, most of the really famous authors worked with traditional publishers and made great boatloads of money. There are a couple of thousand authors currently doing very well under this system.

The problem is that in recent years, the deal has gotten substantially worse for authors. Here are some of the friction points that authors have:

  • Advances have gotten smaller.
  • Authors are expected to do all or most of the marketing.
  • Royalties on e-books are low—typically 25% of the wholesale price of the book, which works out to about 12.5% of the retail price. This is very much lower than the 35% to 70% earned by indie authors.
  • Many publishers require option clauses that lock in an author to working with the publisher on the next book.
  • Many publishers require no-compete clauses that prevent an author from working with another publisher (or from indie-publishing) during a certain window of time.
  • Traditional publishing takes a long time to move a book from concept to final published book. It may take a year or two or longer.
  • Traditional publishers often can’t handle all the books that an author can write, and this is a huge problem if there are option clauses or no-compete clauses in place.
  • Traditional publishers decide what will be published and what won’t, and this often feels arbitrary and unfair to authors.
  • Traditional publishers hold all the high cards in negotiating.

There are probably other friction points, but these are the most glaring. These are the reasons why so any professional authors have simply walked away from traditional publishing and gone indie—they believe they’re better off on their own. These are the reasons why so many indie authors have refused contracts offered by traditional publishers.

Some authors use the term “legacy publishing” to refer to traditional publishing.

Hybrid Authors

“Hybrid author” is a term coined by Bob Mayer. It means an author who chooses to publish some books with traditional publishers and some books as an indie author.

Hybrid authors are looking for the best of both worlds, and this can be a reasonable choice. I’m a hybrid author, because I have some books still in print with traditional publishers, while all my current projects are in indie publishing.

Small Publishers

“Small publishers” are traditional publishers that are small—typically just a few employees. Small publishers often give better royalties on e-books. They may give more attention to new authors. I’ve worked with a small publisher, and it can be a sensible option.

Small publishers seem to be fading as more authors go indie.

E-books and Print-On-Demand

E-books are electronic books that are sold and delivered electronically. In some categories of fiction, most of the books sold are e-books.

“Print-on-demand” books are paper books that are printed and sold only when a customer orders a copy. Traditionally, publishers printed thousands of books in a large print run and then warehoused the books. This kept the cost per copy low, but if the books didn’t sell, that was a problem. The unit cost of a print-on-demand book is fairly high, but the risk is zero because you don’t print it until you’ve sold it.

Amazon has made it easy for indie authors to create and sell e-books and print-on-demand books. You can upload your e-book at kdp.amazon.com. You can upload your print-on-demand book at createspace.com.

Numerous other online retailers let you upload and sell e-books, including Barnes & Noble (at nookpress.com), Smashwords (at Smashwords.com), Apple (at itunesconnect.apple.com), Kobo (at kobobooks.com).

The publishing world is changing fast. Traditional publishing used to be the only game in town for authors who wanted a fair shake financially. Now indie publishing is an exciting option. Indie publishing gives authors some negotiating power with traditional publishers, because now they have the power to walk away.

Barbara, I hope that answers your questions. I won’t tell you what you should do, because every author is different. But now you know what your major options are. Good luck!

 

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

 

21 Comments

  1. Dona General May 23, 2014 at 8:45 am #

    Again, Randy, a specific no nonsense information blog! Thank you, thank you, thank you. You make sense out of the most complex topics. Nobody does it quite like you, to quote the old James Bond song. ;-))

  2. LyndaQ May 23, 2014 at 10:08 am #

    I heard that Amazon’s profits are extremely low and they might be in trouble.

    • David M. May 30, 2014 at 6:19 am #

      “I heard that Amazon’s profits are extremely low and they might be in trouble.” – Amazon is not in trouble at all. They have always kept their profits extremely low by design. They pour almost all of their revenue (which is extremely high) into new innovations and expansion into new areas. The reason they are a highly valued blue chip stock for “conservative” (financially, not politically) investors is because this approach gives them rock solid stability and very consistent growth. They are always gaining market share because their efficiency and frugality in this area allows them to keep prices very low, siphoning off more and more customers in more and more areas from less efficient competitors. For example, they started with just paper books. Period. They eventually expanded into auction facilitation, like ebay. They then added electronics, and subsequently other products until they finally reached the point they are at today, which is carrying nearly all products of ALL areas of traditional retail. They created the kindle and the ebook movement, which led to the indie revolution now underway. They also moved into media streaming to compete with Netflix, as well as media streaming rentals and purchases, putting the last nail in the coffin Netflix had built for Blockbuster, and taking most of the market share from other online renters like vudu. (Which you have probably never heard of because of amazon, but they still exist.) They did all this by in part by reinvesting so much of their revenue into expansion, etc. They are not in trouble at all. They are one of the most stable companies around.

      • Lynda Q June 7, 2014 at 9:18 am #

        Thanks for the clarification.

  3. Tamara Leigh May 23, 2014 at 10:31 am #

    Excellent article, Randy! Recently, it struck me “author publishing” is a nice alternative to “self publishing,” even “indie publishing.” Regardless, it’s in our hands now 🙂

  4. Sarah Elisabeth May 23, 2014 at 11:12 am #

    Thank you, thank you for putting the term “self publishing” in the grave where it belongs. “Vanity” and “indie” are what we need to use now. And authors need to put a huge red X over vanity and take a close look at indie.

    As always, great explanations, Randy. I will send people to this post for education in the differences.

  5. Sally Ferguson May 23, 2014 at 1:05 pm #

    The rules are changing so fast; this helps to keep a thumb on the pulse. Thanks Randy!

  6. arundebnath May 23, 2014 at 1:28 pm #

    As a Randy-fan [who got into writing as a result of acquiring Randy’s Dummies series book] I found this post fantastically clear and to the point. My confusion about all those terms etc are gone now. Thank you Randy. Arun

  7. Scott Miller May 26, 2014 at 3:32 am #

    I disagree that “self publishing” used to mean only vanity publishing. Long ago it used to mean only “indie publishing”. The vanity publishers, in an an attempt to legitimize their activity, started calling what they did “self publishing”. E.g. “Beatrix Potter started out by self publishing her first book, which was later picked up by a big-name publisher. You can do the same.” Of course Miss Potter did not use a vanity publisher–she indie published.

    I do agree that “self publishing” has become a worthless phrase. However we must fight to keep the same from happening to “indie publishing” by gently correcting those who would equate indie with vanity.

  8. Emily May 31, 2014 at 1:01 pm #

    Let me be the Devil’s Advocate here. What Randy calls ‘vanity’ publishing is, in fact, merely ‘custom’ publishing. Not all are so sleazy as he implies. Some companies give better deals than others, some are more up front about reality than others, but basically, they are selling book production to the author and the rest is up to him/her. That hasn’t changed; it has only become more common. But calling it ‘Indie’ or ‘Author’ publishing cannot banish the ‘vanity’ aspect. Vanity is when somebody is so anxious to see his/her name in print that they publish work which is not worthy of any reader’s time except their mother’s.

    By whatever name you want to call it, there’s more of that around than ever. But none in the traditional publishing arena, because, however lousy one reader or another may think a trad-pubbed book, at the very least SOMEBODY liked it besides the author. A business backed it with money.

    The alternative is where an author puts their own money into getting their work out there–the quality of which has nothing to do with what the publishing process is labeled and everything to do with the skill of the producer and their team (if any). What has really changed here is that there are new ways for readers to screen what is excellent (according to their individual tastes) and what is a waste of time, brainspace, and money (in that order).

    Trad-pub is falling down the same crack that the music and broadcast television industry were sucked into over a decade ago, which is first, that the means of production have become so inexpensive that almost anybody can compete; and second, that the once-exclusive arteries of distribution are now open to all.

    It’s a brave new world where you don’t need the publishing Godfather to give a yea or nay to your efforts. But it also means you have to be much better than an increasing number of other writers to earn a reader’s regard.

  9. Marji Laine July 7, 2014 at 8:17 am #

    Thanks for the insight, Randy. While I knew the vocabulary, I didn’t understand all of the nuances of the different pub types. Thanks so much for clarifying!

  10. R. Brady Frost July 13, 2014 at 2:44 pm #

    I’m very excited to see how the world of publishing is turning on end. It’s both amazing and scary. I’m not sure where the road leads, but the world is once again full of wonder and the unknown. Personally, I think I prefer Indie Author rather than Self-Published. I guess the term ‘Indie’ implies a sense of community.

  11. Diane July 21, 2014 at 7:24 pm #

    I’ve gotten a few people mad at me by calling it the “ego” press. Judging by the quality of writing being sold on average by “celebrated” ebook authors on Amazon these days, the vast majority of what you’re calling “indie” publishing is merely feeding the egos of a lot of wanna-be writers who have not had the benefit of rejection to help (i.e., force) them to polish their skills.

    It used to be, you could expect a certain level of skill in any book you picked up to read, but “publishing” has become too easy, in my opinion. Sure, you would expect these writers to want to put their best out there, but most of them obviously do not invest in a good content editor or even bother with a proofreader. With traditional publishing, the editors waded through all those hopeless submissions from unskilled wanna-bes and dumped them where they belonged—in the circular file. Now the reader has to do the wading through the middens. You could almost compare it to the cattle calls for American Idol—there’s an awful lot of people out there who think they have skills and talents who quite frankly have been deluded by too kind friends and family.

    I’ve been leaving a lot of negative reviews on Amazon recently because I’ve been exploring the offerings on BookBub. For every gem I’ve found (exactly two to date), I’ve read only a few pages before discarding multiple books that I’m glad I didn’t actually pay money for. Considering the degree of poor writing skills displayed through shallow characters, lack of plot, stilted dialog, anachronisms, and blatant cliches . . . not to mention the grammar and spelling errors . . . it almost makes me fearful to spend any money on any Amazon book not produced through a reputable traditional publisher. And it’s not just the money, it’s the time involved with skimming through glowing five-star reviews to find the more honest one-star reviews just so I can reduce the time wasted actually downloading one of these poor representations of a novel to my Kindle.

    The only good thing that has come from this torture of starting one badly written book after another is that I’ve refocused on my own writing. I’ve always been my worst enemy because I’m more of an editor than a writer, and I never seem to like my own writing well enough to ever risk putting it out where someone might read it. But after reading all that trash currently flooding the “Indie” market, I have new respect for my own writing. I guarantee, however, that anything I attempt to publish myself will be well critiqued by people I trust to be honest and put through a rigorous proofing by editors that are paid to be brutal.

    I’m sorry for the rant. I truly didn’t write this offend anyone . . . I just wish more “Indie” authors would take the effort to produce well-written and carefully edited works rather than glutting the market with poorly written “ego” fodder. And I feel sorry for those truly excellent authors that are buried in this smelly fish market. I’m happy that I’ve discovered a couple of gifted authors by sampling the market, but overall, I’ve been left with a really bad taste in my mouth for indie publishing.

  12. Malcolm R. Campbell July 22, 2014 at 10:24 am #

    Now it’s time to clear of the confusion about the word “indie.” Traditionally it meant small, non-New York publishers. Now some use it as a synonym for self-publishing. Some publishers who’ve always identified themselves an “indie” are finding out people think they’re Lulu or iUniverse kinds of operations.

  13. Don Harold September 15, 2014 at 8:25 pm #

    Vanity Publishing is not the same as true Self-publishing. Vanity publishers always coined the term “self-publishing” in their marketing/websites.

  14. Lynn Johnston January 8, 2015 at 7:50 pm #

    Great post about the changes in the industry and what indie publishing is. Thank, Randy! We’re very lucky to be here during this transition in the publishing industry–so many opportunities for those who are willing to experiment and put in the work of learning to do the things that publishers used to do for writers.

  15. Ricardo Fayet February 5, 2015 at 3:48 am #

    I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I wrote something similar about the future of traditional publishing a couple of months ago (before I came across this much-better-written post): http://blog.reedsy.com/post/93866473344/authorpreneurs-and-vc-publishers

    “Self-publishing” has been an over-used term too often associated to “low quality”. We should just get rid of it. On one side, there’s vanity publishing. And on the other side, there’s the serious authors who have consciously chosen the independent publishing path because of its advantages. Some now call it “author publishing”, a term that I’ve taken a liking too, because it places authors at the center of the process (where they should be), without making it sound like they’re on their own. They’re not, they shouldn’t be: they work with freelance professionals, and they collaborate with fellow authors. And they put work out there of the same quality as traditional publishing.

  16. Laraine April 28, 2015 at 2:05 pm #

    I often wonder what those whose job it is to market think of the denigration of their skills by publishers who have dispensed with such services and expect the authors to do the work. Marketing is a skill, and a difficult one at that. To expect an author to do such a job (especially when most authors tend to be introverts) is like expecting the marketing expert to be able to sit down and write a publishable book.

  17. Kell Brigan June 15, 2016 at 8:27 pm #

    Any “publishing” that has not been vetted and edited by a financial, personally, academically-independent third party is self/vanity publishing. (I personally refuse to call it “indie;” up until 5 years ago, “indie” meant traditionally published stuff from non-Big 5 houses. It was stolen by selfies trying to con people into thinking they’re traditionally published. Not cool.) It doesn’t matter how many “editors” someone hires. If the writer pays the editor, the editor is not doing a full job. No editor, even ones who think they’re tough enough, will ever tell a writer giving them money that their stuff is not good enough to publish. No editor who is being paid by a writer is serving the same function as an editor whose interests are not conflicted.

    SELFIES ARE SELFIES, PERIOD. If anyone other than an impartial third party is doing the vetting and editing, it’s a SELFIE. END OF STORY.

    • Randy Ingermanson June 15, 2016 at 9:35 pm #

      Kell, you’re welcome to believe any nonsense you want. But if you choose to say it on my blog, I’m going to tell you flat out that it’s nonsense.

      There is a huge difference between indie authoring and vanity publishing, and that difference is easy to measure by following the money.

      There are thousands of indie authors earning more than $10k/year from their writing.

      There are hundreds of indie authors earning more than $100k/year from their writing.

      There are more than ten indie authors earning more than $1M/year from their writing.

      I’m not aware of any vanity-published authors earning even $10k/year.

      If you don’t see the difference, that’s fine, but the readers of my blog do.

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