Should the Term "Self-Publishing" Be Replaced?

Hugh McGuire of Book Oven – interviewed here on SPR – has a provocative post titled, Cloud-publishing; or, “Self-publishing” Is Meaningless. He says,

The key here is: cloud-publishing (and Book Oven) will provide the tools to allow groups of people to easily coalesce around the production, distribution and sale of a particular book or books. How those groups organize themselves will look different from book to book. But Book Oven’s tools will mean that book makers can focus on the important thing, the content, and not worry about the technical hurdles of making, printing & distributing books…

So “self-publishing” doesn’t cut it as a description of what we’re building at Book Oven. It’s too limiting, and doesn’t get anywhere near the vision we have of a new, parallel, model for publishing as a whole.

The whole thing is worth a read, but the basic premise is that publishing is changing so we need to approach the new era of publishing with a new set of eyes, and new terminology.  The term self-publishing is fraught with so much stigma that it should be avoided.  Blogging, when you boil it down, is really just a form of self-publishing, but people don’t think of it in those terms.  Wikipedia is self-publishing.  Youtube, Twitter – basically the web is a big self-publishing engine.  But people don’t think of it that way – and they think self-publishing is really just a way of saying “lesser publishing.”

I agree with his premise entirely, it’s just that “cloud publishing” doesn’t really seem to offer a perfect alternative.  Nor do many of the other terms often used to replace the term.  I’ve heard: direct publishing, independent publishing, publishing 2.0, network publishing.  All of these are kind of off.  I knew going in that self-publishing is a highly loaded term, but it’s still useful.  The purpose of Self-Publishing Review is basically the same as the purpose of Book Oven.  Not provide the tools for publishing, but rebrand self-publishing as a valid method of publication. Which is a tall order because there’s so much baggage attached to the term.

But it’s also a description that is commonly used.  Is it possible for the term to take on an entirely new meaning?  After all, the word “blog” didn’t exist 10 years ago (maybe it did, but not the way we know it now).  Self-publishing has been around a lot longer and has become a terrible brand.  At the same time, the attitudes towards self-publishing are changing.  I’ve seen changes in perception in just the last few months.  Cynicism about self-publishing is fading. My thinking is that rather than change the term, change the attitude towards that term, which may take many years to be fully realized.

Independent Publishing

Of all of them, independent publishing does have the best prospects.  Though people balk at self-publishers for using this term as if they’re trying to instantly legitimize themselves, it would be a positive development if self-publishing was just seen as another form of independent publishing.  Only now some are saying that the age of indie has now eclipsed as well.  The internet killed the indie rock star.  Richard Eoin Nash, of Soft Skull Press, now of Cursor, wrote in The End of Indie:

Indie doesn’t mean anything anymore. It’s dead. Which is OK, because it won. Open source, Twitter. Indie won. Etsy. The irresistible decline of major labels and network TV and corporate publishing. Indie won….To the extent that indie meant anything, it was as its root word, independent. It was about seizing the means of production. Independently produced. Aesthetics can be imitated, ethics faked, attitudes mimicked, but large bureaucracies could not possibly replicate the indie production process—how could they seize the means of production? They already had it! And now the means of production has devolved yet farther down, past the indie publishers and indie record labels and pirate radio stations of yore…So now the phase of indie is over, now that the monopoly on the production and distribution of knowledge, culture and opinion has been broken.

I don’t really buy it.  Why can’t the web just be a new model for independence?  Just because something has changed doesn’t mean it’s dead.  The “spirit” of independence, without getting too wishy-washy, is not really going to go away, and is in fact going to thrive with so many new tools available.  I guess the argument is that if everyone’s independent than nothing is.  But still, from someone who is starting a new publishing venture based on niche communities, the obituary seems premature.  The niche communities representing independent pockets of consumers and aficionados is still a form of independence from the mainstream – even if the distribution model is different. Independent is not just about the means of production, it’s about the means of expression.

This may be a bit of overthinking about terminology across the board (me included).  I do think “independent publishing” has the best chance to represent an entire field of publishers.  There will always be small presses and there will always be self-publishers.  When they’re both using the same tools more and more, there will be less of a dividing line between the two.  But self-publishing is always going to exist because there’s always going to be a difference between a writer releasing his or her own book or not – even if that writer is collaborating with ten other people, the writing of the book itself is (usually) a solitary process.

So I’ll continue my sometimes-frustrating crusade to further the cause of self-publishing and feel encouraged by the fact that more and more people see network-based publishing as entirely legitimate.

  • I agree with Nash that “indie” doesn’t have much meaning any more, because the so-called “mainstream” doesn’t really exist. There’s mass appeal (which is often really just a bigger niche) and niche appeal, and the only thing that’s really changed is there are more opportunities for niches to expand their audience.

    As for self-publishing, it is what it is, and I agree that the stigma — more of an industry problem than a consumer problem — is starting to fade a bit. If the stigma bothers you, just buy a batch of ISBNs, give your imprint a name, publish one other writer, and you’re suddenly a small press and welcomed into the club!