Recently I ran across this column: “I Lost $6,500 on My Last Book Launch”.
Reading both the article and the comments, I was struck once again by how different people use the phrase “self-publishing” to mean different things. What it means to me (and to most of the authors I am contact with) is “to publish oneself”.
That is to say, the majority of the self-publishers I know do the bulk of the work of publishing themselves. We write, we edit, we design the books, we promote the books, we pretty much do the entire enchilada in house. That’s not to say that self-publishers don’t hire subcontractors to do part of the work, line editing or cover design or such, just that they control the process.
However, I’ve also noticed that there are those who use “self-publishing” to mean what I would call “subsidy publishing”.
Subsidy publishing is not necessarily a bad thing. It simply means that the author enters into an arrangement with a publisher in which the author pays the upfront costs instead of giving the publisher the copyright and receiving a royalty on book sales (and possibly an advance against those royalties.)
It can be a bad thing, because some subsidy presses are less than honorable in their business dealings. We call those vanity presses, but while all vanity presses are subsidy presses, not all subsidy presses are vanity presses.
Subsidy presses have been around for a long time. Before e-books and print on demand they were about the only way that small market material could get published. Books about local history, specialized technical works, handbooks for hobbyists–there are a lot of works that have a market, but not a market large enough to interest a traditional publisher. It was simply not cost effective for most publishers to buy a manuscript that would only sell a few thousand copies.
With a subsidy press, however, an author could pay a company to edit, format, and print a book, and then sell the copies him- or herself. The author retains the copyright, the press simply does the work of turning the manuscript into a book for a fee.
An honest subsidy press (and there were and are such companies) will offer services for a set fee, usually per word or per page and do editing, proofreading, typesetting, printing, often warehousing and fulfillment. There are fewer such companies these days because authors have more options, but there are many who have adapted to e-books and print on demand and the other changes to the publishing industry.
Subsidy publishing was and is a valid option for authors, and with some research it is possible for an author to find a reputable company. However, I don’t believe that subsidy publishing is the same thing as self-publishing.
And I think this confusion causes a lot of arguments. I read articles and comments from people who say that they think that self-publishers must have “professional” cover design and book design and so on. In my opinion, if you are paying a professional to do all of these things, then it’s not self-publishing, it’s subsidy publishing. And if you don’t like self-published works by authors who do these things for themselves, then you don’t like self-published works.