End The Publishing Terminology or Be Damned

I read some wonderful things today. I also read a lot of crap. In my travails of the morning, afternoon and evening, I came across the words of writers I hold and respect dearly. There were also other words written by writers I know less about. I still discovered the occasional gem, and a few real stinkers. I browsed those words and felt various thoughts and feelings of bemusement, frustration, enlightenment, elation and inspiration. For all of us who love reading words – you know the path may yield beauty and charm, as well as its share of cruelty and ugliness.
No. I wasn’t on a carefree day off work sauntering through a bright book emporium with some spare cash thrust into my pocket eagerly before I left the house; hoping all the time, I might stumble upon a few literary gems tucked away on a shelf. I wasn’t inside a bookshop today. Here’s where I was.
AbsoluteWrite, here and here.
Rachelle Gardner, here and here.
I could add another ten, but I think this is enough to be going on with. all of the sites are excellent and highly reputable sources of information on publishing, digitization, author advice and writing in general. What is it that binds all the provided links together?
The self-publishing and vanity publishing debate was always there – the impetus to the most recent vociferous debates stem directly from this publishing news story from Thomas Nelson, and another from Harlequin over the past few weeks. The self and vanity publishing definition links are wikipedia’s. I will broadly go with their consensus. My take on it is that self-publishing is a process of book publication where all actions and rights are owned, controlled and directly implemented by the author. Vanity publishing is the process of a third-party company, for a fee, printing and publishing an author’s book often without the controls of professional literary merit and evaluation, editorial direction, structured and effective marketing, sales distribution, and physical store presence – and may also include the author committing to an agreed purchase of book stock.
What the hell. Sure you’re all at it now. So let’s throw in another label and definition into the pot. It’s a very simple one. A definition that has been around pretty much since the first printing press was rolled out of the yard.
It’s called PUBLISHING.
Here’s the definition.

“Publishing is the process of production and dissemination of literature or information – the activity of making information available for public view. In some cases authors may be their own publishers, meaning: originators and developers of content also provide media to deliver and display the content.

Traditionally, the term refers to the distribution of printed works such as books (the “book trade”) and newspapers. With the advent of digital information systems and the Internet, the scope of publishing has expanded to include electronic resources, such as the electronic versions of books and periodicals, as well as websitesblogsvideo games and the like.

Publishing includes: the stages of the development, acquisition, copyediting, graphic design, production – printing (and its electronic equivalents), and marketing and distribution of newspapers, magazines, books, literary worksmusical workssoftware and other works dealing with information, including the electronic media.

Publication is also important as a legal concept: (1) as the process of giving formal notice to the world of a significant intention, for example, to marry or enter bankruptcy; (2) as the essential precondition of being able to claim defamation; that is, the alleged libel must have been published, and (3) for copyright purposes, where there is a difference in the protection of published and unpublished works.”

When you consider the advent of print on demand and the how it supposedly introduced a new publishing model of business – my attention is particularly drawn to this historical definition and how it uncannily reflects the current arguments of print process, production and quality which exist between offset and digital printing.

“The overall invention of Gutenberg’s printing method depended for some of its elements upon a diffusion of technologies from China (East Asia), primarily the Chinese inventions and innovations of paper, in addition to a growing demand by the general European public for the lower cost paper books, instead of the exorbitantly expensive parchment books.[3]By 1424, Cambridge University library owned only 122 books—each of which had a value equal to a farm or vineyard.[3]The demand for these books was driven by rising literacy amongst the middle class and students in Western Europe.[3]At this time, the Renaissance was still in its early stages and the populace was gradually removing the monopoly the clergy had held on literacy.[3]

While woodblock printing had arrived in Europe at approximately the same time paper did, this method was not as suitable for literary communication as it was in the east.[3] Block printing is well-suited to the ancient written Chinesebecause character alignment is not critical, but the existence of over 100,000 ancient characters and hieroglyphic symbols made the ancient Chinese movable type technology somewhat inefficient and economically impractical affecting the profits of the ancient Chinese book publishers.[3] With the Latin alphabet, however, the need for precise alignment and a much simpler character set positioned movable type as a great advance for the west.[3]

I think this whole debate over the past few weeks has become anything but productive. The publishing debate has become far too insular. What I see is a traditional industry struggling to deal with the changes which digital print technology, social reach and online platforms have brought into the publishing forum. They see the authors, who were once at arms-length, in awe of the mystique of the publishing industry, and they don’t like the fact that they can see the whites of their authors’ eyes. The self-publishing fraternity, authors as well as services – I use the term self-publishing fearing I could be burned at the stake by the villagers – tend to re-invent themselves like kids every year thinking of something better to dress up as at Halloween. And, so, self-published authors become ‘indie’, yet many would die at the dagger to fall helplessly on the altar of Random House if a five figure advance was waved in their direction. The process these authors use to get their books out there becomes labeled as subsidy, assisted, partnership, paid-publishing – choose your weapon of self-publishing battle – just so long as it isn’t the dreaded word VANITY!    

We are in danger of reducting all debate down to a pittance. Mark Barrett over on Ditchwalk, to his credit, appraised YOGS Law for the first time, gobbled it up, and spat it back out in the best way he could to define the perimeters of the publishing world as it stands now, traditional as well as self-published routes of publishing. He was on the money if you’ll excuse the pun. But, then, put aside jingo publishing elitism and the arguments of where the money is expended, wasted or lost by publisher or author. 

“Money can flow in any direction you want, but it’s your job to know where every penny goes and what you’re getting for those pennies.”

We profess the quality of an industry that sees it perfectly fit to leave most authors with less than 10% of the profit, while publisher, printer, distributor, and retailer share like wolves the remaining 90%. Strange how we berate many reputable subsidy, partnership and true out-and-out self-publishing authors who can, and do, take more than 10% of the profits. True, 10% of nothing is nothing, and so much of what is self-published is crap. But unit for unit, and book for book published, there is a lot more ‘crap’ out there from traditional channels than will probably ever reach the light of day from the self-published fraternity.

So, some of the big boys in publishing have figured out that there is a few extra bucks to be made by offering self-publishing services – even a chance to cut the slush piles. Now, Thomas Nelson and Harlequin are the overnight harlots. Sold their souls to the devil in an instant. No. They just figured out that because publishing is business, then self-publishing is also part of that publishing business. I commend them, not so much in the cringe-worthy, less than upfront way they have gone about it, but that they have dared to challenge the industry myth so many authors wish to perpetuate and trot out, that traditional publishing in a modern age still preserves the originality and creativity of their authors, and would never take advantage or sell them short. Something only those loathsome vanity presses do.

I think it is time we dropped this debate, dropped the labels we some quickly assign to every description of book publishing, and focused on what is important – the book and the reader. Let them decide, because, quite frankly, they don’t give a shit about this debate. And when the shit does hit the shelves on our bookstores, from traditional or self-published channels, they’ll decide, and on that, we will all live and die as authors and publishers what every label we care to choose for our dressing.  

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