TIPM Best of 2013: Self-Publishing is Dead – Long Live the Spirit of Self-Publishing!

TIPM is currently on a break for the holiday season and this is a repost from our Best of 2013 articles. We would like to take this opportunity to thank all our readers and subscribers for their continued support over the past year. We hope you have a prosperous holiday season and enjoy the time you spend with your loved ones and friends. 

I’ve been thinking for quite some time about abandoning the term self-publishing on TIPM. A discussion in the past week on ALLi’s (The Alliance of Independent Authors) Facebook community page encouraged me further to look at the use of the term.

Self-publishing is the publication of any book or other media by the author of the work, without the involvement of an established third-party publisher. A self-published physical book is said to be privately printed. The author is responsible and in control of entire process including design (cover/interior), formats, price, distribution, marketing & PR. The authors can do it all themselves or outsource all or part of the process to companies that offer these services.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term self-publish as:
[with object]
  • (of a writer) publish (a piece of one’s work) independently and at one’s own expense: eighteen months ago, he was an unknown writer who self-published his book with a minuscule print run of 20

  • (as adjective self-published) (of a writer) having published their work independently and at their own expense: a self-published author
Even the above definitions can be open to argument. In today’s publishing world, with a new player entering the market around every corner, defining what ‘an established third-party publisher’ can be is a tricky business. Should the emphasis be on ‘established,’ ‘publisher’ or both? Do we define any business that has made its mark in the industry to be established, or just one established as a business? Come to think of it, the term publisher is now open to question. Authors, agents and retailers can all be publishers. Looking at Wikipedia’s definition of a self-published physical book, we learn that ‘it is said to be privately printed.’ In that case, there are some authors out there earning a great deal of money from a book privately printed!
The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of self-publish as a verb is somewhat conservative, if even a little outdated, describing the publishing process as something carried out by ‘an unknown writer’ with ‘a minuscule print run.’ Many established authors are self-publishing in both print and ebooks, so neither definitions seem sufficient, up to date or all that accurate to describe modern self-publishing. In fact, attempting to define the role or process an author undertakes outside of the traditional publishing path seems destined to failure.
For me, the publishing process undertaken by an author or publishing house requires contracts, assistance and the partnership of outside professionals—whether paid for by the author or publishing house. Of course, if you are Walt Whitman, can typeset, operate a printing presses and bindery machines, maybe you can call yourself a true self-publisher if you are prepared to directly hand sell the finished book to booksellers and readers. Likewise, if you can write, edit, design and layout your latest opus and load it to Amazon’s Kindle, you, too, could be considered a true self-publisher. But the chances are—while you may be skilled at one or two elements of the required publishing process—at some point you will require the services and assistance of skilled professionals and they will all expect payment in some way.
So here is the big declaration and kicker.

Self-publishing is dead—even for those authors who own a block of ISBNs and an imprint. Unless you happen to have an old printing press hidden in the basement or garage, a modern POD industrial Xerox or Hewlett-Packard book printer and a quite remarkable array of skills from editing to design, beyond writing your book and doing your damn best to promote and market it to anyone who will listen, there is no SELF in the process of publishing you currently undertake. Everything self-published authors do requires the advice, assistance and services of professionals—that is, to get it from your PC into the hands of your readers. If you think you can really SELF-publish, without the help of anyone, then you are either a very rare and gifted individual, or a very deluded one with a vastly inferior book product compared to most professionally published books in the marketplace.
I would actually argue that modern self-publishing has more to do with community and collaboration (whether through crowdsourcing, social media or co-operative projects) than it has as an endeavour driven by one single person. As much as a self-published author can want to direct and control the publication of a book, rarely is there a time in an author’s life when he/she realises the importance and input of a professional network—whether that network is via direct services or the collaboration of editors and designers. I previously examined the use of the word SELF in self-publishing here—Time We All Took The Self From Self-Publishing.
The term self-publishing is now something that I’m going to try and avoid using, not alone because it can mean different things to different authors—operating an imprint with ISBNs for your books, as opposed to using one of many publishing and assisted services—but because the term itself is antiquated and highly misleading. I’d prefer to use the term author publishing, favoured by ALLi founder, Orna Ross. Perhaps the commonly used term today is indie author or indie publishing. I think the indie term, like self-publishing, is also a little misleading and has been adopted from the music industry by the self-publishing community. I’ve always found it ironic that self-published authors adopted the term, because it was actually used by music business marketers to describe a genre of alternative music, and not the act, process, label or artists. To be ‘indie,’ you have to be independent of something or someone, and not just independent of anything and everything. And to those who will say that indie authors are independent of Big Publishing—they are not! Indie authors—if that is how they want to be described—often work with the same industry professionals, services and partners as the biggest of the big publishers.
By all means leave a comment and let me know what you believe should replace the term self-publishing.
But for now…
Self-publishing is dead. Long live the spirit of self-publishing.

Mick Rooney – Publishing Consultant

If you found this review or article helpful, but you’re still looking for a suitable self-publishing provider to fit your needs as an author, then I’m sure I can help. As a publishing consultant and editor of this magazine, I’ve reviewed and examined in detail more than 150 providers throughout the world like the one above. As a self-published and traditionally published author of nine books, I understand your needs on the path to publication and beyond. So, before you spend hundreds or thousands, and a great deal of your time, why not book one of my personally tailored and affordable consultation sessions today? Click here for more details.
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