Why I Loathe the Term “Self Publishing”

You'll occasionally see me use the term "self publishing" here simply because of its common use among indie authors. But I hate that phrase. Hate, hate, hate it. If you want to call yourself a self publisher, by all means do so. There's nothing wrong with that. My biggest issue with it is when people throw that term around to describe others, including myself.

"Self Publishing" Implies DIY

Self publishing has a bad name for good reason. It's an umbrella term. And it encompasses the amateur DIY crowd -- hobbyists who throw together their own books with no professional help and who for whatever reason think they're above needing an editor. When we blog, we're self publishers. When we publish books, I think there needs to be more involved when we want to do more than publish just to see our own names in print.

I am not a "self publisher." I do not do everything myself. My nonfiction book going through the first round of edits right now won't see the light of day until a variety of professionals have been brought in:

  • Beta readers
  • A line editor
  • A proofreader
  • A cover designer
  • A typesetter
  • A printer

That's a pretty bare bones setup. And there's nothing "self" about it. I don't like the label thrown around, lumping me in with people who slap together a book so they can call themselves authors. Some writers accept that term in a broader sense and don't mind it. But I'm not one of them. I chose the "indie" label for good reason. It's more accurate when it comes to what I do.

The "Indie" Label

You may know that I come from a strong background in the "indie" world. Not only have I been independently e-publishing for years, but before I started making my living entirely as a writer I ran a small PR firm. My work revolved around independent artists at that point, largely in indie music -- where many of our "indie" preconceptions come from.

Even then I had issues with indie labels -- using "indie" as a marketing tool more than anything. In reality, you'd be surprised at how similarly many artists are treated regardless of the size of the label. And so-called indie publishing companies do the same thing in this industry. But being a small publisher doesn't make them independent. It just makes them a smaller publisher. And being an author working with one doesn't make you independent either. "Indie" is doing things your own way. You don't work with publisher. You don't have someone else calling the shots on who to bring in and how many copies to release.

"Indie" is different than contracting with a larger entity that brings your product to market under their name, label, or imprint. But it's also different than DIY. All it means is that you are in the driver's seat. You call the shots. You hand-pick and hire the best people possible for the individual job rather than accepting whomever a publisher has in-house or on call or hiring some generic company with claims that they can do it all. What makes indies stand out is the fact that they not only accept these responsibilities, but they embrace the challenge to independently finance their projects and make the best choices possible. And they aren't naive enough to think they're qualified to do everything themselves.

The "indie" label has certainly been tarnished in its own right by the small companies using it for the marketing advantage. But no matter what small firms choose to call themselves, "indie" is still the more accurate term to describe what a lot of authors are doing in this day and age.

So those who want the self publishing label can keep it. It's not for me. You won't see it mentioned a lot here. And now you know why. I consider it inaccurate. And I think it paints professional independent authors in a negative light from the get-go. For now I'll stick to "indie." In the long run I look forward to the day we're seen as "published" regardless of the imprint or lack thereof behind us. I just don't see that happening as long as the masses continue to cling to that "self" label and its understandably negative implications.

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Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, consultant, and indie author. She runs numerous websites & blogs including All Freelance Writing, Freelance Writing Pros, NakedPR, and Kiss My Biz.

Jenn has 25 years' experience as a professional writer and editor and over 20 years' experience in marketing and PR (working heavily in digital PR, online marketing, social media, SEO, new media, and thought leadership publication). She also has 19 years' professional blogging and web publishing experience (including web development) and around 18 years of experience as an indie author / publisher.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names and is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.

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7 thoughts on “Why I Loathe the Term “Self Publishing””

  1. Jennifer,
    You’ve made me think. Most of my editing clients are indie publishers. I have been using the term self-publishing because that’s all I had heard when I started doing this. Either I totally missed it or the term “indie publishing” didn’t get used much until quite recently. And I’d been using self-publishing for so long, it was a habit, although I have been using indie more lately.

    My big pet peeve is “self-publishing companies.” I’ve argued that authors who use a so-called “self-publishing company” aren’t really self-publishing–or indie publishing. They are subsidy publishing because they are just paying a company to do everything for them. With what I have called self-publishing up until now and you call indie publishing, the author has the final responsibility for all decisions and all costs, though he or she hires professionals to handle various aspects of the project.

    • I think you bring up a good point about using terms out of habit. “Indie publishing” has been around, but the small publishing companies claimed it as their own — rightfully or not — so authors started using something different, and I’d say inaccurate, for the most part. “Self publishing” is a label I could never embrace. I’d be hoping to drop the “self” aspect altogether and be looked at as an equal to traditionally published authors. And someday sure, I’d like to see people blur the lines on the consumer end.

      But “indie” is something I’m happy to embrace not because it’s rebellious the way indie music was at first (not so much anymore), but because I think you have the potential to make your book even better when you go the indie route. Of course “potential” doesn’t always equal reality. Traditional publishers put out some great books. They put out plenty of garbage too. And most falls somewhere in between. And I feel that any responsible indie author can do better than the bulk of traditionally published books by taking on that responsibility of assembling the right team and coming up with the right plan. Some are cut out for that. Many are not, and there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s where traditional publishers will probably still play a significant role for a long time. Not everyone has it in them to be a successful entrepreneur — what an indie author is — and we’ve known that to be true for decades, if not centuries now.

      And I agree with you 100% about those POD subsidy publishers that seem to oversaturate the market these days. They lend a false sense of legitimacy by promising “expert” help in editing and cover design and whatnot, and it’s rarely if ever true (if ever, I’ve yet to see it). That’s fine for hobbyists or the vanity crowd who just want to see their name in print. If you want to be competitive these days you have to do better than that. And there’s nothing “indie” about subsidy publishing. You still leave the decisions largely up to someone else and lose too much influence in the quality control process. Not even an option in my mind.

    • I completely agree. To the TPC3, the indie label implies creating your own publishing company (which is what we did). Self-publishing is for vanity and subsidy presses, such as LuLu, Createspace, and Xlibris. When you buy your own ISBNs; find your own cover designers, typesetters, and editors; and distribute/promote, you’re an indie publisher.

  2. Great post. Great response. Conversation, just as it should be.

    Pet peeve in publishing world:

    I am in the process of starting a small press. Everyone I talk to says the same thing, no matter how successful they are:

    “Don’t do it!” They tell me.

    Come on. Why is everyone in this industry, Indie or not, so pessimistic about publishing? As if there just slaving away, miserable, trying to make ends meat.

    You should be in this business for the love of sharing knowledge, culture, etc. And your making money doing it. How about a little encouragement and embrace to the future of knowledge and culture.

    My 2 cents.

    • I think people who are generally pessimistic about publishing are just shortsighted. On one hand they look at publishing’s problems as entirely the industry’s own fault (they’re not — they happened during a huge economic recession for a reason, they were far from the only businesses hurt, and as always many will recover when those times pass). And on the other hand they’re blinded by the likes of e-books and ereaders. Ten years from now see how many people are still reading their e-books put out today. It won’t be the indefinite sales some think it is, and that’s already been shown in e-publishing (which has been around a hell of a lot longer than those precious ereaders). And look how many Kindles will still be around. They’re new toys. And the money isn’t in making them last. It’s in making sure they don’t and that you constantly have to upgrade. People are frequently blinded by fads and assume that what’s hot now will continue to be for the foreseeable future. I prefer being a bit more realistic. And the reality is that print books aren’t going anywhere. Should e-books be ignored? Absolutely not. But it doesn’t mean you can’t be successful with a small press. You just have to go into it with your eyes wide open, the budget to do it right, and the business and marketing sense to help your company (and its books) stand out.

  3. Thanks for clearing up some confusion for me. I was wondering what ‘indie’ publishing meant as opposed to ‘self-publishing’ and now I gather it’s short for independent (rather than individual which was my original guess).
    I’ve simply been telling people that I’ve published my novel without specifying how. It is available on Kindle vi amazon and looks professional because it is. The cover was designed by a graphic designer friend and the book has been proof read more than once by editor pals.
    I have been reading and writing for years – even completing an MA in Creative writing under Andrew Motion – and got fed up with novels sitting on my laptop. The standard reply from agents when I submitted Tom’s Daughters was: ‘yes, you can write, but we’re not sure it’s right for our list’.
    Not enough sex and violence? Am I not famous enough to bring in the readers?
    I write good women’s fiction. Critical friends have confirmed this. Putting the book out there under my own steam was the only sensible way forward.
    Is this Indie publishing?


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