Nowadays there is so much activity in the non-traditional publishing space that authors sometimes become confused by all the seemingly random terms being thrown around by various companies. And who can blame them? For one, many of the terms are so new or broad that it seems like many companies fall into more than one category. And the non-traditional publishers are not doing themselves any favors by sometimes mudding these waters in their marketing efforts to broaden their potential client base.
In spite of some of the liberties that many of these companies take, there are some generally agreed-upon, broad stroke definitions that may help writers successfully navigate this tricky terrain of the wild-wild publishing west.
“Traditional Publisher” is the most commonly-used term to define publication whereby the author submits a manuscript (typically through an agent) and if the manuscript is accepted (a big if), the publisher not only foots the entire cost of the publication but in many cases also rewards the author with some kind of an advance. In most writing circles, this is far and away the most desired type of publication. But did you see that big “if” up there? That “if” is why traditional publication now trail non-traditional publication for the majority of books being published.
Here’s where things get messy, because the terms self-publishing, vanity publishing, independent publishing, ebook publishing, hybrid publishing, author-assisted publishing, and others have all been used to define an equally-established, yet rapidly growing segment of the non-traditional publishing space. Some terms hold more malice/stigma than others, and hence we experience the non-traditional publishers’ creative methods of removing said malice/stigma by arriving upon yet another term, thus adding to the confusion.
Almost all of these non-traditional publishing companies can correctly fall within the broadest term among the bunch: self-publishing. If you are not accepted by a traditional publisher, you are therefore publishing your book yourself, in one manner or another, and you’re either doing so with your own time and/or money, or both. In this broadest of definitions, you are therefore self-publishing your book.
But among that broad definition exist more specific definitions as companies attempt to carve out marketing- or service-oriented niches in this growing segment of the publishing business. “Vanity publishing” is a term that is falling by the wayside as “self-publishing” becomes more accepted while the traditionalists who introduced “vanity publishing” in the first place are losing interest in participating in a losing battle.
Independent publishing is now most often associated with the process whereby an author wears all, or nearly all, the hats involved in publishing the book without the assistance of a company, online platform, or publishing service. He/she vets cover designers, vets interior designers, requests quotes from off-set printers, works with wholesalers, distributors, and retailers, markets, and handles all the financials (positive, like book sales and negative, like printer bills and taxes). That’s a lot of work for most people, especially writers who tend to gravitate toward right-brained abilities. But for the proper author with the right tenacity and author platform, this is still a viable way to go.
Contributing to the slow demise of “independent publishing” is the rise of publishing services and online platforms, which promise to do most of the work (mentioned above) for the author while still leaving all the rights, royalties, and creative control in the hands of the author. There are some “self publishing companies” that offer these services for a fee, much like when one pays for the services of a doctor, lawyer, accountant, hair stylist, etc.; and there are some online, computerized self publishing platforms that offer these services for free. The right choice typically comes down to the author’s budget and the author’s own faith in their work or the quality they desire for their masterpiece. It’s rarely difficult to identify a book published by a service-oriented company compared against one published by a conglomerate’s algorithm.
Hybrid publishing is a term cropping up more and more these days and is the closest cousin, in terms of pure business model, to the now nearly defunct “vanity publishing.” In most cases, this business model requires the author to relinquish their rights (and often the rights of their future books) while also promising to purchase a set number of books (typically in the 1000s) in exchange for “free publishing” on the hybrid publisher’s dime. Like independent publishing, this can sometimes work for authors already possessing a successful author platform and a lot of tenacity since the initial investment is usually roughly the same as with independent publishing. Since hybrid publishers often sell their own authors book quantities in the 1000s, they are more likely to use off-set printing to lower per-unit costs. While that helps keep the retail price down, it becomes channeling for the author is he/she is not confident they have the marketing prowess to sell 1000s of books.