Publishing · Self-publishing

What’s in a Name?

Image credit: Hay Kranens. Public domain | Wikimedia Commons
Image credit: Hay Kranens. Public domain | Wikimedia Commons

Well, quite a lot, it would seem…

I was recently talking to a self-published author who said that she didn’t like the term “self-published”. To her, it reeked of the snobbery and disparagement that has often accompanied any debate about – er – self-publishing, and which accompanies it still. She’d heard it used as a put-down just a few times too many, and to her it had become almost a term of abuse. She preferred to be called an “indie” or “independent author and publisher”.

Well, that’s okay by me, but straight away things start to get slightly complicated. The problem is that there are others who object to self-publishers being called “indie”. By long association, they maintain, “indie” is used to denote small, independent publishing houses, which are quite distinct from self-publishers. Using the terms interchangeably, they argue, is incorrect, muddies the water, and is possibly even deliberately disingenuous.

Well, how on earth are we to navigate this semantic minefield? Personally, I’m quite happy to use both terms, but I don’t want to offend anyone. I also like the term “author-publisher”, which is increasingly common and, I think, uncontentious (though, God knows, even things that seem uncontentious can sometimes prove to be immensely controversial). I can certainly see the value of accuracy; definitions, after all, matter a great deal to writers. But, on the other hand…

It all has a habit of getting a bit murky, you see. Some would argue that if you are publishing anything (even if it’s only one or two books, and those books were authored by you) then you are, in effect, a micro-publisher – and, therefore, an indie. Besides, there are an increasing number of self-publishers who are officially publishers – in the sense that they have registered as such with HM Revenue and Customs, pay taxes on their earnings and, in essence, do everything that small business owners traditionally do. I suspect that, in the future, their numbers will grow. Are these authors indies, or not?

It gets murkier still. There are more and more instances of people using self-publishing platforms – Amazon KDP and the like, CreateSpace and Lulu, and small online bookstores – to publish works they did not author. (An example that springs to mind is Ayton Publishing, which specialises in the works of the Victorian author S.R. Crockett. Ayton Publishing’s founder, Cally Phillips, is herself a self-published author, but set up Ayton specifically to republish Crockett’s books.) Is this indie publishing, or not? Other authors, realising that there’s strength in numbers, are forming author collectives, which – I believe – function in much the same way as small publishing houses, except that the owners and executives are also the authors who are being published. Is this self-publishing, indie publishing, or something else entirely?

Image credit: Lesekreis | Wikimedia Commons

The word “indie” has already undergone something of a transition. I ran across this definition, which I rather like, here:

“The word ‘indie’ traditionally refers to independent art – music, film, literature or anything that fits under the broad banner of culture – created outside of the mainstream and without corporate financing.”

I find that pretty fair and inclusive. Others, no doubt, would beg to differ. The problem is that the usage of the word “indie”, like that of many others (“awesome” and “gay” spring to mind) – and like language itself – has evolved, and will no doubt continue to evolve. To many people, “self-published” and “indie” are now exchangeable terms. Any attempt to turn back the linguistic tide may be Canute-like, and probably destined to meet with about as much success. (I should know; I have to resign myself, much against my wishes, to living in a world in which “awesome”, to many people, means “very good”.) Once a given usage of a given word has gained sufficient momentum, there’s probably nothing that can be done to stop it.

Those blurred boundaries will probably become still more blurred in the future. I’ve a sneaking suspicion that self-publishing, of at least an occasional variety, will become more common even amongst traditionally-published authors, just as more self-publishers will cross over into traditional publishing. Author collectives, and authors who are also officially publishers, will probably become more common. Which will leave us with the little problem of how exactly they should be denoted…

What do people think?

14 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. Very interesting post – and the debate goes on. I quite like that term ‘Indie’ and to be honest, I’m happy to ignore any small publisher who wants to reserve that term for themselves! (I reckon if it upsets them, that’s their problem not mine.) I publish some of my work under the Wordarts imprint – I published a non-fiction eBook by my son under that imprint as well. I’m a micro-business/sole trader. Film makers, for example, don’t have this problem with the word. You can get somebody calling him or herself an ‘indie’ film maker as an individual and the slightly larger companies don’t seem to object. In fact in that world, snobbery seems to be in short supply. I don’t know why it looms so large in literature, but you’re right – it does.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Catherine! Lots of people like the term ‘indie’, but I’m aware that there are others who think it’s misleading; but then, on the other hand, there are very many grey areas, and organisations/individuals that seem to straddle the two worlds – like Wordarts. I also think that the transition in meaning has already taken place to a large extent. Then again, I can sort of see the other side of the argument, too! It will be interesting to see how this particular semantic question resolves itself in the future…

  2. Actually, I just got caught in an infinite loop – I was wondering what the semantics of the word ‘semantics’ would be 🙂 Alas, I digress.

    To be honest, you can call me an author, an indie, a self-published snob – heck, you can really call me whatever you want. If I can write something that makes you think – and more importantly – feel, I will accept any name you send in my direction 🙂

    1. Do you know, Dave, I think you might just have the right attitude. I think we sometimes get so hung up on the mode of publication that we forget the most basic and most important thing – namely, is this person’s writing actually any good? Thanks for commenting!

  3. Well, you know my take on it all, Mari. Independent publishers are independent publishers and self-publishers are self-publishers. If you self-publish then that’s what you do – of itself, neither a cause for shame or for pride. Indie does seem to imply that the writer is somehow innovating or rebelling, which doesn’t apply to most of the self-published work that I’ve seen. There’s also a rather disingenuous suggestion that the corporate buck has been refused when in fact it has almost certainly never been offered in the first place. I haven’t so far persuaded a publishing house to put my fiction into print. There it is. I can live with that and it’s the publishers’ loss. Personally, I feel no compulsion to proclaim myself as a ‘published’ novelist to validate what I do.

    1. And a different take on it is exactly what we need, Paul! To some extent, I agree with you, too. I’m sometimes disturbed by that very lack of innovation and rebellion – though, to be fair, it may simply be that such works tend, by their very nature, to be less visible. And, whatever their experiences of the corporate buck, there are probably far too many self-publishers who are interested in bucks at the expense of all else. However, and as I’ve said before, I truly hope that one day your novels will be published – and I think that the precise means by which that publication occurs might be a relatively minor matter.

  4. Thanks, Mari. And I hope that yours are traditionally published – or some future equivalent – because they deserve a much wider audience. And therein lies part of the problem – excellent writing like your own gets drowned out in the ever-expanding universe of self-published words, most of which are regrettably space junk, I’m afraid.

  5. I remember an angry screed written by agent Sarah LaPolla some years back, where she railed against the use of “indie” for self-publishers. That was the first I’d heard of there being any controversy in calling myself an indie. I remember being puffed up in umbrage, but now? Not so much.

    I call myself a writer. I call myself published. I call myself an author-publisher, because that seems the most descriptive. I shy away from “indie” a bit, simply because a lot of horrible writing flies that banner and I don’t want to scare any potential readers. In the end, I believe that people should call themselves what they would like to be called, and possibly provide a definition on their author website.

    Thank you for another thoughtful post!


    1. Hello Aniko, and thanks for commenting! I like ‘author-publisher’ too, which is indeed descriptive and wouldn’t (I think) ruffle too many feathers. I’ve gone off ‘indie’ a bit as well – and for much the same reasons as you – but I’m aware that it’s the preferred term of some. Semantics, eh? 🙂

      1. It seems the people most upset about independent author-publishers calling themselves “indie” are those who represent the traditional viewpoint. And, yes, semantics! Semantics mixed with a lot of territorial angst is yet another “benefit” of the traditional vs. indie debate!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.