What’s the difference between indie, small press, and self-publishing?

printingpressWith the sudden blossoming of self-publishing, there have been various attempts to codify the movement that is leading away from (or at least providing more options in addition to) the traditional presses, and part of that debate has centered around what the brave eschewers of the Big Six ought to call ourselves.

Small press.  Independent press. Indie publishing. Self-published.  Vanity press.  Print on demand.  You’ve probably heard these words, and variations thereof, used pretty interchangeably by non-traditional authors.  But what exactly do each of these terms mean, and is there a difference between them?  What do readers need to know when browsing the virtual shelves, and how can authors use these terms to their advantage?

Small press or vanity press?

Small presses have probably gotten the shortest end of the stick when it comes to being swept up in the publishing revolution.  They are often confused with print-on-demand services, and more often labeled “vanity presses” that pump out bespoke books at exorbitant costs to make all those Jewish mothers out there proud.  A vanity press will accept the work of pretty much anyone who can pay for it, and they’ve been around for centuries.  I’ll get back to them later.

But a small press is simply a company operating under a more-or-less traditional publishing model that focuses on certain niches in the reader market.  They often produce five or fewer titles a year, and may have very narrow profit margins on small quantities of books, but they provide professional quality products.

They select their own catalogue, either through direct submissions or through literary agents, which allows them to say “no thanks” as they cultivate a list that might center around a topic such as a certain region’s history, an academic discipline, trade publications or magazines, or really specific genres like that vampire steampunk lesbian romance sci-fi time travel graphic novel you’ve been trying to sell.  Good luck with that.

Print-on-demand self-publishing services

Lulu, Createspace, Blurb, and Lightning Source are some of the most popular print-on-demand (or POD) services that have seen massive growth in the past few years.  And for good reason.  POD allows anyone to produce professional-quality printed books at the drop of a hat in whatever quantities they desire, often for a very low per-unit price.  It’s affordable, consumer-friendly, and offers distribution through major bookselling outlets like Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and the iTunes store.

POD is different from the aforementioned vanity press because you only pay for what you actually achieve.  Whereas a vanity press will ask you to pay up front for 500 copies of your steampunk vampire epic, a POD service will only create as many as you sell when you sell them, and will take their cut off the top of your list price.  The lower overhead will pass on savings to you and your readers, and generally leads to a happier, quicker, and more efficient publishing system.

POD services don’t screen their clients the way a small press will, and they don’t provide editing and design services unless you pay through the nose.  They produce a whole lot of really terrible content that hasn’t been properly vetted, because the most authors they can recruit, the more money they’ll make.  This is why a lot of traditional publishers absolutely hate the self-publishing trend, and why readers will often skip over a POD work just on principle.

Independent or “indie” publishing

Small presses are almost always independent (meaning they are not owned or operated by a larger publishing house), but not all independent publishing is conducted by small presses.  The term “indie publishing” has been adopted by everyone from Createspace devotees to earnest rockers silk-screening thrash metal zines onto artisan paper in their basements.

As far as I’m concerned, “indie” is just a kind of cool sounding label for people who have taken the road less traveled but want to escape the lingering stigma of being called a “self-publisher.”  It doesn’t mean much except “I have produced a sellable title without the help of a traditional publishing house.”  That’s a great accomplishment, no doubt about it, but if you really want to differentiate yourselves from the slapdash authors pumping out literary sewage through POD services, then try writing really good books that are edited, designed, and packaged by someone who knows what they’re doing.

That person might very well be you, of course.  I have my own imprint, Aenetlif Press, under which I publish my works.  I do my own editing.  I do my own book design.  But I use CreateSpace as my printer and I use Amazon and Smashwords as my distributers.  Am I an independent publisher operating a (very) small indie press?  Maybe, because I do take on other authors’ projects and use my skills to bring their works to market.

But I prefer to call myself a self-publisher, because that’s what I am.  I don’t think the stigma is there.  I don’t think it’s combative or revolutionary or rebellious to self-publish.  I don’t think it’s an act of opposition to the traditional publishing world.  I just think it’s fun.

If you’re an author, what do you like to call yourself?  If you’re a book lover, what terms instantly turn you off?  Let me know in the comments below!