Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Finding the Words

Just as many of us suffer from innumeracy—the inability to think rationally about large numbers—many of us also tend to assume that if something has been a certain way for a long time that is how the thing is supposed to be. This is very much the case right now in the world of publishing.

For a substantial portion of the last century and most of the first decade of this, the publishing industry has been defined by the logistics of distributing books to bookstores and the companies controlling that channel. There were innovations, like mass-market paperbacks and book stands in supermarkets and big-box retailers, but none of these changed the fundamental distribution pattern. Setting yourself up as a publisher required a second-mortgage-level investment to print books and a tremendous amount of legwork to arrange for distribution.

Everything changed with the advent of electronic publication. The barrier to entry was reduced to little more than the time and effort required to write the book and some initial, minimal expenses like purchasing ISBN numbers. While electronic publishing doesn’t provide an easy avenue into bookstores, for a variety of reasons their importance has waned in the last few years. The number of new, e-book-only small presses attests to the viability of the new model.

Change is difficult for many reasons. One of the subtle but most vexing ones is that our ability to describe and define the change always lags the change itself. What we used to call simply publishing (or commercial publishing if we needed to distinguish between the standard pattern, where authors were paid by publishers, from vanity publishing, where authors paid publishers) now gets qualified with words like, “traditional,” “legacy,” or even, “dinosaur.” The swelling ranks of individuals taking advantage of the opportunities offered by electronic publishing use these terms to help define what they are doing differently. And now we're awash in terms like, “self-publishing,” “independent” or “indie publishing” (an attempt to align with the success and credibility of independently produced, or indie, films), and even arguments that trading a 70% royalty for a 15% royalty and recognition by a publisher is a new kind of vanity publishing.

The problem with all those labels is that they speak primarily in terms of how you are not publishing. “Traditional,” implies you’re not publishing through the new electronic media, or that you’re not using those channels well. “Self,” and, “Independent,” imply that you’re not publishing with partners.

So how are you publishing if you choose to do it yourself?

The label that fits best is, “Artisan Publishing.”

An artisan, according to Webster, “is one trained to manual dexterity in some mechanical art, mystery, or trade; a hand-craftsman; a mechanic.”

In its current usage, “artisan,” suggests craftsmanship and pride in one’s work, which of all the reasons bandied about for undertaking to publish your own work is the only one—as we shall see in the coming weeks—that stands up to scrutiny.

Image: Simon Howden /

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