Why what you call a ‘publisher’ matters

Last week, I wrote about the differences, slim though they are, between vanity presses and subsidy presses.

In the comments, Jennifer wrote, “What a publisher calls itself does not matter. What matters are the terms of the contract.”

True. A company can call itself whatever it chooses, but whether it’s a true publisher or a vendor providing services depends on what’s in the contract, not its name.

But what the rest of us call these companies does matter. It troubles me to hear authors who’ve hired an author services vendor to produce their book refer to that company as “my publisher.”

It troubles me for two reasons. My first concern is that the author is deceived, and doesn’t understand how publishing works.

Subsidy publishing: Author pays printing company
Subsidy publishing: Author pays printing company

My second concern is that the author understands full well how publishing works, but is calling their vendor a publisher to fool people into thinking they have a “real” publisher. This is the kind of mindset Bernard Starr was talking about when he called traditional publishing “the new vanity publishing.”

I don’t entirely agree with Starr, but I understand where he’s coming from. His premise is that since it’s possible to publish your book with little or no cost, the only reason to bother with a publisher at all is because you crave the cachet of being one of the chosen few to be contracted by a bona fide royalty-paying publisher.

There is some truth to that.

But more to the point, as we’ve already seen, is that to produce a high-quality product, you have to shell out some bucks for editing, proofreading, and design. Given the choice, many of us would prefer to have someone else pay the bill.

In a way, it does matter what companies call themselves. I think it’s misleading for a vendor to call itself a publisher. “Publishing services” is better, but still a bit weasely. “Book producer” would be better.

The important thing, whatever route we take to publication, is that we are honest about it and don’t try to cloak what we’re doing in obscure nomenclature. If you hired a vendor to produce your book, you’re a publisher. Claim it with pride.

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