Back around the turn of the century, a certain author mill headquartered in Frederick, Maryland decided it wanted to distance itself from the business model of the then-new print-on-demand self-publishing services--because even though it followed most of the same practices (little editorial gatekeeping, minimal distribution, no marketing, and reliance on digital technology), it didn't charge an upfront fee, and even paid a miniscule "advance." So it invented the term "traditional publisher"--intended specifically to denote a publisher that did not require its authors to pay upfront, and thus was not a vanity publisher.
"Traditional publisher" has come into wide usage over the past ten years. This is unfortunate, for it's a meaningless term. Commercial or trade publishing, in which authors are not required to pay for publication, is neither more nor less traditional than vanity publishing or self-publishing, both of which have been around for just as long. Also, the simple fact that a publisher doesn't charge an upfront fee may not mean much. Plenty of amateur publishers charge no upfront fees. Plenty of stealth vanities shift their fees to the back end. The fact that a publisher calls itself "traditional" tells you nothing whatever about its business model.
Into the publishing-related euphemism game now comes POD self-publishing juggernaut Author Solutions. In a recent widely-promoted "white paper," The Next Indie Revolution, it attempts to re-brand itself, and services like it, as "indie book publishers."
The term "independent book publisher" has a long-established and well-understood meaning: a publisher that is not owned by a larger company. Knopf, for instance, is an imprint of Random House, which is owned by Bertlesmann; although it has an independent identity within the company, it's part of a conglomerate and thus not an independent publisher (any longer. Like many large-house imprints, it used to be). Macadam/Cage, on the other hand, is not owned by a larger company. It is an independent publisher.
Sensibly, Author Solutions doesn't try to pretend that it offers independence in that sense. (Author Solutions is, in fact, a conglomerate: starting originally with AuthorHouse, it recently acquired rival services iUniverse, Xlibris, and Trafford, turning these formerly independent companies into "brands" in a process reminiscent of the way that large trade publishing houses have acquired formerly independent publishers and turned them into imprints). Instead, it attempts to attach a new meaning to "independent publisher," or rather the hipper "indie publisher": not a publisher independent of larger corporate control, but a publisher of "independent" writers. Invoking the example of indie films and indie music, in which artists bypassed big studios and big music labels to finance the creation of their own works and market them directly to the public, AS announces that "Now it's publishing's turn."
Over the last decade, as new technologies have emerged, the obstacles that once loomed in front of prospective authors have all but vanished. Since the introduction of print-on-demand technology and the Internet bookstore, the process of getting a book to market is following the pattern previously established in film and music. It's not longer necessary for authors to wait years for someone else to put their book on the market. Now, through indie book publishing companies like AuthorHouse and iUniverse, authors can let the reader decide if their book is any good or not.
This analogy doesn't hold up, however. Those independent filmmakers and musicians didn't pay a company to package and market their work, they did it themselves. They're equivalent to the true self-publishing author, who coordinates the entire publishing process on his or her own--not to writers who buy publishing packages from self-publishing services. If you sign a contract with a self-publishing company, you are not an independent writer, no matter how emphatically the self-pub company says you are.
AS is eager also to establish that these new "indie book publishing companies," which provide a service that it dubs "supported self-publishing," are not the same as vanity publishers. Unlike vanity publishers, AS claims, supported self-publishing services make books available through major retail and online channels, offer additional editing and marketing services, and don't require authors to buy their own books. But this argument doesn't hold up either. Today's vanity publishers, most of which have switched to digital technology and use the exact same printers as the self-publishing services, do or don't do all those things as well.
The irony of all this indie-ing, of course, is that it offers indirect proof of something that AS, and many of its clients, would no doubt hotly deny: like the stigma attached to vanity publishing, the stigma attached to self-publishing is still alive and well. Otherwise, why be so eager to adopt a euphemism?
Having declared that the commercial book trade is in crisis ("According to Nielsen BookScan, fewer than 10 percent of new titles published in the US in 2007 sold more than 1,000 copies in their first year"--a percentage that's seriously skewed by the fact that it applies to all new titles, including vast numbers of self-published books, for which sales average fewer than 200 copies), and implied that reality for a self-published author isn't really all that different than for a commercially published author ("[T]today, even if your name is Clancy or Rowling, you will do your own marketing"--a glib claim that ignores the fact that post-publication promotion is not the same as pre-publication marketing), AS draws to a grand conclusion, envisioning a brave new world in which all is vanity:
There's no argument that the independent publishing model is changing the book-publishing industry; the only question left is how soon it will become the standard, and how quickly traditional publishing houses will adapt to this model to remain profitable and continue to discover new talent. That's the next chapter.
So all you would-be "traditional" authors, start saving, because that book your agent just submitted to Doubleday? Next year, you just might have to pay to publish it.
Sadly, I'm not entirely joking. See this post from Jane Smith's How Publishing Really Works blog on what may be a new trend: commercial publishers making referrals to self-publishing services, or establishing their own pay-to-publish divisions.