Independent authors believe every self-publisher is a revolutionary. Gatekeepers in traditional publishing think self-publishers are losers, at least until those same losers use their self-publishing success to humbly petition for a book deal. Vanity publishers insist all self-publishers are overlooked geniuses, and happily back up that assertion with high-priced services and promises they never intend to keep.
All of these definitions are unhelpful at best, self-serving at worst. In order to talk about self-publishing with any legitimacy we need a way to differentiate among self-publishers that is meaningful and objective. For that reason I created the Ditchwalk Self-Publishing Scale, which uses rising levels of production complexity to categorize self-published authors.
Patrice Writes A Book
To see the Ditchwalk Scale in action, we’ll follow a writer named Patrice as she transitions from category to category, cutting a self-publishing swath deep into the heart of the publishing industry.
D0 – aka the Nobody, the Starving Artist, the Purist
Patrice writes a book. She tries writing query letters and submitting chapters to agents and editors, but tires of the condescension and interminable delays. Patrice looks at the available self-publishing options, checks her bank account, and decides she has no choice but to do everything herself if she wants to make her work available to readers.
While preparing her book Patrice gets cover-design software help from a friend of a friend. She also has several friends read the book for typos and usage errors, and gets e-book and print-on-demand (POD) formatting help from online forums.
Because she does not pay anyone to help create her self-published work, Patrice is a D0 self-publisher on the Ditchwalk Scale.
D1 – aka the Aspirant, the Indy Author, the Realist
Patrice’s self-published book does well. It doesn’t bring in enough money to pay the rent, but it’s enough to encourage her to write a second book, which she does.
When she’s ready to publish her second title Patrice decides she wants professional help. She learned a lot publishing her first work herself, but with her second title she wants a more professional look and feel. Patrice hires a cover designer, and a professional proofreader to check her text before she locks it down.
Patrice is now a D1 self-publisher because she paid people to help her prepare her book for manufacturing.
D2 — aka the Communicator, the Serious Writer, the Professional
Patrice’s second book gets buzz but also draws criticism. She is recognized as a good writer, but there’s general agreement that the pace of the book might have benefited from tightening.
Patrice takes the criticism to heart. She realizes she needs trained eyes not only on her cover but on her content as well. When she finishes the first draft of her third title Patrice hires a freelance editor to help overcome blindness to her own work.
Because she hired someone to help shape the content of her work, Patrice is a D2 self-publisher on the Ditchwalk Scale.
D3 — aka the Multitasker, the Player, the Gig
Patrice’s third title receives solid critical response. Even better, it prompts renewed sales of her first two titles, generating a fair amount of income for several months.
While contemplating her fourth book Patrice realizes she can tie it in with an upcoming cultural event. When Patrice outlines the book and works up a schedule, however, she discovers she won’t be able to finish the book in time to take advantage of the opportunity.
In a moment of inspiration Patrice decides to hire another writer to help her. The subcontracted writer will do research and write several first-draft sections of the time-sensitive title while Patrice works on the rest of the book. Patrice will then revise the entire work in her own voice and rush it into production using the team that helped produce her previous titles.
Paying someone to write original content for a book she is authoring makes Patrice a D3 self-publisher.
D4 — aka the Luncher, the Writer Lover, the Editor
Patrice’s time-sensitive title brings in considerable cash. Patrice acknowledges the contracted writer’s contribution both in the book and in interviews.
Excited by the possibility of replicating this success Patrice lays out a book series that takes similar advantage of predictable cultural moments. While she recognizes that there’s a risk in launching a series, she knows she can subcontract other writers to write part or all of each first draft, leaving her free to provide overarching editorial control while also working on her own book.
After weighing the pros and cons Patrice decides to go a step further. She starts a small press and hires writers to write first drafts in the series using stepped contracts, with the intent of keeping them on as the credited writer if they do a good job or she runs short of time to finish the books herself.
Hiring other writers to write books under her editorial control makes Patrice a D4 self-publisher on the Ditchwalk Scale.
D5 — aka the Visionary, the Baby Mogul, the Publisher
Some of Patrice’s sub-contracted titles pan out, others flop. Patrice learns from the experience and finds herself contemplating even more ideas for books. She maps out several possible schedules for the coming year, but no matter how she juggles titles and writers she comes up short of time to write, edit and release those books. Patrice realizes she needs to start a dedicated business with in-house editors overseeing aspects of projects that don’t need her direct supervision.
For those titles that Patrice and her staff originate and maintain editorial control over, Patrice is a D5 self-publisher.
D6 — aka Random & Schuster, Harper House, SimonCollins
Patrice takes her company public and retires from day-to-day control while still maintaining a financial interest. The board of directors hires a new CEO and expands aggressively. Some projects come from agent submissions, some are collaborations with bankable industry names, but a fair portion of the books her company publishes are developed in-house, in keeping with Patrice’s established practices.
Because she maintains a financial interest in her publishing company, Patrice is a D6 self-publisher for those titles developed in-house.
Here are the main points of the Ditchwalk Scale condensed into a handy table:
To see why the Ditchwalk Self-Publishing Scale reflects reality — and did so even before self-publishing came to the masses — consider what it means to be published. If you write a book and Knopf publishes it to critical acclaim, you’re published, not self-published. If Boris from Russia opens a publishing company with profits from his murder-for-hire business, and publishes your book at a massive loss because it allows him to launder his blood money, you’re published, not self-published. If you have a rich aunt with social connections in the publishing industry, and you whine long enough to get yourself a small book deal for a work that must be ghostwritten in order to protect the professional reputations of all those involved, you’re published, not self-published.
No matter how you approach the question of what it means to be published, the only thing that actually matters is that the publisher — the actual legal entity that produces the book — is separate from you. If you write a book and somebody else produces/manufactures that book (without charging you up-front money, which would make them a vanity/subsidy press) then you’re a published author, not a self-published author. On the other hand, if you create the contents and you make the book, then you’re self-published, no matter how complex ‘you’ as a legal or business entity may be.
The Assumption of Authorship
Implicit in the idea of publishing and self-publishing is the question of authorship. Because a writer is usually credited on the cover of a book, authorship is often assumed even when it’s not an accurate description of the writer’s role on a project. When you see “Ernest Hemingway” on the cover of “The Old Man and the Sea”, you can reasonably assume that Hemingway was the author of that title. But when you see “Suzy Silly” on the cover of “The Cretin’s Guide to Calico”, it’s not necessarily the case that Suzy is the author of the book, even if she wrote most of the contents.
Why? Because authorship is defined by the creation and ownership of a work. If you’re the writer of a work but you don’t own that work then the question of authorship becomes murky. Conversely, a writer who self-publishes an original work is unambiguously the author because that writer both created and owns that work.
The common assumption about traditional publishing is that a writer writes a book which is then submitted to various publishers for consideration. If a publisher likes the work a financial deal is struck in which the original writer retains all rights of authorship because they originated and executed the idea.
Anyone who has a passing familiarity with the publishing industry knows there are many projects which do not meet this test of independent authorship. For example, who is the author of A Shore Thing? Is it Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi? Is it ghostwriter/collaborator Valerie Frankel? Is it the agent, editor and/or publisher who pitched and brokered the deal? Who had final editorial control over the book? Who owns the contents? Any of the above? Does it even make sense to talk of authorship in cases like this?
To be clear: if you write a book and someone agrees to publish it on the condition that you make specific changes, you’re still the author when that book comes out. Why? Because you signed off on those changes, even if you sold your soul in doing so. (You could have refused to make the changes, rejected the contract and still retained ownership of the work.)
On the other hand, if you’re hired to write a book, and you can be told to make changes, and you can be fired if you refuse or fail, then I don’t think you’re the author of that book. Your name may be on the book as the writer, and you may claim authorship in your bio, and you may be able to defend that claim because nobody else wrote the words in the book, but relative to someone who creates and executes an original idea themselves, I think it’s clear that your contribution is less. Throw in the test of ownership and I think the issue is decided.
If you’ve spent any time observing the publishing industry you’ve inevitably heard a project described as in-house — meaning it was initiated by an editor or someone in management at the publishing company that produced the work. No matter who the publisher hires to write the words for an in-house title, is not the admission that something was developed in-house proof that such works are literally self-published?
To see what I mean, here are the three possible publishing relationships that can exist between writer and publisher:
- Writer creates work, writer publishes work. (Self-publishing)
- Writer creates work, publisher publishes work. (Traditional publishing)
- Publisher creates work, publisher publishes work. (Self-publishing.)
If a writer can self-publish a book even after hiring a cover designer, proofreader, designer, editor, marketer, publicist, accountant, tax lawyer, estate lawyer and chauffeur, how does merely hiring a writer (or ghostwriter) shelter a publisher from the charge of self-publishing if the publisher controls and owns all aspects of the resulting work? Isn’t that the very definition of self-publishing — albeit abstracted in both a business context and as a collaborative process?
What the Ditchwalk Scale shows is that when the owner of a title hires others to write all or part of the contents under contract, and that same owner also manufactures the resulting work, that person does not get to claim that the work was published by that business. Rather, the work was, by definition, self-published.
Self-Publishing for All
What publishers have been saying as long as publishers have been in existence is that creating and self-publishing books is okay for them, but not okay for you. Yet hiring others to do work on a title doesn’t determine whether a work is published or self-published. The only thing that matters is whether publication is bankrolled by the content owner or by a separate business.
By that definition, many of the books published around the world are self-published by publishers in exactly the same way that independent authors are now self-publishing their own work. The only difference is a difference in scale.