So, that whole “legacy publishing” thing…

You may note that I haven’t used the words “legacy publishing” to talk about traditional publishers.

There’s a reason for that. I don’t like the term.

Look, I get why some people are using the term. And I understand that the point of using the term “legacy publishing” is that it conveys instantly what you think of traditional publishers: that you think they are old, inefficient, and outmoded. I could argue until the cows come home about whether traditional publishers are old, inefficient, and outmoded–get a bunch of authors together, and we talk about almost nothing else.

I’m still not going to use the term.

Here’s why. Imagine someone came up to me and said, “Courtney, since you write romance, I assume that you’ve sold out the One True Writing of Sad Books for crass commercial happy endings. Only whores sell out, and so from here on out, I’m going to call you Whore-tney.”

I would be pissed off. I would not want to debate whether writing happy endings was selling out, or discuss the merits of literary fiction versus romance–all very interesting discussions. I would want to beat the crap out of the person who was calling me a whore.

I would not feel better if the person said, “Look, it’s just a point of semantics–we both know what I mean when I say ‘Whore-tney’ so I’ll just keep calling you that, and you know that by using the name, I’m referring to you.” I happen to already have a name, a perfectly good one, that so far serves to differentiate me from others. I don’t need a new one, one that has an extremely negative context.

Imagine the person goes up to my friend and says, “So, I think Whore-tney made an interesting point the other day. What do you think about it?”

Do you think my friend will want to honestly debate the pros and cons of the argument? No, she’s going to say, “Stop calling her Whore-tney, or I will rip your eyes out.” (Probably not that. My friends are more gentle.)

Vocabulary matters. Vocabulary that is chosen to insult people–particularly when you state that “legacy publishing” does not mean “non-self-publishing” but “publishing in a way that I like instead of a way that I do not like”–has an effect: it immediately closes down conversation with people who do not agree with you.

Now, if you intend to do that, fine. But I don’t. If I use the words “legacy publishing,” I’m implicitly insulting all the people who are involved in it–not just editors and publishing house executives, but friends of mine who have decided it is in their economic best interest to continue to publish with their traditional publishing houses. I’d like to talk to those people about pros and cons. I’d love to debate it.

I don’t want to walk up and kick dirt in their face over a fine point of semantics.

As it is, we have lots of perfectly fine vocabulary words that describe different kinds of publishing. So here are the words I will use to describe various kinds of publishers:

“Traditional publishing” which can be split into “New York publishing” and/or “big publishing,” “small presses,” and “digital first publishers.” I’m not sure where Amazon’s new publishing arm fits in to all of this; they may be a different beast altogether, or they may just be a particularly rapacious branch of digital-first publishing. They are probably a cross between a small press (they give advances) and a digital-first publisher, but I am unsure. Nonetheless, I am unstymied by my immediate inability to classify them. Since they seem to be one of a kind, I shall just call them “Amazon” for now.

Some people would not put digital-first publishers under the traditional publishing umbrella. Surely they do not qualify as legacy publishers.

Then there’s “agent publishing”–a relatively new beast, and I fear a contradiction in terms, but alas.

And then there’s “self publishing” which can be of the “agent assisted” variety.

Now I’m aware that the word “traditional” in traditional publishing is not without moral valence. Traditions are good! Traditions are like turkey and pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving! Traditions are warm and comforting! But traditions are also kind of stodgy–and people have been using that word for a while now.

There. I’ve managed to use words to refer to things without using insults. I feel that etymologically, I can refer to everything.

Now, I’m willing to talk about all the ways that big publishers are getting things wrong–just as I’m willing to talk about how Amazon’s new imprints may be getting things wrong, or how small presses get things wrong, or how self-published authors may be getting things wrong. But I don’t want to send people the message that in order to engage in me with conversation, you must start from the presumption that I am right and you are wrong.

That’s what you do when you’re trying to piss someone off, not when you’re trying to talk with them.

I don’t imagine that I’ll change anyone’s minds (or vocabulary) with this post, but I do think it’s important to push back on the assumption that it’s a good idea to insult people.

14 thoughts on “So, that whole “legacy publishing” thing…

  1. “And I understand that the point of using the term “legacy publishing” is that it conveys instantly what you think of traditional publishers: that you think they are old, inefficient, and outmoded.”

    Is that what people mean by it, and why it’s gotten popular lately? Wow, I did not realize that. To me, “legacy” has a connotation of dignity and well-earned respect, so I thought it was a positive term. Shows what I know:-). But in any event, I always thought it was a kind of goofy phrase, so I just call it “traditional publishing.”

  2. Yeah, I thought Whore-tney was pretty awesome.

    When teaching persuasion and argumentation to college students, I say a lot of this kind of thing. Because language DOES matter, especially if you are inviting people to consider a different point of view on a subject they care about.

    Also, just for accuracy, I am not convinced that the term “legacy” is warranted yet. My guess is that some traditional publishing houses will find new models, or variations anyway; we may reach the point in a few years (give or take) where only some imprints are still handled the traditional way, perhaps for certain kinds of books ( literary fiction would be my prediction). Then we can talk “legacy.”

  3. Brilliant, as usual. The problem is that there is no one term that adequately sums up the range of options that exist for authors if they DON’T self-publish. And even in self-publishing, you have the ominous question of whether it’s “vanity” or not (another moral judgment, but not one without real consequential meaning for those who are genuinely taken to the cleaners by bad actors).

    I think ANY word you choose for the large, primarily print-focused publishing houses is going to be loaded in some way, though. In the past, the terms chosen were more favorable. These were the publishers that paid advances and were considered the cream of the crop in terms of offering authors a chance to earn a living. Now, it almost seems as if we’ve come to a point where a lot of people feel completely comfortable telling people that those same publishers who a few years ago offered the “best” terms of publication are now a bunch of thieving, anachronistic bloodsuckers.

    The truth, obviously, is somewhere in the middle and always has been. Those publishers never offered anyone a guarantee of making a living any more than self-publishing offers that guarantee now.

    Also, I am with Meoskop. “Whore-tney” made me giggle. I may have a hard time not calling you that next time I see you, just because…

  4. Amen. Publishing is changing so quickly that the models that make sense today might be what’s out of vogue tomorrow. Why insult others for their choices? We all have to take the best calculated risk for our unique situation.

    And it is a risk, no matter what we choose. For alll we know there could be holographic books in 10 years that beam images straight to your brain. Then all this stuff we’re debating now will be considered “legacy”.

    Who knows?

  5. Thank you! It’s not a term I use, even when discussing the possible benefits of self-publishing, but I’d never really put my finger on why.

    (I say print publishers or NYC publishers, which is not entirely accurate, but which also conjures associations and gets my point across.)

  6. Thank you for this! I’ve only started meeting the term recently, but it only took a few repetitions for it to begin seriously setting my teeth on edge. And you’re right–the moment someone trots out “legacy publisher,” I no longer want to debate with them; I want to tell them to stop using such a term that’s clearly meant to begin the discussion with an insult.

  7. Excellent and very interesting post, Courtney! It was fascinating to see this take on “legacy publishing”. The term has long made me twitch for entirely different reasons.
    I work in a field of publishing commonly referred to as STM or STEM — this is Scientific, Technical, Education, Medical (though some folks have another definition for the “M”). We’ve been publishing digital material for…okay, I can’t confess how long cos it will make me *old*. But around these parts, “legacy publishing” refers to converting to digital media those publications previously only available in print. We’re talking journal articles from the 1920s here. That’s legacy for us — making something from the past available in the present. To hear people refering to today’s print houses as legacy publishing… yup, there goes that eye twitch again.
    All that said, thanks for adding another very insightful look at what’s wrong with that term to my arsenal of arguments!

  8. You an make the same argument for using “traditional” publishing to mean commercial publishing. It’s one of my personal pet peeves.

    Most people don’t realize it, but by using traditional publishing to describe the non-self published, they’re spreading an artificial division created by a vanity publisher. They were the first ones to tag commercial publishing as “traditional”, and began poisoning their marks toward such presses with the idea that they were outmoded and hated new authors. The multiple tens of thousands of victims of this press spread the word, and as there’s never a dearth of people willing to pay to play Author:the Role Playing Game, it continues.

    Ditto with “indie” being used for self-published. It’s not. Indie presses are specific, independent, commercial presses. Again, vanity publisher co-opted the term under the guise of “stripping the stigma” from its marks who were under the impression that they’d been picked up by a micro-press.

  9. “Indie presses are specific, independent, commercial presses.”

    I am a specific, independent, commercial press. I also publish commercially.

    I think the vanity/commercial distinction is different than the traditional/self-published distinction.

    People who publish with vanity presses are not likely to make money; people who publish in a commercial fashion have the intent to make a profit (and I do).

    I have no idea about the origins of the word “traditional publishing” but it does seem to be what nearly everyone is using, regardless of where it falls on the spectrum.

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