Do Publishers Still Matter?

Do Publishers Still Matter?

It all started when Doug mentioned this article on Idealog from Mike Shatzkin: Putting Books in Stores is a Subsidiary Right. This sparked a debate between us on the nature of publishing, and whether traditional publishers make sense if you’re a new author in today’s market.

Do Publishers Still Matter? Doug: All I could think was, “Good work, publishers! You’ll alienate your writers even more than you already have, and *they’re the ones providing you with a product to sell*!”

The ongoing stupidity of old media–music, magazines, newspapers, tv, books, you-name-it–continues to simply amaze.

Do Publishers Still Matter? Carly: Very interesting. Honestly, this isn’t that surprising, and I don’t see it as some sort of old media/new media flip out. All it means is that publishers are pissed that they didn’t negotiate ebook rights into older contracts and they’re looking to include them in print deals in the future. So if you want a traditional publisher and the editor and the advances and bookings in bookstores, etc., they’re also looking to be able to distribute your ebooks (instead of ebooks being a wildcard you could negotiate later directly with Amazon, B&N, etc.)

Shatzkin has a point, which is that publishers are playing the long game here and recognizing that ebook rights are going to matter a ton in the next few years. However, remember that publishers are negotiating for rights that might be in effect for many, many years. For the next 5-10 years, having your paperback at Costco and B&N is going to be more important than whether Amazon has an exclusive on your ebook rights. That’s going to change, but again, it’s the long game.

All this is doing is having authors make a choice: either sign on with a real publisher and get your books into actual bookstores (where, don’t forget, the vast majority of books are still sold, despite the skewed view we all might have), or roll the dice on ebook only, and either try to get your books promoted on your own or hope that someone snaps you up for a lucrative exclusivity deal. Hate to be blunt here, but most authors aren’t Amanda Hocking (who just signed a multimillion-dollar publishing contract after being a crazy successful self-published author) or a John Grisham. Most authors are somewhere in the middle, and the reality is that they need to decide, like many artists do, between making money and having control over their medium. Right now you’re FAR more likely to make money with a traditional publisher, and that means accepting that it’s a package deal, eBooks, and paper. If you don’t like it, there’s a hell of a lot more options than there used to be.

Do Publishers Still Matter? Doug: I don’t know as I disagree entirely with what you said. What it seems to me, though, is that while they may have their on “the long view”, what they’re doing now is pissing off authors. Most of whom are probably already pissed off at their publishers for one reason or another.

To me, what publishers are reacting against is the obvious fact that, pretty soon, *they won’t have a function*. They are middlemen. They see their role vanishing, and they’re doing everything they can to hold on to it. But in my view, if they push too hard, in a few years when we *don’t* need to have physical books at Target or Wal-Mart, what you’ll have is a bunch of authors who say, “Yeah, and what have you jerks ever done for me? Later!” But maybe I’m over thinking it.

See, what I’m wondering is, why is JK Rowling thinking of selling her eBook rights to a publisher? Why not negotiate directly with Apple or Amazon or B&N? She has the clout. And what advantage would a publisher bring to the table that she wouldn’t have on her own? Or so it seems to me.

Do Publishers Still Matter? Carly: Because while publishing is changing, rapidly, the functions a publisher offers are still valuable, even if they make terrible business decisions that undermine that value.

A publisher does several things:

1) Can provide advances while the author is writing a new book. No need for a day job. Amazon isn’t going to pay you in advance of your ebook being released, at least not yet.

2) Market your book. Look, yes, you can be self-published and a success, but you need to be very savvy. Or you can work with a publisher and have someone who works with traditional and ebook sources to get your book some attention.

3) Yes, you can pay an editor to clean up your book. Or a publisher can handle that. Again, you can play the DIY card and hire an independent editor, or use your publisher.

JK Rowling probably doesn’t want to negotiate individually with Amazon, B&N, Kobo, etc, and she doesn’t want to pay her agent a cut to do it. If she works directly through her publisher, she hits every store her publisher works with, and she can set the same terms for each one without having to reinvent the damn wheel.

Yes, publishers are middlemen. But for now, the economics and coordination of trying to go it alone are really not as rosy or as easy as the handful of success stories make it sound. If you’re planning to self-publish a few titles but not quit your day job, sure, self-publish. Knock yourself out. But if you’re seriously looking to turn it into a writing career, then pay the publisher to handle it all for you, and if you really don’t want to sign away your life then negotiate a better contract. had a great blog post on self-published authors, and they pointed out that most people aren’t going to make 7 figures self-publishing. So for many, many authors, it’s just easier to tap into the resources of a large publishing house over going it alone.

Yes, publishers make crazy dumb choices, especially about ebooks. But let’s be realistic…when’s the last time you bought a book from an unknown author who self-published? And if you did, what made you buy it? Probably a blog post or a good review or a sample. Otherwise, maybe you made your last book purchase from a review in the NYT, or People, or Businessweek, etc…aka, places where a publisher can push for a review and Joe Shmo the self-published author doesn’t rank.

Do Publishers Still Matter? Doug: You know *way* more than me about the non-tech publishing market, so I’m going to have to defer to you in some areas.

1) How many authors get advances vs. how many have to submit their work “on spec”?

2) My impression is that publishers only actively “market” a very small percentage of their books. And of what does this marketing consist? Sending books out to reviewers? Putting ads in newspapers and magazines? Contacting physical hard-copy bookstores to inform them that an author is coming to town? What do they do to market a book?

3) True.

Does an author like Rowling really negotiate directly with her publisher? Ithought agents did that. And I don’t understand what you mean by “reinventing the wheel” in this context. If Rowling sold eBooks through Amazon, it wouldn’t *matter* whether she needed to hit every store her publisher works with; I thought we were talking eBooks only?

Re: Forbes: most *authors* don’t make 7 figures, period. From what I’ve read, most authors struggle along for years, with no advance, no publisher, doing whatever (tech writing, say!), and then when they have a book they get an agent and try to break in with a publisher. I’ve read a lot of articles in the last 20 years about how mid- and low-list authors basically get the shaft from publishers in favor of the Rowlings and Steven Kings and famous celebs of the world; in this context, what does that mean for the above roles that you outline that publishers play?

i would argue that, if what I’ve read is true and publishers *do* treat their mid- and low-list authors like crap, what advantage is it to the vast majority of writers to go through publishers at all? And further (to bring it back to the original article), if authors have been badly treated by publishers for the last 20 years or so, and now publishers are being jerkweeds about eBook rights, holding them hostage as part of negotiations, how much more reason do those authors have to say to publishers, “Pfffft. You weren’t giving me a whole lot before, and now you’re being a big jerk. The heck with you.”

To me, it’s analogous to the tech business, where when times are bad, companies show absolutely no loyalty to their employees, laying them off, cutting their salaries and benefits, etc., but when times are good and employees start making demands, they say, “How can you be so disloyal?” Sauce for the goose, folks; sauce for the goose.

I guess the gist of what I’m saying is, I’m having a hard time seeing what value publishers bring to authors who don’t have a known name, *especially* in an eBook world. e.g., I’d bet real money that David Foster Wallace–who’s *dead*–is getting more help from his publisher than 100 middle-list authors @ that same publisher combined.

Do Publishers Still Matter? Carly: It depends. If you are an author who is 100% ebook only, then yea, skip Random House. But if you are looking to sell actual, physical books, you need to be affiliated with a real publishing house.

I can tell you from what it was like years ago (and probably still today) that most bookstores aren’t buying someones “fastpencil” vanity project. It costs money to put a book on the shelf, and a self-published book can’t be sent back to a warehouse if it doesn’t sell well. So most retail bookstores simply don’t order them, otherwise, they end up on a non-returnables sale at 50% off.

Plus, don’t forget that publishers act as gatekeepers for a reason. There are a lot of crappy, crappy writers out there sitting on awful manuscripts. Amazon and Smashwords arent screening and editing self-published works, so there’s no checks and balances for the consumer. Personally, I have found roughly 20% of the self-published works I read are decent, and the rest…well…probably shouldn’t have been published to start.

Publishers as a concept aren’t evil. The existing ones don’t handle the move to ebooks well, but that doesn’t mean other versions aren’t ready to replace them, or that the existing ones won’t adapt and change.

Your turn: Do you agree that publishers are an outdated business model, or is there still a reason to use one? Share in the debate below!

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About the Author

Zek has been a gadget fiend for a long time, going back to their first PDA (a Palm M100). They quickly went from researching what PDA to buy to following tech news closely and keeping up with the latest and greatest stuff. They love writing about ebooks because they combine their two favorite activities; reading anything and everything, and talking about fun new tech toys. What could be better?

4 Comments on "Do Publishers Still Matter?"

  1. I don’t know about the wider market, but I believe the major science fiction/fantasy publishers were specifically including ebook rights in their contracts as long as a decade ago. If I recall correctly, Baen had somewhat of a tussle with their authors over this (Baen’s Webscriptions started in 1999).

    Doug, about marketing: most marketing that publishers do is marketing to the buyers for bookstores/chains (or for the book section in non-bookstore stores), and less so for readers, unless you include cover art as marketing–but even then the buyers are a significant target. Marketing and advertising to readers is expensive! This marketing function appears to be nearly useless for ebooks–ebookstores don’t have to order quantities before sales.

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  4. Sam: Thanks for the info. If I remember correctly, the Baen issue was partly because Baen was pushing to release some of their back-catalog for free, which irked some authors. But I may be confusing that with something else Baen-related.

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