The Fundamental Uselessness Of Book Publishers

Found this little gem:

In this article, Matthew Yglesias expounds on how

Amazon is doing the world a favor by crushing book publishers.

Needless to say, this grabbed my attention.  Those of you who know me:  I’m in both camps, of course.  (Typical Gemini!)  And predictably, I found myself both agreeing and disagreeing with various points in this well-written, eloquent if somewhat biased article.

The fundamental uselessness of book publishers

That’s actually a direct quote from the article, and it made me sit up a bit straighter.  Fundamental uselessness?

Giving it a bit of thought, I have to agree with everything he says (though he misses the point in several places).

There is nothing a publisher can do for an author that an author can’t do for himself.

Of course this is so, and it was already so in the 1930’s.

My great-uncle was a writer.  He was also a very hands-on craftsman.  He wrote adventure stories about the place that was then known as Southwest-Africa.  They were great stories; I read them.

He was living in Windhoek, and there was a war brewing across the Big Blue.  Nobody in either Southwest-Africa nor in Germany wanted to publish his novels, take a risk on an obscure writer from a more obscure place with no known readership.  So he type-set them himself; illustrated them himself (he also was a gifted painter), printed them himself (hand-printing, I’m not clear on the process he used), hand-bound them properly (with section-sewing and perfect-bind) and then tried to market them…

He didn’t have Amazon and he didn’t need Amazon to sell the copies he sold.  They look fabulous, just like many books that were printed in that era.  The binding is in fact of much better quality than a lot of modern binding.

Today, authors can follow his recipe, except so much more easily on Amazon and other places.

The challenges they face today are exactly the same challenges he faced back then:  Where to find a readership, how to market.

Finding a readership is easier today than ever before: Just throw your book online for free.

Of course it also means you won’t make a penny off it.   Because once people have got something for free, why should they pay?  You’ve possibly built a big readership, but it’s a readership of (in webbie jargon) tire-kickers. They never pay for anything because everything they get online, they get for free.  They search until they find something for free, and if it’s not yours, it will be someone else’s.  They’re not particular about that.

How to market is another matter altogether.  Marketing implies that money will flow.

Many authors are born salespeople.  That’s how they have the character trait that enables them to sit lonely behind a computer for countless hours, weeks, months, creating something pure and beautiful that does not exist for any earthly reason at all.  …right?

But Yglesias has got this covered.  In the article he expounds on how pathetic most publishers are with marketing a book.

Well, yes, if they are, they most certainly are going to drown in this wave.  And it’s not the Amazon wave.  It’s the FREE ebook wave.

So I was right…

… we are indeed reinventing the wheel.  The book publishing world is in flux.  Publishers will have to be on their toes to offer something real that authors not only want but need.

And at the moment, the biggest “service” they offer is their stamp of approval, that logo that says this author is not one of those many who threw their divinely inspired first draft online unedited, hoping for instant fame.

And the rebel in me asks:  What’s the good in that?  Good grief, we’re all long out of school.  Has the world come to this?  Do we really have to patrol people’s spelling, grammar etc?  Or should we allow it to run its course and let the language “evolve” (or deteriorate, depending how you feel about it)?  English is not the most logical language to begin with, and I have it on reliable hearsay that laughably, a lot of its weird spelling quirks were fixed into place by an “authority” who was later discovered to be clinically insane.  Surprised, anyone?

And then there was reality.

Let’s get real.  Publishers offer a service.  They add quality to a book, by insisting on top-rate editing, layout etc.  They offer this service in exchange for (nobody is a charity here) a part of the revenue.  The “lion’s share” in Yglesias’ books.  I don’t know how much the man knows or guesses about the actual finances of publishing; but in fairness he is talking about e-publishing, and if publishers grab an over-large portion there it does indeed look odd.  Only remember that the publisher has laid out money for editing (which invariably the author feels was unnecessary) and for the other professional services needed to smooth a book into its best shape.  The revenue per sale is a minute fraction of the layout; so if the publisher takes a large portion of the initial sales, it’s an attempt to recover the layout as fast as possible.

This service of improving the quality and raising it to professional levels is a service to readers and authors alike.  Remember, your time and attention is known as “internet gold”, the most sought-after commodity online.  Offline, too, a book has to compete with thousands of other options you have of spending a few enjoyable hours.  If you are a person who is aware of the value of your time (especially your free time), the fact that you don’t have to chew through poor quality manuscripts should endear publishers to you – they’ve done it for you, and filtered away every book that they thought might leave you frustrated.

But the larger service to authors is of course marketing, distribution and publicity.  A publisher will get your book into more places than you could ever think of yourself.  A publisher is a go-between for a reason.  A publisher will organize your book to be reviewed by respected places, and will get you publicity in the media – local or otherwise.  He will get your book on lists you don’t even know exist.

You can of course do everything yourself.

Like, for instance, cover design.  Or your own website.  There is nothing stopping you from learning how to do it;  many people have learnt how to design, how to web-design, how to do SEO, how to market, how to print and bind a book (all 1000 copies of it)…  people also service and repair their own cars, do their own plumbing and electricity, do the bricklaying when building their own home, learn (for four years in an engineering degree) how to construct their own home so it won’t collapse in the first rain storm…  you can, eventually, do everything yourself.  Like the “Voortrekkers”, the pioneers trekking across the bush in ox-wagons.

The question is, will you still have time to write books, after that?

13 thoughts on “The Fundamental Uselessness Of Book Publishers

  1. By and large, people who proclaim the death of the publisher are people who have not had their work accepted by one. I’ll add a couple of provisos to that. Firstly, that probably applies to about 98% of all writers, and secondly that they may be right anyway.

    As regards writing AND publishing – you seem to do both very well. 🙂

    • M, you sweet Thang, thank you so much for the compliment!

      You are of course spot-on with your observation: there are a load of writers whose submissions are accepted by nobody. If one thinks of JK’s epic journey (depending which version to believe) she submitted over 900 times before someone decided to put faith (and money) into her work. I don’t know many people who have that kind of stamina.

      Self-publishing authors are a force to be reckoned with, as you have also seen with your friend Samuel. I don’t know what the scene is like internationally but in South Africa, self-employed people from all walks are in fact the primary reason we still have civilization. And of course a self-publishing author is not somebody just any publisher can deal with – already experienced enough to know when the publisher is messing up.

      I’ll paraphrase what I heard one very arrogant published (in the small-time) author say in 2008, in one of those groups. “It really is the best that swims to the top, and the rubbish that sinks to the bottom.” In her context, that “rubbish” was everyone who didn’t find a publisher. Well pardon me. There is a lot of explaining to do in that case, about certain books that do hit the shops. And ironically, a few years later that same author, disenchanted with her publisher, decided to self-publish her next novel to “make better sales herself” because she felt the marketing effort had not been enough.

      It’s an interesting journey this, never a dull moment. I only sometimes wish I had more time to write…. 😀

  2. You are so write about having time to right – er, rite?
    Although the wrong context, that quote, ‘Publish and be damned!’ holds good today.
    Oh for the magic formula which has people rushing with loosened purse-strings.

  3. Pingback: No, we don’t offer a free… – the red ant

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