What are publishers for?

In the digital world, everyone, arguably, is a publisher, so what are traditional publishers for?

A lot of the things that publishers do can be (and quite often are) outsourced. So if you want cover design, copyediting, editorial work, typesetting, proofreading, printing or PR work, those things can all be done perfectly well by freelancers. As a matter of fact, the printing, copyediting and proofreading are almost always outsourced.

If writers write the book, printers print the book, copyeditors copyedit the book, and so on, the question naturally arises: what do traditional publishers do?

In the past, publishers were sole owners of one crucial gateway: the one that gives access to retail buyers. If you wanted to see your book on the front tables at Waterstones, you had to have a publisher. There was no alternative.

That’s still true now, except that those front tables are already less important than they were. Publishers have no special access to the Kindle book store. Anyone can sell through Kindle and publishers have a higher cost base to deal with than solitary authors. So if publishers are losing their special grip on retail access, and if everything else they do can be efficiently outsourced, the question again arises: what are publishers actually for?

The most succinct answer I’ve ever seen comes from a document written by someone in Hachette (the largest UK publishing conglomerate). This 2011 document has been leaked, perhaps strategically. It’s a good piece and runs as follows. (My source was a useful article in Digital Book World, link no longer active.)

Also, I should be clear that I am about to be published by Orion, part of Hachette, but have also been published by HarperCollins and Bloomsbury, have had close involvement with an upcoming Transworld book, and am working with another part of Random House on something else. I see and talk to authors and agents all the time.

So what follows is not by any means a comment on Hachette. It’s my view of the publishing industry as a whole. I’ve put my own brief comments in red.

“Self-publishing” is a misnomer.

Publishing requires a complex series of engagements, both behind the scenes and public facing. Digital distribution (which is what most people mean when they say self-publishing) is just one of the components of bringing a book to market and helping the public take notice of it. This is true.

As a full-service publisher, Hachette Book Group offers a wide array of services to authors:

1. Curator: We find and nurture talent:

• We identify authors and books that are going to stand out in the marketplace. HBG discovers new voices, and separates the remarkable from the rest. True.

• We act as content collaborator, focused on nurturing writing talent, fostering rich relationships with our authors, providing them with expert editorial advice on their writing, and tackling a huge variety of issues on their behalf. Authors often have rich relationships with their agents, but their publisher relationships can be thin, precarious things.

2. Venture Capitalist: We fund the author’s writing process:

• At HBG we invest in ideas. In the form of advances, we allow authors the time and resources to research and write. In addition we invest continuously in infrastructure, tools, and partnerships that make HBG a great publisher partner. The median income for an author is £4,000, the median income of a pro author (one who earns 70% of their income from writing) is £13,000. Additionally, novelists need to write their entire damn novel before they receive a penny for it. So for a huge sweep of the market, publishers are simply buying a completed product, paying for it a little late.

3. Sales and Distribution Specialist: We ensure widest possible audience:

• We get our books to the right place, in the right numbers, and at the right time (this applies equally to print and digital editions). We work with retailers and distribution partners to ensure that every book has the opportunity to reach the widest possible readership. This is more true than not (see reservation in a moment).

• We ensure broad distribution and master supply chain complexity, in both digital and physical formats. True.

• We function as a new market pioneer, exploring and experimenting with new ideas in every area of our business and investing in those new ideas – even if, in some cases, a positive outcome is not guaranteed (as with apps and enhanced ebooks). True.

• We act as a price and promotion specialist (coordinating 250+ monthly, weekly and daily deals on ebooks at all accounts). Self-published authors can price their books at £3.99 on Amazon and make about £3.00 per book sold. Publishers will sell that same book at double or quadruple the amount, royalties for authors being often 50p a book or less. So yes, publishers do a lot of clever pricing and promotional work. But in the digital world, they also bring a huge cost base which incurs, for the author, a royalty disadvantage.

4. Brand Builder and Copyright Watchdog: We build author brands and protect their intellectual property:

• Publishers generate and spread excitement, always looking for new ways make our authors and their books stand out.  We’re able to connect books with readers in a meaningful way. Notice how this section leans from talking about authors to talking about books. I think publishers are almost completely centred on the book and tend to do very little to build the author. They will not have a long term view of the author in most cases. The agent does. Additionally, in an increasingly digitised world, one has to ask and examine how trade publishers are engaging with consumers online.

• We offer marketing and publicity expertise, presenting a book to the marketplace in exactly the right way, and ensuring that intelligence, creativity, and business acumen inform our strategy. True. Publishers generally have very good publicity departments and when their cover design teams get something right, they can get it very right.

• We protect authors’ intellectual property through strict anti-piracy measures and territorial controls. True, though Amazon also has interest in enforcing piracy protection.

Hachette is more right than not, but there are some weaknesses in its plea for the defence. Those weaknesses needn’t prove fatal, by any means, but publishers will need to think hard about them these next few years.

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