What are 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 and the copyediting / proofreading are almost always outsourced.

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

In the past (ie: last year or any time before that), 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 – indeed, slightly the reverse. Anyone can sell through the Kindle and publishers have a much 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 the blooming heck 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, owner of Orion, Hodder, Headline, etc). The document has been leaked – perhaps strategically; it’s a good piece – and runs as follows. (My source is a useful article in Digital Book World here). I’ve put my own brief comments in red. Overall: Hachette is more right than not, but there are some crucial weaknesses in its plea for the defence. Those weaknesses don’t need to prove fatal, by any means – but publishers will need to think hard about them these next few years.

(Also, I should be clear that I am about to be published by an Hachette group company, Orion, 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 – and of course 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.)

“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. Not quite true enough. Authors do have rich relationships with their agents, but their publisher relationships are thin precarious things, on the whole. Exceptions to every rule, of course, but publishers have historically under-invested in this most crucial of relationships.

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. Again, a bit less true than it ought to be. 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. That’s not very VC-ish type funding. 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 – then paying for it, very tardily.

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

• Weget 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 much more true than not (though 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). Also true … but the reservation is a huge one. Solo 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 – and authors’ average royalties are often 50p a book or less. So yes, publishers do a lot of clever price & promo work. But in the digital world, they also bring a huge cost base which incurs, from the author’s POV, a huge 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. Not sure about this. Notice how this section segues from talking about authors to talking about books. I think publishers are almost completely focused on the book and tend to do very little to build the author. They don’t have a long term view of the author in most cases. The agent does.

Additionally, in an increasingly digitised world, one has to ask how trad publishers are performing in engaging with consumers online. And the answer is poorly. Take a blank pad of paper and a pencil and mark down every publisher-owned website that engages really well with its audience and helps sells books in signficant volumes. Quite likely, you’ll end that exercise with a nice fresh pad of paper.

• 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 a little bit of interest in enforcing piracy protection – and that firm probably has a little more IT knowhow.


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