Do Publishers Still Need Authors?

Its a giant cupcake and Android! (@ Googleplex - B44) by David Recordon
It's a giant cupcake and Android! (@ Googleplex - B44) by David Recordon

Just as many entrepreneurs no longer need venture capitalists to launch their companies, authors no longer need publishers to publish.

Mark Coker, Do Authors Still Need Publishers?

Picture this: In the future, as the risks of publishing shift from the publisher to the author, publishers will be able to invest in technologies that allow them to bypass authors completely, developing sophisticated algorithms to scrape their content from the Internet, repurpose and repackage it for non-discriminating readers, and charge advertisers fistfuls of money for their wandering eyeballs!

It sounds even better if you say it out loud in Dr. Evil’s voice. Or Chris Anderson’s. Or Arianna Huffington’s.

Resistance is futile!

If Coker’s second linkbait advertorial for the Huffington Post didn’t add anything new to the conversation, it did at least spawn a new hashtag on Twitter, #publishersmatter, and generate some interesting discussion around the value publishers do, and don’t, offer authors nowadays.

My take?

Despite all the hype about the democratization of the Internet and the fact that anyone can now be a “publisher” — in the absolute loosest definition of the word; more verb than noun — the fact of the matter is that the act of publishing and the fundamentals involved aren’t changing, only the players are.

Real publishers, regardless of size, finance writers, facilitate distribution, make markets and, ideally, curate for a specific community. In newer models, they may partner with authors (e.g.: Harper Studio) or communities (e.g.: Cursor) instead of “financing” them via exorbitant advances that rarely earn out, but the other aspects remain critical to the role of being a publisher.

Direct access to distribution doesn’t mean equal access. Publishers will change but remain relevant, even if eBooks eventually equal 100% of the market.

In a smart response to Coker’s post, Kate Eltham, CEO of Queensland Writers Centre, addressed the reality of the situation in “What Do Authors Need?“:

Barriers to entry to publishing have reached almost zero, sure. But being able to publish isn’t the same as being able to profitably publish. Production is easy. Distribution is not. Even digital distribution, while frictionless, is not easy to convert to sales without the ability to engage a readership who’ll fork over money for your product.

That independent-minded authors who are willing and able to simultaneously act as small businesses now have all the necessary tools to be a legitimate publisher isn’t a debatable point. It’s also not a terribly new or interesting one. Most small presses that were established long before the Internet existed sprang from the same independent, DIY mindset (e.g.: Soft Skull) and are now successful niche publishers, offering opportunities to non-commercial authors who write outside of the narrow confines of the NY Times Bestsellers Lists.

The current discussions about the viability of publishers and publishing are primarily being driven by digital ideologues with self-serving agendas. I’d much rather shift gears and focus on the issue of where publishers’ and authors’ interests overlap, and more importantly, where the READER fits into the overall equation.

And for my independent-minded author friends, it’s worth noting that you’re now publishers, too, so that discussion includes you as well.

19 thoughts on “Do Publishers Still Need Authors?

  1. I just saw something the other day that lit a fire under my behind – a fanfiction author took her well-loved story offline, got it published, and is now reselling it (the names have been changed, FYI). And it irked me, because it's another example of people abusing the system. Sure, I'll get word out and have thousands of readers follow my product, then rip it out from under them and make them pay for it.

    I hate that anyone can be a published author today…it makes me feel like those who really have the craft and work hard to polish it just don't matter anymore. Which is 100% untrue. I'd like to say that publishers find more quality work, but really, how can we know?

    However, I get caught up in the whole, put your stuff online vs. send it to a publisher battle. If anyone's writing is out there, for free, already, shown to the world, will a publisher still want it? It's all about instant gratification (a comment or two saying, OMG I Love love love LOVE this story!) or a long-term commitment, a career.

  2. Guy,

    I think it is vital that people realise that they are publishers now.

    I agree that this does not automatically mean that traditional publishers are no longer needed, in fact in many ways they may be more necessary but for different reasons, but the fact that publishing is so easy and effectively free is revolutionary.

    I also think that underplaying it leads to underestimating the change that is happening and the changes we “real” publishers need to make in order to survive and thrive.

    And for the record, I believe we survive can and SOME of us will thrive.


  3. As best as I can, I try to see things from all perspectives and be as pragmatic about things as possible. I'm more interested in focusing on the common agenda than on the splinter issues. Thanks!

  4. As Kate and I both noted, publishing is easy, but distribution and marketing isn't, whether you're a traditional publisher, new media start-up, or indie author. Coker, Anderson, et al, tend to gloss over that bit when pushing their respective agendas.

    Also, if we're all publishers now, we have to accept Uncle Ben's famous words: “with great power, comes great responsibility” — a responsibility to both the readers, and to the overall culture.

  5. “Despite all the hype about the democratization of the Internet” “Hype” makes this sentence a perfect example of rhetoric. You could have said 'discussion'. Anyway, round and round in circles this bit of self-hype goes. “Everyone can publish themselves” “Yes but then you don't get the marketing and distribution benefits of a publisher” I think I first saw that five years ago. What's the next step? “Depends on what type of book you write.” And then ummm, that's right, change of topic. Wait for it…

  6. When responding to rhetoric, it's easy to fall into responding in kind, so point taken there. But you have to admit, much of the “discussion” is littered with misleading hype and lies of omission.

    Beyond that, what's your point? Depending on the type of book — as well as the available resources, inherent skills, and ultimate goals — the next step IS going to be different for everyone; there's no checklist that applies across the board, and you should run fast from anyone who tries to tell you otherwise.

  7. I totally agree with that don't get me wrong.

    But I also think that the sheer freedom to publish is important. We need to evangelise that reality! People need information to make fully informed decisions. Otherwise they'll get scammed.

    They need to take responsibility sure, but coming from the right premise.


  8. Well let's try to move the discussion beyond where it's been before. If the main benefit of having a publisher is the marketing (not distribution, since most pod publishers handle all of that), where is the need for a publisher? All I need is a PR firm canny enough to realise how many books I could sell. Since the financial returns from self-publishing per book are so many times greater than the royalties paid by traditional publishers, I could easily cut the marketing firm in on the returns.

    So, if the only benefit publishers offer is better marketing, they will soon all be out of business. And a writer whose books add genuine value to their reader's lives, armed with a smart PR firm will be making more money than ever before.

    (P.S. Hi Kate, saw you talking about the end of gatekeepers in the forum the other day.)

  9. You've got it twisted, Paul. I said publishers primary value is that they finance writers, facilitate distribution, make markets and, ideally, curate for a specific community. Marketing (different from making markets) is most publishers' weak point, something I've noted quite often on this blog and everywhere else I talk about publishing, including my day job.

    Publishers make markets via curation, aggregation and direct relationships with physical retail channels where over 80% of all book sales still happen. As sales channels evolve and digital sales (as opposed to sales of physical books via online channels) become more robust, a publisher will still have the upper hand over individual authors for the same reasons, because direct access to distribution doesn’t mean equal (or profitable) access, and the long tail favors scale. There's also a lot more to digital publishing than creating a PDF and setting up a Paypal account.

    POD companies do NOT distribute books, especially not into physical stores; they simply make a book available for order, something authors can easily do themselves through Lightning Source, though again, direct access doesn't equal sales or profit.

    You claim to want to move the discussion ahead, but you're offering up generic criticisms of publishers that don't apply across the board, and you're making huge assumptions that every author is a savvy businessperson and has the desire and wherewithal to take on the role of a publisher.

    The biggest problem with online discussions is the lack of perspective, and the assumption that any one person represents the benchmark. That you're even involved in the discussion puts you far ahead of the vast majority of authors, but let's not pretend just talking about it is moving things forward.

    Actions speak louder than words.

  10. My former IP attorney banged the drum with this question: “Who needs who more?” I discovered the answer changes at every milestone in the process from first draft to tenth printing. The well-stocked talent pipeline takes on an unusual vitality — an ability to withstand market fluctuation, changes in consumer trends, introduction of new technology — well, gosh — life itself. A good publisher is how a great author lives forever.

  11. Most writers want to write: not publish, market, distribute or sell. That's why people who do want to do those things are necessary.

  12. I agree. Most writers I've met want to go the traditional route and are intimidated by the business side of… well, the business. The good thing is that now there are legitimate and accessible alternatives for those willing and able to take on those other roles.

  13. Guy, this is a fascinating post, and I love the capitalising of reader at the end, which should almost have a hyperlink to your intro to the Nash interview 🙂

    If the web has changed anything (I DO think it has – and I don't think I'm a digevangelist for the sake of it, but because I perceive a change), it's the ability to reach and distribute to an author's niche with minimal outlay – if an author truly accepts that lack of bookshops sales are part of their business model (I think they should – specific deals with Indie stores aside – and for that reason I think self-publishing is wrong for most self-publishers), then the age-old obstacle of distribution has been removed from the equation.

    Your comment about curation is what I'm most interested in – I'm guessing you mean finding the best and maintaining the identity of the imprint – which seem to me to be things self-publishers COULD do rather well?

Keep blogs alive! Share your thoughts here.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.