As you probably know if you have ever been asked to ponder the relative benefits of trim size and paper stock and e-book conversions, there is whole a lot more that goes into a book than just writing it.
Another way of thinking of publishers is not as companies that decide your fate as an author, but rather as companies that offer the authors they’ve chosen to work with a comprehensive package of services.
Here are the basic services traditional publishers provide for an author, why these services matter, and how this is (and isn’t) changing:
Editing and Copyediting:
While the myth that editors don’t edit is alive and well, the truth is that books are edited and copyedited at traditional publishers (please please please know the difference between editing and copyediting). This affords a certain degree of quality control. Now, sure, we’ve all spotted typos in books, which infect us temporarily with disproportionate outrage and a jolt of smugness. It happens. But all you have to do is read this blog on a regular basis to see the horrorshow of typos that results from text published without copyediting.
Editors and copyeditors (yes, still), provide professional editorial expertise that improve books. I’m sure you’ve heard they don’t edit and copyedit anymore. It’s not true.
Cover, trim size, interior design, illustrations/photographs, font choice, paper choice, etc. The best-designed books are works of art.
Printing and Distribution:
Once the books are actually produced, someone has to get them into bookstores and e-bookstores. Traditionally this has been the irreplaceable service offered by publishers. Not only would they make the books, they would draw upon their reputation, sales teams, and infrastructure to get print books into bookstores in large numbers.
Even in the e-book era distribution still matters. There are new e-book vendors cropping up every day, and publishers have the scale to sell their e-books in as many venues as possible while dealing with all of the accompanying electronic conversion headaches.
Publicity and Marketing:
At minimum publishers get their books sent out for review and do some basic advertising. When a publisher turns on the publicity and marketing fire hose for their biggest books, they will manage book tours, author appearances, giveaways, major advertising campaigns, co-op, and much more. Publicity and marketing aren’t everything, but they can provide a major boost.
Patronage (i.e. an advance):
While debut novelists almost always have to figure out how to write a novel on their own time and dime, publishers nevertheless offer nonfiction authors and previously published novelists money in advance of writing the actual books, which both rewards authors before their book actually comes out and theoretically supports them as they’re writing it. Obviously the degree of support this affords the author depends on the amount of the advance, but money up front that the author doesn’t have to pay back even if the book tanks ain’t nothin’ to sneeze at.
Aside from all the tangible services publishers offer authors, there is one intangible element: cachet. There is something to be said for the selectivity and track record publishers have demonstrated and for the endorsement they still lend to traditionally published books. While the name of the publisher on the spine of a book doesn’t matter to everyone, it does still matter to many bookstores and readers.
Now then. The key element in all of this that is changing is, of course, printing and distribution. In an e-book era, it is no longer be necessary to have extensive physical infrastructure in order to make a book available, and when it comes to e-book distribution publishers are no longer the only game in town. Authors can either deal directly with Amazon, Apple, etc. or work with third-party digital distribution services.
But that just covers one element of the book-making process. Every other basic element that goes into a successful book is still pretty much the same. Books may be edited on Microsoft Word instead of with colored pencil, but you still need editing. Your marketing may be more Twitter-based than newspaper-based, but you still need marketing.
Thus, an author dealing directly with an e-book distributor has to figure out how to handle patronage, editorial, quality control, design, marketing and publicity, and must possess (or build) cachet. They’ll have to either tackle all of this themselves, or farm some or all of it out to contractors and must possess the financial and time-consumption wherewithal to do it.
For some authors (most recently Seth Godin), the flexibility, control, and greater back-end revenue afforded by self-publication is worth it. Other authors may feel that they don’t want to be bothered with the nuts and bolts of figuring out their own copyediting, cover design, interior design, marketing, and may still want the imprimatur of a publisher.
Personally I think this is the reason why publishers aren’t going to disappear even in an era where they no longer possess a virtual monopoly in distribution. Many authors don’t want to be bothered with the nuts and bolts of book-making so they can focus on writing and marketing and their day jobs, and are willing to part with revenue on the back end in order to have these tasks handled by seasoned experts.
What is inevitably changing, though, is that authors will have a choice: handle it all themselves, contract some elements out, or go with a publisher offering a comprehensive package of services.