|"The Money Changer" - Rembrandt|
For now, self-published authors absolutely do need publishers in some form if they want to hit it really big because publishers can get print books into bookstores. But as the John Locke deal demonstrates, they don't necessarily need them to publish the e-books, and in fact, in many if not most cases the authors would prefer to hang onto e-book rights themselves.
And this is a major challenge for publishers as we move forward into a primarily e-book world: By the time a self-published author hits it big will they really need a publisher?
Let's revise that: In an e-book world, by the time any author hits it big will they really need a publisher?
This is an existential question for the traditional publishing industry. What value will they provide authors who already have made a name for themselves?
The Package of Services Publishers Provide
As I've blogged previously, publishers provide these essential services that go into making a book: Editing and Copyediting, Design, Printing and Distribution, Publicity and Marketing, Patronage (i.e. an advance), and Cachet.
While there are amazing editors in the traditional publishing industry, there are also plenty of great freelancers (many of whom used to be quite successful in the publishing industry). Editing can be farmed out. Design can be farmed out. Distribution is a snap in an e-book world.
If you're just starting out, chances are you really do need the Publicity and Marketing, the Patronage, and the Cachet that a publisher provides. This is what I needed as an author, and I don't regret going the traditional route with my debut novel.
But if an author does an end-around and is successful without a publisher, if they have amassed their own funds, they can easily handle their own distribution, and if they are well-known (i.e. they don't need Publicity/Marketing, Patronage and Cachet)... well, what can a publisher do for them then that they can't do themselves? Especially when traditional publishers are offering paltry e-book royalties?
For publishers, here's the nightmare publishing path for authors of the future: Author signs with traditional publisher for first book, author hits it big, author says thankyouverymuch I got this now and self-publishes from then on out.
Publishers depend heavily on the steady and huge sales of the James Pattersons, Stephen Kings, Dean Koontzs and Danielle Steels of the world. For now, those authors still need publishers because it's still a print world and publishers are indispensable for getting paper into stores.
Ten years from now that won't be the case. What are publishers going to do then? What will make them indispensable?
Well, first off, there will always be authors who want to focus on just the writing, and the package of services publishers provide will keep a certain portion sticking with publishers. It's massively time consuming to self-publish, and not everyone is going to want to pursue that path. This is one of the main reasons, for instance, self-publishing superstar Amanda Hocking cited for choosing a traditional publisher for her next books.
But I think publishers are going to have to think long and hard about what exactly they will actually be providing authors in an e-book world. There needs to be a major mindset shift from a gatekeeper-oriented "You're lucky to be with us" mentality where authors are treated on a need-to-know and your-check-will-arrive-when-it-arrives basis to a service-oriented "What else could we possibly do for you" mentality.
No more books that get dropped in the ocean without publisher support. Embracing and investing in new marketing tactics for the Internet era. Becoming an integral part of how consumers find books.
And innovating with new ideas and experiments and models. Some publishers are, yes, but is it enough?
Authors should want to have their e-books published by the traditional publishers, not be forced to grudgingly give them up in exchange for being published in print. Big authors are soon going to have a choice, and publishers are going to need to make themselves indispensable once again.
Disclaimer: Simon & Schuster is owned by CBS, which is the parent company of CNET, where I am happily employed. The views expressed herein are completely my own.