Sunday, August 8, 2010

Whither Publishers?

A couple of interesting developments in the field of writing lately.

1. recently announced that the majority of their business in books is now in ebooks. More people are now reading their books on their kindles and computers than ordering their physical counterparts.
2. Dorchester Publishing, a mass market romance publisher, has just announced they will be dropping the traditional print publishing model in favor of ebooks and print on demand.

Ebooks are the future...and they are a future where the author has direct access to the market if he is willing to go it alone. And there are lots of authors doing just that. So the question I've heard floated around recently is, "Do publishers have a future? Do they serve any real purpose?"

The simple answer to those questions is...Yes.

As the market changes, those publishers who adapt to the new realities will survive. The larger ones who continue to try and preserve their roles as gatekeepers will be the ones that suffer the most, since the reality is the walls have been knocked down all around the gate they're trying to keep. But I still view them with worry as I can envision them trying through legal or corporate means to put the genie back in the bottle and causing a lot of mischief before they fail. My biggest worry is some kind of business arrangement being made with where they only carry works by publishers on the kindle, in return for bigger profits on the books by publishers that they sell. I know that sounds paranoid, but I can imagine that idea being bounced around at the top offices of Random House or elsewhere. I think such an effort would be doomed to fail, eventually, but it's just evil enough I could envision somebody trying it.

Oh well, outside of paranoid scenarios, I still think publishers have a role in the business. I think it's an emerging threefold role in the coming market, and the publishers who realize that and work with it will be the ones who prosper. Those three roles will be...

1. Replacing their roles as gatekeepers with roles as guaranteers of quality. In the new market where anybody can publish anything, there is going to be a lot of dreck out there. Reputation will start to become a very important thing as readers learn to view each new ebook with suspicion, wondering if it's just another poorly edited and formatted  work thrown out there in hopes of a quick buck. Publishers can use their names as a seal of approval, for works worthy of that.

2 Not all authors are going to be either tech savvy enough, or confident enough, to go the route of self publishing. They will always prefer the security of a publisher between them and the market. I don't foresee there ever being a dearth of writers who just don't want to deal with non writing stuff. Thats a trait shared by a large number of writers. This role is different from publishers who view themselves as gatekeepers...this type of publisher will view themselves as enablers.

3.Even authors who can self publish, could find the services of a publisher useful. First of all, there is the editing. A publisher who offers editing and other services could build a clientele of self published authors. Same with cover work. Not all self published authors can just whip up their own covers. And of course theres that process of getting a copyright and stuff like that. A savvy small publisher could develop good relationships with self published authors while selling them their services. I think relationships will be an important part of the future between writers and publishers.

So the three new roles that the new market will need are quality guaranteer, enabler, and service provider. The publishers who adapt and rise to meet those needs will be okay. Those standing around guarding gates out in a lonely field somewhere will probably not do as well.

Also, there are times when even a competent self publishing author might feel a particular project would be best served being published under a trusted publishers name. I know a lot of self published authors view publishers in an adversarial light, but I think that's short sighted. I believe that small publishers and writers, even self published writers, have a lot to offer each other and having a good relationship with each other would benefit both of them. Even though I'm getting better and more comfortable with self publishing, I can think of several situations where I might still prefer to use a publisher. It's all a matter of having the right fit for the right project.


  1. Well put, Nate.
    If I were a decade or so younger, I'd toss my little publishing Co. in that service category. But right now, I don't think I can keep my own projects going and tackle more than the one or two a month I get from outside sources.

    Ach! I was born too late.

    What's a +65-year-old techy to do?

  2. Well-said. I believe even with electronic publishing, people are generally going to want to read the big names that they recognize. Unknown self-published writers aren't going to get big sales no matter how low they price their work. But at least it does give them a forum. I agree that publishers will remain the gatekeepers even in electronic publication.

  3. No one seems to mention the role of publishers selling their authors. With ebooks a less expensive publishing alternative, there are a couple directions that they could go with the savings: higher royalties to authors and/or more support for mid-list authors, or both. Of course, they can keep the profits too :-) I note that more books are getting 30 second spots on television. I heard one for Patterson, one for Mary Higgins Clark and, surprise, one for a book by Tate Publishing (name escapes me - so the the promo must have been more publisher than book oriented). author of Ghost Orchid, a mystery of love, lies & redemption

  4. Nate, well said. D.K. Christi's comment interesting and once more -- well said.

    Betty Gordon

  5. awesome article, you captured so much of what I've been mulling on lately. I too think there will always be a partnership. I just hope that more doors can open for stories that are not meant to be blockbuster best sellers. I'd love to see a flourishing marketplace for a wider range of authors.

    In my research, too, I'm finding the self-publishing community is adopting 'indie' as their movement name. Podcasters, web-directors, a bunch of artists that are going straight to market are using the Indie-Author, Indie-Performer. It avoids the self-publishing stigma :)

    As an author dabbling in the dark arts :), I testify to the tech hurdles out there. Kindle has the easiest publishing portal. The epub (iBookstore) formatting is a mucky mess that is really hard to create and successfully submit to the iBookstore. So it won't be too easy to jump into the game. But Kindle just opened a UK store, so our stories are there, too! We're international Indie Authors :)

    I also read an article that Dorchester is backing off of their announcement, clarifying that it was current lists only and that the future is uncertain, so we shall see.

    Scary and exciting all at once. Can't wait to read your next story, though, and that's how it starts. One reader at a time :)