Who Needs Publishers?

What do publishers really have to offer authors? Can’t someone self-publish easily through Lulu or XLibris? Can’t they sell their books on Amazon.com? Retail stores are in decline, so who needs publishers to get their books on the shelves?

Clay Shirky asked these sorts of questions in Publishers Weekly a couple of months ago. He thought publishers were especially well suited to

1. help a book focus a conversation about important topics
2. create social capital by making something that becomes more valuable as others consume it
3. do these two things on a large scale for the long term

Shirky was amazed to hear publishers talk about abandoning these functions in favor of finding authors who already have a “platform.” If an author can already market directly to a group of potential readers, why does he or she need a publisher?

The answer, Shirky thinks, is by publishers making sure they matter to and are trusted by readers. As every publisher knows, however, readers almost never know–much less trust or distrust–publishers. Who publishes Toni Morrison or Thomas Friedman? Readers don’t know. The only people likely to know are publishers themselves.

Shirky’s three functions are good and valuable for publishers to focus on. But I don’t see how looking for authors with platform negates them. The reality is that substantial decline in retail bookstore sales minimizes a traditional channel for publishers. In a bygone era retailers (who might have known publishers) also handsold books to customers. Retailers used to be the fulcrum between publishers and customers, and that fulcrum has shifted to the author. And as I’ve said here before, authors without platform rarely do well.

What do publishers offer, then, with self-publishers offering so much and retailers offering less? Years or decades of experience in knowing how people read, how ideas are absorbed, how story and content flow most effectively, powerfully and beautifully. (In short, editors.)

What do publishers offer? Years or decades of experience in knowing what books people buy, how they hear of them, where they buy them, how they buy them, why they buy them and how much they’ll pay for them. (In short, marketers.)

And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about the contributions of professional book designers, print buyers, rights managers and others. (In short, more.)

Is the publishing world changing? You bet. Do publishers always know best how to deal with that? Not at all. If authors want to publish without editorial or marketing expertise, they can. Many do; some succeed, many don’t. But if authors want such help, they can find it at a publishing house.

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

6 thoughts on “Who Needs Publishers?”

  1. Thank you, I have just begun the process of trying to publish my first book. This answered a question I have been turning over in my mind.

  2. I shared your valuable insights with my editorial colleagues at the publishing house where I work, and one of them responded with an idea for a possible future blog post: “I wish he’d comment sometime on how he has time to do this [blog].” Can’t wait to read your comments!

  3. Hi Linda

    Good to hear from you.

    How do I have time to do this? That’s a great question because most editors I know have way too much to do anyway. So how do you add one more thing?

    I try to take no more 30 minutes per blog (which may be self-evident, of course, from the quality that results). I will sometimes work on them at home or on breaks. I keep a running list of ideas (and coming up with ideas is actually the hardest part). I aim for two a week, but sometimes I only get one done.

    I find I’m writing all the time everyday anyways–emails, letters, reports and so forth. So it is part of my rhythm, I guess.


  4. Andy – I’m hearing this conversation almost weekly, it seems. Thanks for weighing in from the publisher’s vantage point. Also – what a fabulous cover on “Heart Soul Mind Strength.” As an author I hate to say this, but I will likely read it on the strength of the cover alone. (I’m actually a little jealous. I envisioned a dark cover on my last book, and was told by my publisher that “marketing says dark covers don’t sell.”) I hope you prove them wrong.

  5. Hi Leigh

    I think the conversation will be with us for a while since so much is in flux in so many ways. The answer, of course, is that there is no one solution that is perfect for everyone. So each author needs to gauge what is best in his or her particular situation.

    As to the cover of Heart. Soul. Mind. Strength.–yes, I love it. My designer friends here first showed me a “gag” cover as if it were the real thing. I tried to act objective, but when they burst out in laughter the cat was out of the bag. Of course, it made me like the “real” cover even more–“Please, anything but that!”

    That’s an interesting comment about dark covers not selling. That’s not been the case for us. One of our best-selling books last year was even blacker than mine. One designer told me–if all covers have deep colors, a white cover will get noticed. Likewise if all are white, a black cover will get noticed.

    Color of a cover depends on so many things–the genre of the book, the audience, what is in and out of style, etc. While certain guidelines do apply and need to be taken seriously, we should allow some room to maneuver.


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