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Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Changing the way we see ourselves: perceptions of publishers

What are we doing here?

That’s the sort of existential question we as publishers have been asking—and responding to—again and again as publishing (aided by digital formats and by increased access to distribution channels through online retailers) becomes more accessible to independent individuals.

One of the more recent articles to pose this question appeared in the Guardian late last month. The article quotes a number of self-published writers who are not big fans of the publishing industry, and my first read of it made me admittedly hot under the collar. And, strangely, it’s because these self-published authors are, in a roundabout way, defending the publishing process even as they criticize traditional publishers:

Whenever I talk about self-publishing I’m always very careful to explain what I mean – yes, it’s about taking control yourself, but you should involve experts in the process to replicate – or better – what traditional publishing does. I’ve got quite a few editors, a team of readers, a cover designer, and that’s what I’d advise anyone to do who’s self-publishing.

In all honesty, I agree. This is the appropriate way to go about self-publishing. And I do think that all self-published authors should strive to have that level of professional review. But to say that everyone should go the self-publishing route every time? That’s where I have a problem.

The article quotes self-published author Adam Croft: “Publishing, up until now, has been one of the only real closed markets in a free market economy.” Croft cites publishers’ role as gatekeepers of literature, raising the objection that the gatekeeper-ness of the publishing institution is a false authority.

Regardless of the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the gatekeeper role, however, I take issue with the idea that publishers close off the book market. On the contrary, traditional publishers have long served as the “venture capitalists” of the literary world, allowing authors who would not have the means to front the capital necessary to employ all of the experienced editors, designers, etc. who make a book happen.

And that’s not to mention the way that publishing with a traditional publisher flip-flops the normal revenue stream: where self-published authors must pay for publication and wait for sales to trickle in, traditionally published authors receive a nice advance for their work—before a single copy hits the shelves.

Not to say that all self-published authors are blindly dismantling the publishing institution. A recent GalleyCat article cited agent Janet Reid, who (on her blog) gives some tough sales goals for the self-published author. Her number? Twenty thousand copies.

Ultimately, I can’t fault self-publishers for encouraging others to become literary entrepreneurs. However, this needs to come with the caveat that in order to be that successfully self-published Cinderella, authors will need to have the resources of time, money, and connections to ensure that the book is given its best chance. The right mix of topic, writer, and audience can be dynamite for self-published authors who can take the business end of things and do it well. If you don’t have those resources or that acumen? Perhaps it’s time to do a few rewrites on that manuscript and keep submitting.

And, finally, I don’t think it’s fair to look at publishers as the snobby gatekeepers of art—no matter how much we may like to think of that as our role in the content industry. As I see it, the function we really serve is to be a democratic element in literature: seeking out deserving or promising writers on whom we want to stake our capital and reputation (whatever that may be), and providing them with the resources to become the best they can be.

But I’m just one voice in the throng. What do you think?

About Leah Thompson

Writing and publishing professional in the Boston area.

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This entry was posted on November 5, 2012 by in Culture and tagged .

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