On the contribution of publishers

This post presents a second look at the familiar story regarding the transformation of information consumers into information producers and the idea that this shift is making book publishing companies obsolete. While the effects of the technology revolution have certainly empowered individuals, this common story overlooks some important aspects of the role that publishers play, and puts too much faith in a leveled-out, organization-less system. This essay presents an argument for the continuing value of the publishing house as an important factor in an information ecology.

I would like to point out the following roles that book publishing companies play in the book market:

  • a filtering or gatekeeping role, by controlling the titles that reach market channels according to quality and marketability;
  • an editing role, aimed at improving the quality of authors’ works;
  • a production role, which includes design and printing according to better standards of quality and efficiency;
  • a marketing role, which consists in organizing the information that makes the book market function by building title lists according to an editorial scope and disseminating that information to the appropriate audiences;
  • a creative role, in generating and nurturing projects;
  • and a financial role, by rewarding and sometimes financially supporting its authors.

A final consequence of the technology revolution for publishers may be that we will have smaller and more numerous firms selling to smaller audiences, but publishers will continue to play an important role in the book world, both print and electronic.

The filtering role

The period of the internet boom has been a period in which the filtering or “gateway” role of publishers, and other institutions as well, has been coming under pressure. This development has been welcomed by many people who have found a feeling of empowerment in it. The argument was made beginning in the 1980s that because publishers were driven by profit and owned by large corporations they filtered out important works that were critical, challenging, or innovative. As this argument was being made a number of trends were noticeable. First, small, independent publishers sprang up like wildflowers as alternatives to the mega-publishers, and then either died off or matured into important venues for critical, challenging, and innovative works. Within a decade or two, the internet emerged as an alternative means for individuals to make their voices heard, and digital technology enabled individuals to self-publish books more easily, as well as lowering the barriers to entry for new publishing companies. It was the dawn of the era of the consumer as publisher, and along with it came a suspicion of expertise and of the elitist role of the gatekeeper, the professor, and the technocrat. People began to put more trust in “people like themselves” than in people whom society’s institutions held up as experts or arbiters of quality or truth. We may have reached a point where this trend has reached it limit and is reversing, now that Americans have elected a President who represents technocratic competence rather than good ole’ boy common sense, and it is now mostly right wing crackpots who complain about the “elitists” in gatekeeping roles.

As the new information landscape has settled into a more or less stable framework, we have formed a new set of expectations:

  • Many of the more interesting books on niche subject areas are published by small, independent publishers, and being a small, independent publisher in itself does not indicate lower standards of quality but simply a narrower projected audience for its titles;
  • The trade market, which is focused on developing blockbuster titles and selling them in bookstores, is in a state of decline that is likely permanent;
  • The internet has become the default way to buy books, whether in or out of print;
  • The ways of finding out about books have multiplied;
  • People read fewer books;
  • While book publishing has been democratized, there is general recognition that The Memoirs of an Average Joe From Racine and the millions of self-published titles like it are not worth reading by people who are not friends or family of said Average Joe;
  • The lowering of the barriers to entry in the industry has meant more titles, more niche foci, and smaller print runs for the average book; and
  • Consequently, the average publishing house is less capitalized, which has the effect of reducing the overall financial support for writing as a profession, and encourages writing as an amateur pursuit.

Whether a publisher is trying to sell 50,000 copies of a book on the trade market or 500 copies of a book in a niche or academic market, it has an audience in mind that understands quality in a particular way and trusts the publisher’s brand to deliver that form of quality in its offerings. “Quality” may have more possible meanings than it once did in the book market, but it still means something to all but the most epistemologically anarchistic readers. If a book is self-published and has not been vetted by some publisher’s editorial acquisitions process, then readers who manage to find out about it in some way – usually on a blog – will have fewer reasons to feel confident that it is a good book. Authors who successfully publish their own books are able to do so because they are well-enough known not to need a publisher’s imprimatur for their readers to feel this confidence. (Edward Tufte is not like your average iUniverse author.) This means that the role of publishers as gateways, even if these gateways are more numerous and based on a broader range of standards and ideas of the meaning of quality, remains important in the marketplace.

The editing and production roles

Publishers have a natural interest in maintaining a standard of quality in their offerings in all dimensions. This means not only accepting some works and not others, but also editing those works to improve them. It also means having systems and talent in place to do higher-quality book design and high quality printing in a cost-effective way, bringing prices to a level that makes good sense in the book market. An individual who self-publishes a novel may take advantage of an author services company such as iUniverse, and this will allow him to make a book that looks generally good, but his choices of cover art are extremely limited, there is no editorial assistance provided to him, and the final price of the book will be inflated.

The marketing role

In this new book world the multiplicity of sources of bibliographic information – blogs, online booksellers, etc. – has made the list-building role of a publisher somewhat less important than it was in the past, but has not eliminated it as the primary organizing function of the marketplace. If I am a book selector in the field of rhetoric, I will get catalogs sent to me from Parlor Press, among others; if I want books about baseball history, a publisher with a strong list in that area is McFarland. Many important publishers maintain series that readers and collectors can follow to keep up with a field. Even large publishing houses that develop bestselling titles tend to be known for certain kinds of works, genres, and subject matter. The publisher’s imprint can lead a reader or collector from one book to another by grouping works editorially. There is no equivalent for the organizational function of the publisher’s imprint in the world of self-publishing.

The grouping function of the publisher extends to its marketing and advertising efforts. A publisher may purchase advertising space in a venue that is relevant to its editorial scope, and use that space to lead readers to more than one book. This means that publishers can spend resources on marketing and advertising more efficiently than self-publishers can.

The creative role

The preceding may be obvious to many readers, but the creative role of publishers is less familiar to people. Acquisitions editors don’t only read submitted manuscripts and make decisions about them. They also generate ideas for books, find the right authors for them, and nurture the writing process. At Litwin Books and Library Juice Press, five of our seventeen books now in print originated with in-house ideas. Another seven were existing manuscripts that we uncovered in our wide research, and the remaining five were submitted to us cold. Most of our twenty or so forthcoming book projects got started in conversations between us and the authors. As I understand the book industry, this collaborative process of developing titles is common if not typical. The publisher contributes creativity coupled with a studied sense of what the book market needs. Often even the most creative people need encouragement or other people to “think with.” The publisher offers the author a creative partnership that helps to develop ideas and make them real.

The financial role

Some people who write books make a living from it, while others do not, and the difference is the most important line of separation between large trade publishers and smaller niche and academic publishers. A bestselling book can easily generate income for an author that is equivalent to that of a full time job, where sales of a 500 copies sold of a typical university press title generate merely supplemental income. A professor may be expected to write books as a part of her job, but with librarians or authors in other niche markets the relative lack of remuneration for significant labor is a problem in the present information ecology. Writers will write, and there are rewards other than money, but making a living is always a more important priority, and this limits what many writers are able to produce for small, independent publishers. Small publishers can reward authors financially to a degree, but not enough to support them doing it full time. However, the opportunities they can provide to authors are opportunities that may not have existed at all previously.

The meaning for libraries

The shift from larger to smaller publishers is mostly good for librarians. There used to be a strong complaint of de-facto censorship of library collection development as a result of large publishers’ domination of information channels. Over the past decade or so, however, professional tools for library collection development – distributors’ lists, approval plans, review sources, bibliographies, publishers’ websites – began to inform us to a greater and greater degree about the offerings of small, independent presses. The publisher’s roles as a filter or gatekeeper and as an organizer of title information have been essential in making these tools work in the context of a broader marketplace, by helping reviewers and vendors know where to look for the good stuff that is being published in this or that area. Ten years ago, a publisher with the profile of Litwin Books would probably not have been on a major vendor’s approval plan, but because vendors have recognized the role of smaller publishers in focusing on specific subject areas, Litwin Books and Library Juice Press are now on the core list of publishers of both Blackwell’s and Yankee Book Peddler, which means that our titles are included in approval-based book shipments. The main obstacles that small, independent publishers now face in reaching the library market are simply their narrower target audiences and competition with the numerous other publishers in the marketplace.

The democratization of publishing has opened up great possibilities for authors and ideas, but I believe we are bouncing off of its limits and seeing the need for organization, expertise, and intellectual soundness. Publishers offer gatekeeping based on a myriad of principles, according to their niche. They also offer quality control, efficient pricing, information channeling, creative partnerships with authors, and a way to reward intellectual work. The landscape for books and reading has changed, but the basic role of publishing companies is re-emerging as the theme of individual empowerment has come up against the need to bring quality to the surface.

One comment on “On the contribution of publishers

Comments are closed.