Thursday, November 3, 2011

Is the Great Debate asking the Wrong Question?

posted by Saul

Publishing Point's Susan Danzinger recently posted a video of this past spring's "Great Debate" at the London Book Fair. Having not attended, this was a good chance for me to see and hear first hand what has increasingly been driving a wedge in the literary community over the past several months. I'd already gotten the basic gist of the discussion from other sources, but I was curious to hear, in its entirety, the debate based on the inciteful premise: “Publishers in the digital age will be irrelevant.”
Or put another way: "All that will matter is the writer and the reader."

The panelists comprised of four experts. Two advocates for the "resolution": Cory Doctorow, bestselling author, blogger, and Publishers Weekly columnist; and London-based tech author and publisher James Bridle. Arguing against the resolution: Richard Charkin, executive director of Bloomsbury Publishing; and Andrew Franklin, publisher and managing director of Profile Books.

First of all, what is a publisher?

The panelists each came armed with a different definition of the title, each slanted to favor their own argument. Not surprisingly, Charkin and Franklin tended to stick to the more traditional definitions of the word, one based on what have been traditional roles by publishers. Doctorow and Bridle favored more progressive meanings, ones flexible enough to accomodate newer and, as yet unrealized, roles of publishers, which, ironically, tended to undercut their arguments over any future irrelevance.
Here's what I think a publisher is: In its most fundamental meaning, a publisher is a professional who facilitates the process whereby a book is brought to a reader. Implicit in this, though not necessary to publishing, are all the attendant functions that publishers currently oversee:
  • acquisition
  • editing
  • formatting and design
  • printing
  • marketing and promotion
  • distribution
  • rights management and other legal details (contract, copyright, slander, etc)
  • ISBN, Library of Congress cataloguing
Now, I look at that list and I think, "That's a hell of a lot of work," and it is. Thank god for publishers. Really.

But is that really the point?

What are we really asking?

If all that matters is the writer (story) and the reader, then we can immediately dispatch with the last two items on that list. ISBNs are easily, if not cheaply (or even freely) obtained by any individual. LOC data is only necessary for placing books in libraries. And all those legal details are ancillary issues that readers care little about; they are part of the writing business. Or busy-ness, as the case may be. Because, at the end of the day, a writer wants to get his/her book into the hands of a reader. That's what matters.

Now, let's break down the rest.


Well, without getting into the practical aspects of this function for the world of literature, suffice it to say, this is a uniquely publisher-oriented activity. It is a construct created solely out of the gatekeeper model that writers espoused for decades, if not hundreds of years. But now the gates have been crashed. And yet the keepers and their supporters still stand by their vestiges, while books (and writers) bypass them in droves.

Irrelevant? Absolutely. A problem? Unfortunately. We're being inundated by a tidal wave of everything under the sun, from zombie cookbooks to children's picture books with f-bombs strafing every page. Some of it's questionable, but not all, certainly a fraction. Adding to the body of world literature? Absolutely. Polluting it? Yes, indeed. But the bottom line is this: almost none of it would have been published if the gates had been left intact.


This has been, in my mind, the most important function of the publisher, and it's one that cannot be easily supplanted outside the traditional publishing framework. Editors provide a much needed independent perspective on a book, and it is precisely because their goal is to bring the most marketable book into being that the publisher-editor has been such a successful entity. True, these folks answer to the the publisher's marketing machinery, occasionally to the detriment of the author's vision, but here again the purpose adheres to a higher principle.

Outside of the traditional publishing model, writers can access editing functions through freelance services on a fee-basis. The problem, or potential weakness, of this structure is that the freelance editor is beholden to the very writer whose work is being edited, and so lacks complete objectivity. In industrial manufacturing, this sort of quality control structure would never be acceptable. In self-publishing, for this to work at all and continue to work, the editorial contribution itself must be taken to task. The self-published writer who clearly identifies the book's editor guarantees that the quality of future work will remain high or will improve by allowing the public to recognize and employ good editors while subjecting poor ones to obsolescence.

Formatting and Design

Design (cover, font, etc) is an asthetic issue, and so it only impinges upon the reading experience from an asthetic (and promotional) point of view. Design doesn't alter the content except, perhaps, from an emotional level. On the other hand, formatting, like editing, can seriously affect readability. The question is, however, can writers easily bypass publishers to achieve a high level of design and formatting that provides the reader an appealing package that is easily consumed without getting in the way of content? Absolutely, and indie writers are learning how to do this better every day.


With the advent of print-on-demand (POD) services, any writer can now easily produce a physical copy of their book. POD works well for one-offs and low print copy numbers, although it becomes less profitable at high volumes.

But many writers are completely forgoing printed copies of their titles and opting instead for digital. Certainly this is the trend of the future. If or when print dies out is a question of some considerable debate; however, the controversy is moot in relation to the writer-reader equation.

Another strike against publisher relevance.

Marketing and promotion

Writers are being asked to assume more and more of these activities by their publishers, forcing one to wonder if publishers are too cheap to do their own. No, of course not. Publishers know that some of the most effective promotion is done by the author anyway, and technology has evolved to support this shift. Yes, the publisher still has a massive promotional framework on which they can generate considerable buzz for a book both before and after launch, but let's face it, they don't employ it for the majority of their established authors and almost never for their first-time authors.

Writers are already doing a lot of their own promotional work. Publishers have only themselves to blame for making themselves irrelevant in this regard.


No indie can match the distribution network of the traditional publisher...for print libraries and schools and bookstores. But with the shift to digital, this is all changing. Writers can now access any individual in the world as long as they have a computer, a smartphone, a tablet, or an ereader with an internet connection. The problem then becomes one of rising above the noise, which also happens to be a problem publishers have to contend with, albeit at a much attenuated level. This is because publishers still enjoy a certain imprimateur: brand-recognition is used by readers to find new products to purchase. But with author platforms becoming more and more important, publisher-branding is becoming less and less of a considerion. And the lack of one certainly isn't an absolute block to the indie writer.

But what about the coveted author advance?

As it stands now, very few indie writers are capaable of securing money for their projects upfront, ahead of sales, irrespective of actual future sales. This has been the writer's ball-and-chain, beholding them to publishers. But the models are changing. Writers are finding new sources of funding. They are not easy to obtain, nor will they ever be, despite more and more willingness by nontraditional sources to fund writers. But lack of an advance is not an impediment to a would-pe author. With the trade-off of higher royalties after sale and the elimination of long publishing queues, many writers are willingly opting out of advances.

Finally, why call it a resolution?

I'm still not sure why the Great Debate decided to call the topic a resolution. What did they hope to resolve? Apparently nothing, if the vote counts taken both before and after the debate are to be believed. The for:against ratio changed little following the debate, remaining heavily skewed against the premise that publishers will become irrelevant.

But then again, that's not surprising. Consider the participants: the old guard, publishing professionals within the industry, editors and agents and their supporters, their careers firmly entrenched within the old models, firmly invested in maintaining the status quo. Or, as was stated in Publisher's Weekly's summary of the debate: "clearly publishers at the London Book Fair are not eager to disintermediate themselves."

The real question

Will publishers become irrelevant? Clearly we've seen that the writer-book-reader path can be both immediate (self-pubbed) and intermediated (all routes), with the role of the intermediator falling anywhere along the range. The digital democratization of publishing has enabled this. It seems, therefore, that the idea of the publisher and thus their precise definition, will evolve considerably. So, no, there will not be a phasing out of "publishers" anytime soon, at least if the most flexible definition of the term is employed.

But implicit in that above statement is something publishers seem not to be able to grasp, or are unwilling to grasp: evolution. Like the most delicate of living species, the established models are fragile constructs, a pathwork of policies and solutions whose very survival has only been allowed by the absence of competing forces to eliminate them. Those forces are growing. Without change, those old models and their advocates will go extinct.

The real question, then, seems to me to be: "What will publishers look like in the future?"

Ask any publisher today, and the answer you'll get will look disconcertingly familiar. Ask any indie writer, and you'll get any number of different answers, but very few of them will be what publishers want to hear. And right now, indie writers are the Darwinian force of change.

What do you think? Will publishers become irrelevant? What will they "look" like in the future?

Here is a link to Publisher's Weekly's summary of the Great Debate.

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