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Response to “What do publishers bring to the table?”

http://bookendslitagency.blogspot.com/2009/10/what-do-publishers-bring-to-table.html
This article is iynteresting, but the answer seems like it has missed the big picture.  I admit, I’m an outsider to traditional publishing.  Coming from a more general direct marketing background, I have a much more flexible view of what publishing is (and should be.)

How many hats should an author have to wear?!

You’ve heard that saying, “A business owner has to wear many hats,” or some variation thereof.  I work with a lot of small business owners — or aspiring business owners — and find that most people are just not cut out for this.  The “wearing many hats” saying is misleading: it’s more like…

If your area of highest value is the ability to organize, stay on top of a lot of different areas, have a top-down view of a system, like to hook up different people talented in different areas to form a highly-efficient machine, and like to tune up the machine constantly, then you’re cut out to be a business owner of any scale.

In a perfect world, authors wouldn’t have to do anything but produce output in their area of highest value — the writing.  Most authors I know would love it if this were the case!  They could focus only on doing what they do best in the world, and the other modules of the publishing “machine” would take care of the other stuff.

What a publisher should be.

This, to me, is what a publisher should be: a “machine” whose job it is to distribute the highest-quality output to the people who want it.  To achieve that, the publisher has to make it possible for everyone — writers, editors, agents, marketers, artists, reviewers, etc — to function in their areas of highest value, to not have to dilute their time and energy with tasks that they don’t want to do.  There are exceptions, of course.  Some writers love to do their own PR and marketing, and some can self-edit or make book covers or other things.  But just because they can doesn’t mean that they should, or that they want to.

For a writer, the publisher’s job is to handle everything else but the writing.  A publisher should not offload the jobs that it should be doing onto its talent; that would be like making animators at a movie studio also write the scripts.  Sure, some would be able to do it, but most would want to get back to the thing that they most want to do — draw!

As a reader, this is what I want.  If everyone is free to contribute in their areas of highest skill, the books will be the best that they can be.

So, in response to the original article…

My answer is to stop focusing on the specific current functions of a book publisher, such as providing editing and refinement, creating book covers, getting catalog coverage, etc.  This is a limited view that promotes the uncreative “me-too” thinking that is the death of any business or industry.  Instead, the focus should be on the end result — connecting buyers with the highest-quality output — and how publishers can achieve that.  If I were interested in writing professionally, instead of questions about editing, PR, and cover art, I’d ask myself these:

  • Will a publisher allow me to function at maximum capacity?
  • Does the publisher inspire trust that it will do its job so that I can do mine?
  • Do I have confidence that my publisher can do the best job selling my work so that I can keep writing?

Do any publishers inspire this kind of confidence?  From the general response of writers on Twitter (a limited sample, but honest), I’d say that this whole business needs a tune-up.

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Chris Anderson’s Free: If Read Carefully, Seth Isn’t Wrong

First of all, here’s Seth Godin’s response to Malcom Gladwell’s response to Free.

I believe in paying for quality content, and creating content worth paying for.  My customers seem to agree!  For the past four years, I’ve run a small e-press in a niche nonfiction subject, and I’ve been profitable since I launched.

As a buyer of digital products, though, I realize that there is a huge trust barrier.  Free sampling isn’t just a good idea; it’s usually necessary for customers to feel good about their decision to buy from you.  My micropress has three books out, and one of them is totally free so that customers can experience what my brand stands for.  I’ve essentially been following Anderson’s model, which isn’t new at all, but an old workhorse that all direct marketers know about.

After reading Anderson’s book, a lot of people — writers and publishers especially — have the reaction of “Eek, all content is going to be free and no writers/artists/musicians will be paid for their work, and everyone will have to pick up a jackhammer or wait tables to pay the bills, so no quality work will get put out, and it will be the Dark Ages Of Entertainment, and we’ll all have to resort to crappy high school YouTube videos to get our laughs.”

Then, when Seth Godin backed him up, they wailed, “But I thought this guy was supposed to be smart and help us sell stuff, not give it away for free!”

But they didn’t read his reaction closely enough.  Seth Godin said that people will pay for content:

People will pay for content if it is so unique they can’t get it anywhere else, so fast they benefit from getting it before anyone else, or so related to their tribe that paying for it brings them closer to other people.

That’s art (or entertainment)!  It is so unique that only the artist can create it.  And being associated with a tribe?  That’s just being a good, meaningful brand.  No business should be only content; it should stand for something, whether the business is a single blogger or an international manufacturer.

Seth also said that people won’t pay for content if it’s the same old stuff as everyone else:

People will not pay for by-the-book rewrites of news that belongs to all of us. People will not pay for yesterday’s news, driven to our house, delivered a day late, static, without connection or comments or relevance. Why should we? A good book review on Amazon is more reliable and easier to find than a paid-for professional review that used to run in your local newspaper, isn’t it?

Again, I think he’s right.  Any blogger can report the news, give a writeup, or provide a bunch of outbound links.  That is truly commodity content, and everyone can have access to the raw source and create “content” from it.  As both a reader and a “content provider,” I agree that it is certainly not enough value to exchange money for.

To me, the problem is that Seth Godin and Chris Anderson are putting a lot of emphasis on something that is just standard direct marketing wisdom, so everyone starts to wonder if there’s more to it than that.  I don’t think there is, digital world or not.