Posted on

The role of publishers (according to a profitable publisher)

I’ve been looking at Publetariat, a site I had previously noted but hadn’t explored. April, the founder, recently contacted me about using one of my blog posts, and it reminded me to check it out.

The whole site is for people who want to self publish or start their own small publishing ventures. It’s really cool to see real support, real community, and real discussion about these issues, not vanity presses taking advantage of people’s ignorance.

But it really got me thinking about the role of publishers.

And I’ve seen one horrible issue discussed by both writers and publishers, and it really disturbs both my reader and publisher sides.

A lot of writers think that they should have to do their own promotion. Should have to, like it’s automatically part of their job. They denounce other writers who speak against it as having a sense of entitlement. “If you’re not willing to promote yourself, then you’re not worthy of being published.”


Since when is a writer’s value dependent on how well he or she can promote themselves? A writer’s value comes from what they write!

Here’s what gets me: Small presses feel justified in asking their writers to do it, which implies that somehow, writers will be able to do it better than the small presses.

Wrong-o! What is a publisher? A business that refines, packages, and sells “the talent’s” output. If they can’t market and sell, what is their job?

Remember, I am a publisher and business owner, so I put my money where my mouth is. I’ve brought in a profit every month for the last four years. If I don’t do a good job, if my numbers are down or I get complaints, it’s because I made bad business decisions. If the book I invested in doesn’t do well, it’s because I was wrong or I’m not selling it properly. But I don’t blame the book or the writer. I look in the mirror, not out the window.

A publisher’s responsibility is to sell the products they invest in. That’s how they make money.
Writers need publishers because it’s the most efficient division of labor. The talent makes the product, publishers sell the product. Optimally, it’s a partnership set up for maximum performance on both sides — an assembly line that results in both better quality and faster output, like any improvement in organizational technology.

It’s not the writers’ fault that the publishers aren’t doing their jobs.
Current publishing conditions dictate the need for self-marketing, but this automatic link between promotion and being a writer is bogus. When I talk to other marketers, fiction publishing is a joke because the industry, on a whole, is so dumb about marketing.

Skill share time.

That being said, I believe in being part of the solution, not the problem. I accept the current reality: the way things are now, writers need to self-promote to succeed. What I can do right now is share some knowledge that you can use, almost immediately.

This skill is the most important skill for a small business, taken from smart marketing techniques used by “silent millionaires” everywhere. It’s so basic, so simple, that it’s easy to underestimate, especially since so many people think they’re doing it right, but aren’t.

It is learning to build and sell to an email list.

Not anything revolutionary, but so incredibly useful. It’s what real marketers learn to do first — and it’s responsible for my being profitable on the first day I offered something for sale.

Posted on

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