Saturday, April 20, 2013

Do we Need Publishers?


In an op-ed essay in the New York Times, Scott Turow warns about the “slow death of the American author” due to e-books, among other things. 
Hugh Howey, author of the indie-pub phenomenon Wool, on the other hand, says that self-publishing is the future, and great for writers.
In an essay for the online magazine Salon  he writes: “Those who take their writing seriously, who publish more than one title a year and do this year after year, are finding real success with their art. They are earning hundreds or thousands of dollars a month.”
Howey compares the self-published independent author to the independent musician. “We admire anyone who learns the grammar of chords and then strings these phrases together into music.” They begin by playing cover tunes, progress to busking and open-mic nights, get small gigs and hope to open for a big act or be discovered by a major label. “This is how artists are born. They are self-made.”
Like most successful musicians, Howey became an overnight success after years of hard work. His breakthrough, best-selling novel, Wool , was the eighth or ninth title that he published through Amazon’s Kindle Select program. After he sold half a million copies, Simon & Schuster offered seven figures for the publishing rights. Ridley Scott also optioned film rights.
According to Forbes magazine, Howey turned down S&S’s original seven-figure offer, and sold instead just the print rights for six figures. He kept the e-book rights for himself because he thinks that S&S won’t be able to sell enough to make up the royalty difference.

Not only is Howey’s story inspirational for all independent writers, it begs the question: what do we need publishers for? Either as writers, or as readers?
Commercial publishers claim to be agents of quality control: they find the best manuscripts, edit them rigourously, design and lay them out to be legible, print and distribute them so that readers enjoy reading them and promote them to bring them to the attention of audiences. Publishers take care of all those grimy aspects of publishing so authors are free to write more great books. And they keep those who cannot write very well out of print, sparing us readers.
Having worked for big and small publishers, here is what I know about the reality of choosing and editing books:
o   Acquisitions editors and agents choose manuscripts to publish based on sellability, not on quality. Because they cannot tell the future any better than you or me, they use factors like whether an author has been published before to make decisions. Getting selected from the slush pile is due either to blind luck or connections within the industry.
o   The quality of editing varies widely. Most copy-editors and proofreaders are right out of university and they’re so badly underpaid that most quickly seek more rewarding employment.
o   Manufacturing choices also come down to cost, not quality. The fact that magazines and book covers get printed in colour is due to competition and the relatively lower cost of colour printing today than 20 years ago.

In reality, authors today do most of what publishers did 20 years ago: research, check facts, write, edit, copy-edit and proofread. Interior design or layout is capably handled by word processing apps. Howey and any number of other authors concur that most authors published by big companies have to do their own promotion. The days of book launch tours are long gone.
What the corporations do is pay for printing and distributing copies to bookstores. The only promotion they do is of their biggest sellers and celebrity authors.
And it’s not hard for the individual author to handle that part as well as the commercial publishers do. Layout and production of e-books is done by software. Just follow Smashwords’, Amazon’s or iTunes’ instructions, and you’re fine. Amazon’s CreateSpace system makes laying out a book for print straightforward as well, and the quality is equal to, or better than commercial publishers’ — at prices is better than anything I’ve found in 30 years of managing printing.
That leaves cover design.

Proposing a new publishing model
Writers can do all the functions of a commercial publisher, and independent authors do so already. Hugh Howey’s experience proves that they do this very well.
In other words, authors don’t need publishers. I suggest a cooperative model of publishing.
A good writer is often a good editor, as well. (Not all are effective proofreaders, though.) Some are excellent cover designers — David C. Cassidy and Lisa Damers, for example.
As professional artists, we writers can trade our skills. We can trade editing skills for cover design, publicity for pre-publishing analysis, marketing savvy for layout or e-pub preparation. A large enough, dedicated enough group of authors can perform all the functions of a commercial publisher, without taking 90 percent of the authors’ revenues.
This is my suggestion: let’s get together, cooperate in producing the best books we can at a better price than commercial publishers ever could.
It’s time to return publishing to the authors.


  1. Very well written and researched article! Should be of interest for every writer, I'd say.Thanks, Scott!

  2. I loved this post, writers uniting to make their living, to co-create... very inspiring.
    Looking forward of seeing more of this spirit in the world!