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Who needs a publisher? 05/08/2012

Posted by schmublisher in Uncategorized.
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Having worked as an editor of one sort or another at book publishing houses for most of my adult life, it initially came as something of a shock to me that an author might consider selling their book by any means other than getting down on their knees and begging a publishing house to do the honours on their behalf.

But, these days, nearly everyone knows how to publish a book for themselves. And anyone who doesn’t can Google it, click a few times, hand over their credit card details, and before they know it their precious manuscript is being printed and bound by a machine (or, simply, downloaded onto one).

Given the apparent simplicity of self-publishing, and the occasional tales of massive success for self-published authors, it’s easy to see why a lot of would-be authors are deeply sceptical of traditional publishing methods. People are even  questioning why publishing houses still exist, when it’s now so easy to DIY.

Publishing ‘Mad Men’

Publishing houses can be seen as a bit other-worldly. At the top, men in bespoke suits drinking their lunch; at the bottom, men in blue overalls sweating over hot metal machines; and in the middle a bevy of bespectacled sauces, flirting manuscripts all the way from authors’ hands to booksellers’ shelves. There’s a mysterious vocabulary of galleys and rectos and flaps, and that’s before you’re even confronted by the squiggly-wiggly world of proofreading symbols, wielded by an army of grammar fusspots. There are numerous musty teams of editors organised hierarchically by how many cigarettes they smoke each day. Printing deals are secured in saki-sodden karaoke booths. And fleets of Martini-quaffing moustachios sail the seven seas, securing bookshop sales with a nod, a wink, and a few biros for the local children.

At least this is often the author’s pre-conception: that book publishers exist in an outdated and lavish world, funded by the blood, sweat and tears of their undervalued writers. And I have to take a deep breath and say: they’re not entirely wrong. There are still publishers in operation today who regularly throw champagne receptions for their unwitting authors (who don’t realise who is, ultimately, footing the bill), and who fly their executives Business Class for one-hour meetings, while hoards of unpaid interns are doing the real hard work at their own [parents’] expense in the vain hope they might one day be [poorly] paid for the privilege. My hope is that these outdated institutions will implode, leaving only those publishers who fairly recognise the hard work of all of those who create a book.

Bob’s Big Book of Bumblebees

Take Bob, the Generic First-Time Author. He has just finished writing a book that’s been his hobby for many years. Locked away every evening in the spare room with bottles of red, he’s typed his hopeful fingers sore in crafting what he believes is the next big thing. He’s checked his facts on Wikipaedia, thought up a witty title, and his sister-in-law’s next-door neighbour who is an English teacher has offered to check his spelling. He’s seen the banner ads offering to make him an independent publisher in micro-seconds. And he’s heard how much time publishers spend at lunch. So why on earth wouldn’t Bob want to self-publish?

Publishers are nice. Honest. Well, most of them, anyway.

The vast majority of book publishing houses are staffed by the most dedicated, talented, and honest professionals you could ever want to work with. Notoriously underpaid, they are driven by a love of books, a passion for selling, and a pride in an industry based on education and entertainment. Publishing managers, on the whole, are decent, trustworthy, good eggs. They are ruled by a complex set of copyright laws and contract obligations, which more often than not is entirely superfluous – a publisher’s word is his oath, and his livelihood. It has always amused me that when first-time authors send in a manuscript for consideration they often pepper the pages with copyright declarations and implied threats to sue if the publisher should steal their precious work. But a publisher would be no more likely to print a word of someone else’s intellectual property than they would be to set fire to their own shoes. Plagiarism is the pastime of the grimy record companies: book people are far too sporting for that kind of thing.

Well, that’s not much of an argument. Any other reasons to use a publisher?

Crudités and niceties aside, of course the most compelling reason to engage a publisher is that, if you get a good one, the publisher will have a name that’s known and respected by buyers. A publisher can potentially sell a lot more copies, and make an author a lot richer, despite offering lower royalties than a self-publishing service might. At the risk of stating what many [publishers] might see as the blindingly obvious:

  • The publisher has expertise the author doesn’t: how to edit; how to design and print; what’s the best format for the book; what’s the best format for the any accompanying material; and, most important of all, the publisher knows who has bought products like this previously, and how to make sure that similar people and organisations get to hear about this one.
  • The publisher takes on the risk for the author: they’ll edit and design it; they’ll print a few thousand copies in a format that their experience tells them they’ll be able to sell; and they’ll have a team of sales and marketing staff pushing the book through existing channels, and representatives worldwide trying to make sure the book is available anywhere it might be bought. They’ll do all this at no charge to the author and, so long as a good contract has been negotiated, they’ll even pay the author an advance on royalties upon signature. So, if no copies are sold, the author has lost nothing.

The ideal self-publisher

For some authors, self-publishing is the best option for many reasons. Here are a few good ones.

1.       Authors whose primary aim in publication is not profit

Surprising as it may seem in Bullingdon Britain, not everyone is out to make their fortune. Some people just want to see their beloved manuscript made into books they can give to their friends and family. Others just have a story to tell, message to deliver, or lesson to teach, and they don’t care whether they ever make a penny back from it. Self-publishing is ideal for these people. This is what was once known as ‘vanity publishing’.

2. Authors who are ‘big figures’ in a small market

Sometimes an author is the best possible person to sell their book. Experts in very specialised areas might find that they are best-placed to encounter the relatively small number of people who’ll want to buy their book. For example, if the Chairman of the Chartered Institute of Canine Beauticians wrote a book on how to paint a Doberman’s toenails, he’d be well advised to publish it himself, and write to his organisation’s members advising them to buy a copy.

3. Authors who’ve written a book that is going to sell like hotcakes, no matter who publishes it first

These authors had better have a crystal ball to hand. Or, failing that, a huge bag of hope. There are some massive success stories out there, but they are few and far between. It’s notable that many of the self-publishers who’ve done really well are often those who never approached a publisher first, so we’ll never know what level of success they’d have achieved through a more traditional publishing route.

4. Authors who’ve been turned down by several publishers and have nothing to lose

Publishers don’t always get it right, and of course there are many high profile examples of books that were turned down by one or more publishers before eventually gaining success. Self-publishing can now serve as a means of getting noticed by publishers and could be the key to turning rejection letters into invitations to champagne receptions.


So, Bob can publish his book himself. He can market it himself through a website and social media, and he might even sell some himself. The one thing he really mustn’t do, however, is edit it himself. Even the most fussy of the aforementioned grammar fusspots will tell you that it’s near-impossible to spot all of the errors in something you’ve written yourself. And a read-through from someone with a vague interest in reading is not much more helpful. Professional copyediting and proofreading are skills that require recognised training plus many years’ working experience to master. A book or e-book riddled with typos, poor grammar, bad punctuation, factual errors, repetition, or inconsistencies in the content will be dismissed by reviewers as ‘yet another self-published, disposable, cheap book’. There may be some writers who’d be unabashed at such a critique, as they’re only interested in publishing a large volume of poor-quality text. But Bob has put a lot of hard work into his book. He loves it, and he wants others to love it too. And so do I. Which is why I’d urge Bob, and all the other Bobs out there, to employ a good editor. Preferably, one who is also a schmublisher.



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