By Drew Lazzara
The thing that surprises me most about the evolution of the publishing industry is a gut feeling I have that lots of people really don’t like the publishing industry.
That surprises me because, at its absolute worst, publishing seems so benign. Most of the time, publishers just make books, and for that I thank them. But in the last six years or so, as the viability of self-publishing and associated technology has afforded writers greater opportunities, there has been a surprising swell in vitriol directed at traditional publishers. In some cases, the critiques read is if writers have toiled under the yoke and oppression of slavery since the dawn of the printed word, and they are finally being liberated to connect with their audience, unencumbered.
Publishers are depicted as greedy monopolists, hoarding intellectual rights, paying pittances to indentured authors, stifling creativity, over-charging an eager-but-cash-strapped public, cruelly mediating the relationship between readers and writers, and reaping huge profits for themselves. To hear some tell it, to pursue the publication of your book through traditional channels, whether you are a huge-selling author or an entirely unknown one, is a fool’s errand. (I can’t decide whether the fact that the author of that piece I linked to, Hugh Howey, signed a deal with Simon & Schuster constitutes hypocrisy or not. I guess he still wanted to be in bookstores).
I’m not really here to defend traditional publishing. I think the industry has made plenty of shortsighted mistakes that have rendered it non-adaptable. And even if it ran like a Swiss watch, nimbly water-bugging from trend to trend and innovation to innovation, bookmaking would still not offer all the advantages of self-publishing. Margins would still be low and most writers would still get heaps of rejection slips and marketing teams would still need loads of help from their authors and there would still be no guarantees and houses would still retain most of the rights because they would still foot the bill. So, as an industry, publishing merits criticism in lots of ways.
But publishing is also a process, and that distinction is critical for readers and writers of all stripes. As businesses, traditional publishing and self-publishing are simply about who controls the process. The process itself does not change.
Those of us who work at some stage in the process don’t make enough noise about how critical and immutable those stages are. Editing is important, because even excellent writers need someone to help them cultivate their ideas. Sometimes, they need a team of those people. Readers depend on editors. Design is important, because an ugly book, or an e-book that is practically un-readable, is an embarrassing affront to paying customers and an injustice to art. Marketing, sales, and distribution are important for obvious reasons. The people who work at these stages are critical, and they deserve to be compensated for the value they add. This stuff is the real publishing, and I will adamantly defend the process.
You know who else doesn’t make enough noise about the necessity of the publishing process? Self-published authors. In lots of cases, they have been quick to criticize, and happy to ring the death-knell of publishing, but you hear next to nothing about the team of people that made their novels a success. In the Howey piece above, he pays a bit of lip-service to editing, but he doesn’t explain that the necessity of editing (and design and distribution) means that “self-publishing” still involves lots and lots of other people (you know, publishing professionals) in order to work.
I get a bit upset about this largely because I am a publishing professional. The implication that publishing is just a money-sucking dinosaur standing in the way of fairly-compensated authors and their voracious audience is misleading and insulting. Publishing as an industry has its flaws, and is paying the price. But the evolving form of publishing has done nothing to alter the fundamental process, and that’s where real publishing happens. Everyone involved in the process believes in books, reading, writing, and art. We also believe in being paid fairly for the work we do. I believe we do all those things a disservice when we pretend that we are at odds simply because there are suddenly different ways of accomplishing a familiar goal. Self-publishing might be liberating for authors in lots of ways, but it’s also liberating for editors like me. There is a future for all of us. On the same side, just like always.