January 11, 2009
Who Needs Publishers?
What do publishers really have to offer authors? Can't someone self-publish easily through Lulu or XLibris? Can't they sell their books on Amazon.com? Retail stores are in decline, so who needs publishers to get their books on the shelves?
1. help a book focus a conversation about important topics
Shirky was amazed to hear publishers talk about abandoning these functions in favor of finding authors who already have a "platform." If an author can already market directly to a group of potential readers, why does he or she need a publisher?
The answer, Shirky thinks, is by publishers making sure they matter to and are trusted by readers. As every publisher knows, however, readers almost never know--much less trust or distrust--publishers. Who publishes Toni Morrison or Thomas Friedman? Readers don't know. The only people likely to know are publishers themselves.
Shirky's three functions are good and valuable for publishers to focus on. But I don't see how looking for authors with platform negates them. The reality is that substantial decline in retail bookstore sales minimizes a traditional channel for publishers. In a bygone era retailers (who might have known publishers) also handsold books to customers. Retailers used to be the fulcrum between publishers and customers, and that fulcrum has shifted to the author. And as I've said here before, authors without platform rarely do well.
What do publishers offer, then, with self-publishers offering so much and retailers offering less? Years or decades of experience in knowing how people read, how ideas are absorbed, how story and content flow most effectively, powerfully and beautifully. (In short, editors.)
What do publishers offer? Years or decades of experience in knowing what books people buy, how they hear of them, where they buy them, how they buy them, why they buy them and how much they'll pay for them. (In short, marketers.)
And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about the contributions of professional book designers, print buyers, rights managers and others. (In short, more.)
Is the publishing world changing? You bet. Do publishers always know best how to deal with that? Not at all. If authors want to publish without editorial or marketing expertise, they can. Many do; some succeed, many don't. But if authors want such help, they can find it at a publishing house.