In light of recent controversies surrounding the pricing and discounting of ebooks (you know who I am talking about), one issue that is not often acknowledged is the importance of the modern publisher in the creation of a book.
Publishers play a vital role in the lives of their books. What initially brings a book to life is the author’s vision. But each story, narrative, and novel benefits from the efforts of an editor—and the publishing machine behind that editor—who shares that author’s vision and helps bring it to fruition.
Authors can hire freelance editors, of course, but there is something unique about the relationship an author has with an editor who, in addition to improving and finessing the manuscript, also champions the book as it moves through the various stages of production, design, marketing, publicity, and sales. Over the years, as the number of bookstores and libraries has shrunk, publishers’ sales efforts and advocacy in the market have become more vital. From traditional outlets, specialty shops, to digital retailers, the publisher provides an invaluable link between the author and the retail channel. While it is possible for authors to liaise directly with some retail channels, it is difficult for them to adequately cover all the bases on their own.
An author’s efforts, in our experience, are better spent on the creative and promotional side of the business. Design is a part of publishing that frequently gets overlooked. Attractive typesetting for print books and savvy digitization for e-books make a huge difference in the reading experience. And covers often inspire more emotion than any other part of the process. It’s always exciting to see how different designers and publishers interpret various themes and subjects when creating a cover. From classic Grove covers to Chip Kidd designs, the diversity of artistic concepts makes the literary scene much more thrilling.
And then there is publicity and marketing. Reviews and traditional book coverage play a vital role in informing the reading public of new works, and there’s a huge new media landscape that savvy publicists are exploiting. The personal relationships authors develop with their publishers’ publicity teams are essential to publicizing and marketing their books. A single digital retailer simply cannot provide all of the elements that are key to a book’s success. Traditional publishing is not perfect—not all books fit into the traditional publishing model—but that doesn’t diminish the value that publishers provide.
As discussions about royalties heat up, it’s worth examining the standard royalty breakdown, which has been accepted by agents, authors, and publishers for decades. Royalties on print books are paid based on cover prices—as opposed to net receipts—to protect authors from steep discounting. For e-books, promotional discounting for a limited time does have value, but to allow them to be priced at the same level as iPhone apps, e.g., diminishes the cultural value of the work of their authors, as well as that of their agents, editors, publicists, and designers.
A vibrant literary landscape is dependent on a diverse publishing ecosystem. If one entity dominates the entire landscape, it risks sterilizing and commodifying the intellectual value of books. A wide array of publishing talent and sensibilities—from university presses and edgy independents to midsize houses and the Big Five—are vital to our literary health. Since the dawn of the printing press, publishers have partnered with authors to disseminate literature to the widest possible audience. E-books do not change this. If anything, publishers play an increasingly vital role in protecting the intellectual property of their authors’ books. The U.S. publishing industry has made our literary heritage one of the finest in the world—and it is well worth fighting for.
An earlier version of this story was published in the magazine on July 28.