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Publishers: What are they good for?

O'Reilly editors examine the role of traditional publishers in light of Amanda Hocking's independent success.

Update, 3/25/11: Amanda Hocking has reportedly signed a $2 million deal with St. Martin’s for her next series. Here’s the news and here’s her thoughts on the deal.

Self-published author Amanda Hocking turned heads when estimates suggested she’s making big money. Hocking’s age — she’s 26 — and her distribution method of choice — low-priced ebooks sold directly through Amazon, et al. — undoubtedly contributed to the attention.

The inclination is to paint this picture in broad strokes: An upstart author finds success outside the traditional method, which reveals the imminent demise of the stodgy incumbents (insert David vs. Goliath and/or “Innovator’s Dilemma” references as needed).

It’s a good story, but Hocking isn’t buying it. In a blog post titled “Some Things That Need to Be Said,” Hocking makes two important points:

  1. Success in any domain is unpredictable. “… While I do think I will not be the only one to do this — others will be as successful as I’ve been, some even more so — I don’t think it will happen that often,” she writes.
  2. Self-publishing and traditional publishing are branches on the same tree. “Self-publishing and traditional publishing really aren’t that different,” Hocking says. “One is easier to get into but harder to maintain. But neither come with guarantees. Some books will sell, some won’t.”

Her full post is worth a read.

News of Hocking’s success led to an interesting back-channel conversation on an O’Reilly editor’s list. The perspectives articulated in the resulting email thread reflect many of the important issues at play in today’s publishing world. With permission, I’m moving a few excerpts into public view below. I think (and hope) there’s an opportunity to instigate some broader discussion.

Amanda Hocking on Amazon
Screenshot of Amazon’s Amanda Hocking page

What do publishers offer?

In the email exchange, Brett McLaughlin considered the return on investment of traditional publishing’s bread and butter: in-depth editing. Is editing as important as publishers think it is?

Many of the things we think are of incredibly high value turn out to be of far less value to the consumer. Certainly, we can say that editing of a Kindle fiction book probably needs to be less rigorous than a print technology book, or even more so in the case of a language-heavy theological commentary … I’d do well to think hard about what’s worth holding a product up in the name of “editing” and what just doesn’t matter to the paying public.

Tim O’Reilly noted that good editing adapts to the author and the project:

Sometimes, we need to almost become co-authors; at other times, we need to just step back and let the author speak, even if it’s a bit different than we would do it ourselves. But ideally, editing is a conversation in which the editor helps the author clarify his or her own ideas, the order and learning path, and the depth of treatment.

Russell Jones made an intriguing point about publishing processes. What once was mandatory is now optional:

Rather than a required step in publishing, editorial is in the process of switching from an imposed step by publishers to an optional step by authors. It’s this change in focus that makes publishers nervous. But I don’t think it should, necessarily. As Tim points out, there are times when the author’s original voice is sufficient, and times when the editor/author conversation becomes paramount.

As I see it, the future of publishing and editing is to identify those touchpoints and offer the appropriate services as required at that time. And we have numerous services to offer, including: artwork, audience research, marketing and advertising, public relations, design, technological expertise, sales and distribution, brand association, community services, update and notification services, bundling, and of course, editorial.

The very fact that authors can publish works without a traditional publisher automatically changes the publisher’s role from one that imposes process on authors to one that offers services to authors. Nimble publishers will recognize this sea change and adapt.

Mike Loukides looked at the “cheerleading” editors give to authors:

The economics of publishing are changing in ways that make it difficult for publishers to do the kind of rewriting and revision that we used to do, but that’s only part of the picture. A huge part that we haven’t thought about enough is what I call the “cheerleading” role: supporting and encouraging the author so that he or she makes it down the stretch. So, though we’re going to have to rely more on writers who can deliver good prose without lots of help, that’s a small part of the value we deliver. There’s a lot of value in shaping the approach and pushing the author toward the finish line.

Many characterize Hocking as a self publisher, but that’s not quite right. The companies that own the distribution/sales platforms Hocking and other authors use are in many ways the real publishers. In the email thread, Tim O’Reilly used Amazon to illustrate this point:

I think it’s important to frame all this correctly. We’re not really talking about a situation where authors are self-publishing so much as one where we’re watching Amazon become a publisher. Amazon is starting with the now standard Internet approach of “publish first, curate afterwards” (vs. the old scarcity model of “curate, then publish”), but it’s also clear that as the ecosystem develops, Amazon will offer more of the kinds of services that Russell is talking about.

If Amazon and Apple and others are publishers now, what competitive advantage can traditional publishers claim? Brett McLaughlin said the things that happen around the writing process — the conversations, the shaping, and the author-editor relationships — are key differentiators:

There is huge value in saying: You’re getting access and long conversations with an editor who is engaged in your field, who is reading and thinking and talking to others about the same topics, who reads everything you’ve already written, and will engage you.

In short, you’re pair-writing, and the result isn’t just a spell-checked, green-underline-less document in Word that can be turned into a web page or a Kindle product. What you’re creating is a book that is cognitively and substantively better, because you are thinking better. You are well-reasoned and provocative and well-organized, and you have had your pre-suppositions challenged by a great companion. Sure, your book is better as a result, but so is your speech, and your sessions at conferences, and your work product. Ultimately, you are a better thinker.

Your thoughts?

Even when you want to be open minded, it’s hard to fully understand the field of play when you’re ensnared in a system. I fall into that trap all the time, and I’m probably caught in it now.

As such, I’m curious to hear what other folks think. Do the perspectives outlined above seem on target? Or, is the thread of optimism that runs through these points tied to a misplaced sense of publisher self-worth? And here’s a question for authors: Are publishers still useful?

Please weigh in through the comments.

Portions of these excerpts were edited and condensed.


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Comments: 18

  1. In some cases, publishers still offer authors advertising and marketing opportunities that are hard to do on one’s own. Graphic design and layout are another strength that publishers can offer. It’s easy to see though that as time goes on and Amazon/Apple model of publishing could win out.

  2. I don’t consider Apple and Amazon to be publishers so much as ecosystems. It’s similar to programming. Formatting and publishing a book for one platform (iBookstore) doesn’t mean an ebook will also work well on another platform (Kindle).

    As someone who’s self-published, the most interesting part about Hocking’s post for me was when she wrote about how much time she spends not-writing. Self-publishing isn’t magic, it’s work. It takes time. And in the case of self-publishers, it takes a lot of on-the-job self-training. Traditional publishers, presumably, have the experience and resources to take care of business while leaving the writers to write (and edit, and rewrite).

    I really wish O’Reilly would add another animal to their menagerie and come up with a book on self-publishing. Yes, it would be somewhat ironic if a traditional publisher put out a book about self-publishing, but at least O’Reilly has a name I trust.

  3. Self-publishing offers writers an outlet for work that isn’t marketable, i.e. a non-fiction piece of 20,000 words. This will help aspiring writers (and established writers) build a platform outside a publisher’s web of influence.

    However, the target for most writers is to be published and I don’t see that changing. Being published gives credibility that won’t necessarily come from self-publishing, regardless of the number of copies sold.

    Also, the success of a book, and the number of sales, is not dependent on the method of creation and distribution Plenty of published books don’t sell; plenty of self-published books do. The difference is that an author will gain proportionally more income from self-publishing. Therefore, every big success will be perceived as a ‘bigger’ success than a published book that sell the same number of copies.

  4. As a start-up ebook publisher that is currently creating all of our titles in-house, we’re finding the editing process an interesting challenge. In the distant past I wrote a half dozen how to books for mid-line publishers and editorial was a big deal, though there were times when they got things spectacularly wrong (the copy editor who removed all contractions, for example).
    What I learned is that self-editing simply doesn’t work- you can’t see the forest for the trees. Also, much of the talk around self-publishing is fiction. Non-fiction requires things like fact-checking, clarity, etc.
    What it really comes down to is the value proposition. If I want to sell highly concentrated yet easily accessible expertise, the quality must be high enough for a reader to choose us over some freebie, most of which are pretty bad.
    We plan on using writers in a collaborative process but first we have to get our act together with a quality voice and value.

  5. Publishers bring their established relationships with sales accounts and media to the table. Those relationships provide the exposure authors seek.

    Publishers build a name for themselves – a brand – and can pre-sell copies into well established, routinely visited, markets. The publisher becomes known and trusted for a certain level of quality. The term “Business is about relationships” never meant more.

    So there is value in being published by a company that specializes in selling and promoting your topic area.

    The option of self-publishing can be time-consuming and requires some of that entrepreneurial spirit. It’s not for everyone. So I think we will always need publishers.

    Self-publishing is a good way to start though. Once the book is done, and an author platform has been built, it’s easier to pitch. That’s what happened with my cookbook “The Good Home Cookbook: More Thank 1000 Classic American Recipes.” By first self-publishing and making a good profit, my advance was like thick icing on the cake.

    Rick Perry

  6. Editors are a crucial component of the task called “writing.” They are, as I said in the acknowledgments of one of my books, the people who prevent us from making public fools of ourselves.

    And because of that, I am weary to the point of nausea of the attacks on “publishing” and editors.

    Writers aim for a kind of immortality: we hope our ideas are still valued many years hence. (Note I said “our ideas,” not “our books,” because in the end, a “book” is simply a vehicle for expressing ideas/knowledge/wisdom of some kind. Doesn’t matter if it’s read on a Kindle, on paper, or on a monitor; it’s the content, stupid.)

    And often another mind and another set of eyes help the writer fine tune those ideas and thus ensure the kind of solidity that forges longevity.

    Editors can help writers achieve that end. Some writers need hand-holding early in their career. Perhaps more “experienced” writers need a morale boost or a reality check or, again, simply another set of trusted eyes.

    Obviously the universe of “publishing” is immense. Some writers crank out what amount to disposable books: enjoyable in the moment, and a sensible way to pass the time. Nothing wrong with that at all! Others aim for more substance.

    Publishing has adapted to the immense diversity of what readers want: some editors aim for acquisition, turning out books for the moment. They don’t edit so much as they position for the market.

    Other editors (and their houses) focus on content, polish, and depth, all toward the goal of authorial longevity. Can some writers dispense with editors completely? Sure. But they’re rare animals (or they’re so successful already — thanks to years of working with editors — that they’ve learned enough to dispense with that other set of eyes).

    But it’s unlikely that we’ll see a publishing/writing world anytime soon that functions without any editors at all.

    I admire Hocking’s ambition and her drive — and, based on the blog post in question (which I’d already read), her wisdom.

    And I’m betting that in another two or three years, she will be singing the praises of the editor who helps her make the next step along the writing/publishing road.

  7. I think the future of publishers comes down to the question of whether they want to become authors or service providers to authors: http://www.toothbrushisland.com/u/pete/are-publishers-still-useful.html

  8. I’m sorry to make this so simple but publishers sell stuff.

    Self-publishers are able to sell their own stuff. They have the publisher’s instinct to know what the market wants, and the writer’s ability to deliver.

    Most writers don’t have that instinct. Most publishers don’t have that ability to deliver.

    If you can help me make money from my writing, define for me what the market will buy and, if I can deliver it, we got a deal.

    If I knew what the market wanted, I’d produce it myself and get rich.

  9. Editors are relatively well-paid employees of publishers, and authors are low-wage temps. Authors need to cash in on some other benefit to make a book project worthwhile. In the case of O’Reilly, the benefit is typically recognition. The author can use this to promote a more profitable activity such as training or consulting. Without such a non-monetary benefit, it is unusual to find authors who want to do a second book.

    O’Reilly does a great job of creating these and other side benefits for authors, and as a result O’Reilly can pay even less.

    It is obvious to readers of computer books when a book is well-edited, because it contains useful code that runs. A publisher such as O’Reilly profits in proportion to their reputation for quality assurance. Self publishers would require some other mechanism to establish reputation. Endorsements and reviews come to mind, but these are subject to abuse and might not be trusted. Lower prices might be a better approach. Users will risk a couple of bucks on a trusted ecommerce platform for a book with good reviews.

    Shorter books at lower prices already work well. I think the O’Reilly pocket guides and Hacks books prove that this works in print. I don’t think there is a size-based market hole for self-publishing.

    If self-publishing becomes a worthwhile risk for authors, the authors could hire the same editors and graphic designers they are working with now, and the roles would be reversed. In this scenario, it would be the authors money at risk to pay the editors. Authors could expect to have a much larger share of the rewards or losses.

    As some authors become successful at self-publishing, they can hire temps to write books for them, become publishers, and then either run the business or have a nice exit when their publishing company gets acquired. It has always worked this way, but removing the atoms from publishing will reduce the inertia of this cycle of renewal. As a result I expect the rate of revolution to increase, continuous turnover, and more smaller players.

  10. We haven’t heard anything about the role of the agent in all of this. I come from a non-fiction background but in fiction is the filtering, refining and testing traditionally done by agents shifting on to the self-publishing marketplace? To what extent are publishers scanning the self-publishing arena for their next big deal?

    I agree with Martin that self-publishing non-fiction has particular challenges around fact checking etc. I wonder though if the lower barriers to entry into the market will entice more associations and even corporates to produce their own specialised works rather than partnering with publishers and giving away a big chunk of revenue. To my knowledge that hasn’t happened with journals, but it’s all to play for with books.

  11. You’ve rightly drawn attention to the need for in-depth editing. While services such as Lulu may offer distribution, design, and POD (print on demand), none that I’ve encountered thus far offer editing!

    That said, to echo Rick’s point self publishing is a great way for new writers to test their craft.

  12. Sadly I have found editing to be really lacking in the print world– I have published five mystery novels with print publishers and never gotten the kind of collaborative editing that is mentioned here.

    E-publishers seem to really shine in this area, as so many of the content editors, line editors and copy editors are doing this work for love (and a share of the royalties) and that’s all they do.

    Today when I make a decision about how to publish a book (with a publisher or on my own) it’s about what that book needs, and in particular about how the publisher can help with the book’s marketing.

  13. Stephen J. Anderson

    Book Printer, Lulu offer something they call the Laureate Package at 4729 USD, which includes phone support, 100 paperbacks, 25 hardbacks, cover design, layout and a full copy edit of up to 100,000 words.

  14. hey mac, remember me? :+)

    i’ve stayed away because i was censored here,
    and because y’all are increasingly out of touch.
    (and yes, you’ve fallen into the trap, mac; sorry.)

    hocking is _not_ particularly self-aware about
    what she represents, mostly because she has
    no experience with the publishing industry…
    (except that it couldn’t find any place for her,
    which one would think is all that she’d need.)

    amanda’s right, of course, that not every writer
    who self-publishes will make a million bucks,
    especially not in their first year outta the gate;
    but that is hardly “big surprising news”, is it?

    you’d get a much more lucid take on all this
    if you read joe konrath’s blog instead, since
    he does have experience with the old guard.
    but you ain’t gonna like what he is saying…

    or you could just cut all the lines to the past,
    without passing “go” or collecting $200, and
    skip directly to a study of _john_locke_, who
    you’ll find topping the kindle best-seller list.
    he has a keen grasp of the world that will be.

    self-publishing writers are running away
    with your lunch, and your allowance too.
    while you are busy holding conferences…

    and yeah, editing is extremely important,
    and self-publishing writers need it badly,
    but publishers don’t have a lock on editing.
    heck, you’re firing more editors than you’re
    hiring these days… you could look it up…


    p.s. that was particularly cruel of all of you
    to make mike hendrickson write that post on
    “the future of the book” without telling him
    that it’s a topic that has been covered yearly
    for over a decade now. yet it still seems new!
    cruel, i tell you, cruel… and unspeakably so.

  15. I think publishers are useful, however, the process to becoming published and the happenings during the publishing process (i.e. the same editors taking authors’ work and not leaving their voices intact, having to make changes to your work though you may not want to, etc) make going that route less appealing. Additionally, the time that it takes to publish traditionally, as opposed to publishing on one’s own, is substantially longer.

    Because traditional publishing is somewhat of a monopoly, it makes that type of publishing—traditional publishing—seem less likely.

    As an editor, I agree that editing has become something optional when most times, it needs to be a leading factor, carrying the same weight as book design and marketing. However, I do think that saying, “We can offer you an editor” doesn’t help someone or isn’t provocative enough to make someone want to publish with your company.

    Until manuscripts are reviewed and accepted in a more timely fashion and at higher rates for authors, it won’t be as appealing. Traditional publishing seems like the NFL, NBA or entertainment business, only a few will make the cut.

  16. The quotes from editors and publishers provide good insights into how they view themselves and their role. Even more useful, though, would be data comparing the sales and financial outcomes for self-published and traditionally published ebook authors. And it would be good to get a broader range of perspectives from authors: how well has traditional publishing worked for them? Do they have any idea whether they could do better(or would do worse) if self-published? How well has self-publishing worked for them?

    A look at the Kindle top-100 fiction would suggest that self-publishing success is not limited to Amanda Hocking. And a quick analysis of the revenue structure at Amazon and at publishing houses would suggest that a moderately successful self-published author does better financially than a very successful traditionally published author, since the self-pubber gets the entire revenue from her books less the 30% that goes to Amazon.

    An earlier commenter noted that authors are ‘low-paid temps’ vis a vis the publishing houses. Maybe a more equitable structure would be that authors engage editing services as a work-for-hire. And the same for cover-art, and perhaps marketing support. So, rather than giving up control of the revenue stream, the author can decide what she can afford and which services are most valuable.

  17. I self published my first book was picked up by a publishing house – topped the NYT list a couple of times – sold 5 million copies around the world. I am now returning to self publishing as I have never seen such a hash made by publishers of the 14 books I have written.

  18. It’s the righting of a very old wrong that publishers should now have to stop imposing their will on writers and instead become subordinate, offering helpful services such as design and proofreading but without the unjustified control that they have enjoyed until this point in technological history.
    While the representatives from traditional publishing quoted here sound quite reasonable and even friendly toward the new world, I can assure you that, behind the scenes, most are anything but.

    Publishers have held a position of power that was completely undeserved for a long time, acting simply as liaison between the creative artist and the business person who owns the presses. But, like most brats who enjoy such power unjustly, they have come to believe that they were far more instrumental in creating the great books than they really were. And they will be not accept their new, subordinate role graciously.