Do we need publishers?

By Scott Bury

The Hobbit. Game of Thrones. The Twilight saga. Harry Potter. Snow White and the Huntsman. Oz, the Great and Powerful. Once Upon a Time.

Hollywood continues to score hits in the science fiction and fantasy genres, on both the big and small screens. There is an appetite for this kind of fiction.

And browsing around bookstores, grocery stores and the immense emporia that masquerade as drugstores these days reveals an appetite among the public for fantasy, too. Like Hollywood, when the Big Six (I accidentally typed “Bix” there — maybe that should be the new short form for the six most over-bloated international conglomerates that dominate print publishing these days) notice something that sells, like sexy vampires, they trip over each other trying to put more of the same out there.

The strategy works, to a point; or it works for commercial publishers, in that it makes money.

But does it work as well for readers? For those who want more of the same thing over and over, I guess so. Personally, I think of it like I do the prospect of eating the same meal for supper every day.

That’s what the commercial publishers do, though. Comprising people with no better ability to predict the future than anyone else, they look at what sells and, in an era of rocketing technological change, shrinking profit margins and markets going digital faster than ice melting in my coffee, look for new books that are the same as the best-sellers of yesterday. Given the gestation period of your average book and the time required for sales figures to come back from the market front, these poor souls are picking products like Perseus aiming his arrow at the Gorgon’s face in the reflection of his bronze shield.

The big lie

Flickr via Creative Commons/comedy_nose

At one time, the publishing company’s business model made sense. Printing and distributing books is expensive. It takes an organization with some capital to take a manuscript to pay all the people needed to turn a manuscript into something that an audience will want to read: at least three different editors, a proofreader and designer. Printing paper only made sense when you produced at least a few thousand copies so the unit cost would be low enough for buyers to pay it. All this has to be done before an audience has bought a single copy.

But back in the day, the model worked, and some authors even got paid an advance on their sales royalties when they gave their manuscript to the publisher.

Because the publisher fronted all these costs, they controlled the process and, to varying degrees, the content, as well. And because they paid the editors, the publishers could enforce their own standards of editorial quality. At one time, a publisher’s colophon — their corporate symbol on the book spine and title page — meant a certain quality. Penguin and Knopf, for example, had a cachet of literature.

Things are different today, and it’s not just because of e-books and Amazon. The concurrent corporate merger dance is at least as important, because with fewer players in the market, there is necessarily less differentiation. That’s just one of the lessons of Economics 101.

And a commercial publisher’s selection of a manuscript from the slush pile doesn’t mean it’s good, either. “Good” isn’t one of the criteria: the publishers are mega-corporations, and Economics 101 tells us that their sole criterion is: will it make money?

You can argue that better books, overall, sell better, and I can point to any number of terrible best-sellers. Whether quality is subjective or not, sales are measured by a different standard than quality. Sales is easy to measure. Quality is not.

That doesn’t hinder the commercial publishers. They keep telling readers — and writers — the Big Lie: that they select only good manuscripts to publish, and that’s why readers have to pay 10 to 15 bucks for a book. Then they’ll give us another story about sexy vampires, or cute dragons, or rip-off of whatever was the big hit two years ago.

It’s time for a new way.

Proposing a new publishing model

Not that kind of model! (Creative Commons: wikipedia)

Writers can perform all the functions of a commercial publisher, and independent authors do so already. Every member of this Guild has proven that.

I suggest a cooperative model of publishing, where authors control the process.

Typically, a writer can also be a good editor, or a good proofreader (these are very different skills). Some are also good cover designers — David C. Cassidy [link: ] designed the cover of my second (non-fantasy) novel, One Shade of Red, for example, and Lisa Damerst  designed the cover of The Bones of the Earth. In return, I edited their manuscripts.

This is an example of the kind of cooperation I want to encourage in the independent publishing world. As professional artists, we writers can trade our skills. We can trade editing skills for cover design, publicity for pre-publishing analysis, marketing savvy for layout or e-pub preparation.

With a large enough group of authors willing to cooperate, we can become a de facto publishing entity — one that leaves control, responsibility and revenue in the hands of the authors.

There are variations of ways this could work: authors can swap duties, like I did; they could negotiate fees for different services; or they could even work for a share of royalties — much like commercial publishers, but with the author in charge of the money.

I’d like to hear from writers, but also readers about this idea. What do you think: do authors need publishers, anymore? Do readers?

Scott Bury is author of fantasy titles The Bones of the Earth and Dark Clouds, as well as the romantic-erotic comedy One Shade of Red. His blog is Written Words.


25 comments on “Do we need publishers?

  1. There are two things that big publishers can offer that still isn’t something the indies can match. The first is distribution. Yes, independants can produce in both print and electronic formats with a variety of distribution options – with much more available to them than they ever had in the past – but it still doesn’t compare to the myriad of distribution methods the big publishers have, including some vendors who simply won’t look at independant publications. The other is status. As much as the industry is changing, there is still an element of public perception that lends more status to a book if it has been published by a big publisher, whether quality is at issue or not. I think if the indies can find a way of matching or trumping these factors, they could then give big publishers a proper challenge and I could easily see more traditional authors changing their tune about self-publishing.

    • There are some ways that independents can challenge the Big Six. For distribution, let’s embrace the move to digital and away from print. A big corporation has almost limitless wealth compared to an independent author, enabling it to pay for paper and ink and fuel to move books around. But when it comes to building electronic distribution networks, a group of capable, focused professionals can do as well, or better, than any corporation.

      As for status, again, cooperation is the key. What’s the difference between a corporation and a group of professionals working in concert toward an agreed goal? If we share expertise and cooperate to raise the quality of each other’s work, eventually the reading public will no longer attach a quality premium to the commercial publisher. But that’s going to take professionalism and dedication to excellence and cooperation.

      • Moving away from print is an option but it does, for the moment, alienate a part of the market. Personally, I think the concept of ebooks is great, but (ironically) I really hate reading off an ereader or tablet. I love books, I like their smell, to hold them in my hands, etc. I love browsing bookstores and online bookstores have no interest for me. Even though many books I’ve discovered through blogs sound awesome, I may never get around to reading them because of their format. As a writer, that puts me in a weird position because I will eventually have to choose how I want to publish. Nevertheless, I can’t be the only one who still appreciates paper books.

      • It’s relatively simple to create paperbacks, and if you use Lightning Source instead of Createspace then you get access to Ingram’s distribution network as well. My two novels both have paperback versions, and they are available on every major book retailers websites. Getting them into physical bookstores is a different challenge, because in addition to the 40% discount you need to give, you have to allow for returns, and that can be disastrous for an indie publisher. If, for example, B&N order 10,000 copies of your book and then decide to return them, you will be responsible for the cost of those books, and that can lead to a debt of thousands. The distribution networks are already out there, but you need to be smart as to how you engage with them.

  2. As a reader, I don’t need bookstores. Which is good, because where I live the closest one with a decent variety is an hour away. The local stores are great and interesting, but once you’ve gone through the rack…well, you’ll see the same titles all winter. I love the selection and search-ability of Ebooks and the price of course! When you can finish a good book in four hours, discounts are really nice.

    As a writer…well, I’m still new at this. When I started out, I wanted to land a publishing contract. Now, I’m not even looking. Heck, I’m not even curious what that would be like. I love the Indie community and support. Unless all electronic devices die in a solar flare, readership of Ebooks will continue to grow. It works for me.

  3. I agree with Chantal. Those two things–distribution and status–are the only things holding indies back. But they won’t always, so we have to keep plugging away.

    I’ve traded services in the past with another writer. It’s a great way to keep moving forward when funds are limited.

  4. I think cooperation between authors is a great idea. But in doing so, won’t we just eventually end up recreating the same entity as big publishers? It’s the eternal partern of one group replacing the previous one, thinking they’re better and more fair. Then, as time goes by, the members realize they’ve turned into what they had sworn to abolish. I like the idea but it has its dangers.

    • The key is in cooperation – if the content remains under the control of the creator, then the publishing cooperative will not make the same errors as the commercial publisher.

  5. I’ve noticed the same thing about the Bix process, as well Scott; I discuss it in my blog post . It’s infuriating, and the side-effect of keeping writers from even trying is nearly criminal.

    I’ve said before that a “writer’s Co-Op” is the way that the Indie scene gets the best version of the “Bix” group. Right now, when I get something published, I’ve got a team of folks I use to deliver what I’ve been told is a very polished piece of work. Most of that team are writers. We either trade cash or barter skills or even go pro-bono just because we want to see our friends succeed.

    The problem with any proper “Co-Op”, is that to really make it fly, you need to have folks willing to invest a bit of cash as well as re-publish a couple of successful books. I’d love to see this model take off, but conventional wisdom says that you should flee screaming from any publisher that wants you to pay in before you get paid.

    Right now, I really do believe we need publishing organizations of some kind. There is strength in numbers and sharing success amplifies it. However, I think the “Bix” (I love this term, btw, Scott) style of traditional publishing is on it’s way out. As I commented in my above-listed blog post, the new job of the Bix is to take successful authors out of “e” and into “big p”. When they stop fighting it and start embracing it, the world as authors know it is going to be very interesting.

    Excellent post, Scott. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

    • A little cash is all it would take, as long as prospective members are willing to invest something more valuable: time. For example, I bartered services to get my books edited and covers designed. In return, I edited their manuscripts.

  6. Thanks for the great post, Scott.
    The one problem that will always haunt Indie authors is the availability to publish their work without following the proper steps (editing, proofreading, professional cover, formatting). There will always people tempted to take the quick and easy road (and less expensive) to publish their book. As long as this continues to happen, the ‘status’ offered by the big six will continue to elude Indies.
    Regarding distribution, I would challenge someone to prove to me that this is truly a valuable feature added by trad publishers. I read recently that, in any given month, 80% of the books in a bookstore sell ZERO copies, that the majority of the 20% that did sell, only sell one copy, and the chances are good those books won’t sell a copy the next month. Knowing that, how many extra copies need to be sold at trad pubs low commissions (approx. 17% vs. 70% from Amazon as an indie) to make up the difference? Can having my book sit spine-out in a bookstore in Carlyle, Saskatchewan make up the difference? Or is it just another source of status because I can tell my Mom that I made it because my book is in the bookstore?
    Finding success as a writer is difficult no matter which path you choose. Personally, I have chosen Indie publishing, but that doesn’t make it right for everyone. What it does give me, however, is control.

    • Hey Bruce,

      I can tell my mom, my book made it to a Bookstore. Granted, it’s a local one, I printed the copies myself, walked them down to the store, spoke to the manager and he agreed to put them up for a % of the sell price.

      But, I can say it. And if my mom were alive, she’d be very proud…*laughs*

      The point being, it can be done, if that’s all you’re looking for.

      The bigger “status” symbol to me is to say to someone, “Hey, I’m #1 over on Amazon!” Granted I can’t say that, yet, but I know it’ll happen. Might be next year, but I have faith.

      Scott, I agree that we need more of an organized Co-Op of Indie Authors. Right now, I have a small group of people – like you – that I barter with. For my cover designer, she gave me a huge discount because I promised her exclusive work for the 17 books in my series. (She’s already done two and I love them! And they’re doing well.) The same thing for my formatter – Huge discount because I promised him the exclusive. And finally, same for my editor. With my Beta’s, it’s a trade off. Read my work and I’ll read yours and provide feedback – no cost to any of us.

      And yes, I’m laying out the cost of cover, editing and formatting, but I’m getting huge discounts on the frontend because I have plenty of work going their way.

      However, I am the exception to the rule, I know. Not everyone has spent the years I have writing, editing, and generally prepping 17 different books in the same series and that’s so far. In the world I’ve created, the stories are unlimited and I plan to keep writing more if the others start to really pick up. Which, as I said above, I have faith they will. (Again, I know I’m the exception to the rule…but I’m weird like that.)

      Does this mean I would, or would not, consider joining a Co-Op program? Maybe. It would just depend and I’d like to offer the chance for *my* team (Designer, Editor and Formatter) to come along for the ride – if they were willing at least. I think that would be the only fair thing to do for them, ya know?

      Ok, hops of soapbox now.

      Thanks Scott for the excellent post and idea. I wish you well with it.

  7. I am both trad published (non-fiction) and about to go the Indie route with my fiction. I so agree with Bruce’s two points – until there is some form of quality control/validation for Indie publishers, many readers are going to continue to be sceptical, and their doubts are proven over and over by the sheer quantity of poorly (or indeed, non-) edited ‘books’ alongside those professionally produced by a publishing house, or by responsible Indies.
    Regarding distribution, I know my books are in bookshops, but I also know from sales figures that the largest number of sales are produced by – wait for it – ME. Apart from the smallest amount of effort at launch, my publisher has never done any marketing – that’s all been down to me.
    So, a plus and a minus equals = neutral.
    I’m already enjoying the Indie experience, starting with control of my own cover design, but for now I’m hedging my bets and sticking with the hybrid model.
    I suspect it won’t last, though…

    • A quality standard for indie books is not that complicated to create: all it takes is applying the same rigour and processes that the commercial publishers do (theoretically): having two or more sets of eyes in addition to the author edit the manuscript before it goes before the public. Publishers are not churches or even medical colleges: the editors typically are brand-new Baccalaureates. They don’t have any skills or knowledge that’s kept from the general, educated public.

      If writers with editing skills (and we should ALL have them, to some extent) share them, independent authors can achieve the same quality as commercial publishers. As I said, it just takes the willingness and dedication to do it.

  8. Thanks for the wealth of info here. When I was getting my book ready to publish, some of the work, the fab cover for ex, was by barter. Other, like the professional editing, was paid for. I for one am all for bartering and would have no trouble being a part of a collective that promotes it. One thing I see a real nead for is marketing. A group within the collective, or those of us with these skills, who sent out press releases, helped book signings and advertise them, taught effective use of social media, landed big blogs for interviews, etc. All of us bring a certain amount of expertise to the group, sharing it is an excellent way for the whole to succeed.

      • I have just had some of my latest novel, BLOOD on the HEATHER, at the National Celtic Festival. I made an info page and stuck a copy in each of the public toilets and on the tables in the eateries (washed hands in between!) This is hitting buyers when they have time on their hands (no pun) and I saw quite a few checking the detail page out. Tomorrow I find out how many have sold. The cost of me printing those flyers is small, and hopefully the return will be worth it.
        I talk at Rotary, Probus, Lions Clubs, etc. You have to connect with your prospective audience. If they can put a face and story to the book, they will open the purse-strings.

    • I have just outlaid $AU1500 on a professional proof-reader who said it usually took an hour to proof 6 pages. She found some things which needed changing (and many I disagreed with, but then I’m ‘old-school’). But I really can’t see the value in what she has done. I think I wasted most of that money… money I could have used to get the novel in print!
      Once bitten…
      I have two friends who will be doing it in future. One was going to be a proof-reader but couldn’t afford the Uni classes, the other is a retired magazine editor. They have offered their services for a copy of the final product.
      That has made me a lot happier.
      I have had 2 novels published in USA years ago, but the POD publisher closed down. But she used the various authors on her lists to proof, do set-out, artwork, etc. for each other. That had good and bad points.
      The good was that it came free, tit for tat.
      The bad was that some of the artwork was stylised computer-generated guff that looked second rate. Some of the covers were great. It just depended on who she chose for you.

  9. What a great and exchange of information. I went the Indie route for my first novel six months ago and am releasing my second by end of summer. The learning curve on promotion and marketing has been steep for me, and certainly that’s my biggest challenge. It’s frustrating to see your book buried with a 1000th-plus ranking for its genre on Amazon, and personally, I feel I’ve exhausted my own network. That said, I love having total control over the production, and I would be very interested in the co-op idea, for something I’m passionate about.

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