Debate: Will publishers soon be irrelevant?

Jon Reed is the Founder and Editor in Chief of Publishing Talk, and author of Get Up to Speed with Online Marketing. Follow him at @jonreed.

“Authors and readers are all that matter. Publishers will soon be irrelevant.” It was billed as The Great Debate – but has the discussion really moved on since last year?

With the London Book Fair over for another year, the key session for me was the panel debate on the motion: Authors and readers are all that matter. Publishers will soon be irrelevant. Speaking for the motion were author Cory Doctorow and technologist James Bridle; speaking against were Profile’s Andrew Franklin and Bloomsbury’s Richard Charkin.

The panelists were all passionate about their positions and spoke compellingly and entertainingly. The role of publishers in the digital age is the Big Question and a Great Debate. But it is still a question most publishers don’t want to hear and a debate few are ready for.

The event highlighted a level of industry complacency that seems unchanged from previous years. An unwillingness to recognize that out there, in the real world, authors are self-publishing, readers are using Kindles, and publishers are struggling to add value in between.

A vote on the motion was taken before and after the debate. Here are the results:

Vote Before After
FOR 39 45
AGAINST 176 201
DON’T KNOW 30 10

It is perhaps not surprising that a room full of publishers didn’t want to vote for their own irrelevance. Yet, while publishing may be thriving, many publishers seem not to grasp that business as usual may mean going out of business within a few years. Here’s a summary of the arguments.

Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow argued that monolithic corporate publishers in particular may be irrelevant. Publishers are hollowed-out organizations – all the key tasks are now done with freelancers and outsourcing. Why do we need publishers to pay other companies to do things on behalf of authors?

We are already living in a post-publishing world. We have something that has connected more writers with more readers than all previous publishers in history: Google.

Doctorow believes the next wave of publishing will be small publishers who don’t need big buildings. Publishers will exist to solve problems that authors can’t solve for themselves.

When you’re in business to solve a problem, your business is to keep that problem.

Andrew Franklin

Profile Books m.d. Andrew Franklin acknowledged that nobody owes publishers a living: the only way to earn it is to do a good job. He argued that, while you can publish yourself, there’s a difference between publishing and “privashing”. Some things are more fun to do with others – and he believes that includes writing. The reason that there are so many slightly folorn authors is that “they have tried doing it themselves, and it hasn’t worked: they have a much better experience with a  publisher.”

Franklin also acknowledged that it is now straightforward to publish on your own, where once self-publishing was a racket. But he also thought that the advantage of self-publishing is that you never have to print a book – because no one will buy it.

So, we’re back to the filtering, gatekeeping argument of yesteryear.

Publishers select from a mountain of dross anything worth publishing. Is that elitist? No – there are over 1,000 stands at the Book Fair. Big monolithic publishers all have many editors with their own distinct tastes. If you self-publish on the Internet, you may as well not bother – you will be silent. People will only be interested in you as an author at a dinner party if you have been published by a real publisher, such as Bloomsbury or Profile. Free is far too much to pay for the majority of self-published books – and even some published books. The only way is to persuade readers that it is worth parting with their cash. Amazon may pay a 70% royalty, compared with a publisher paying 10% – but it is the size of the cake, not the size of the slice that is important.

James Bridle

James Bridle, from his perspective as a publisher, writer and technophile, asserted that the failure of publishers to cooperate has damaged us as an industry. Absurd notions such as the idea that you can only borrow an ebook from a library five times – and that it may be out – show how out of touch publishers are with today’s digital realities. The ever-increasing prices of ebooks, accompanied by their increased profitability for publishers, plus an obsession with DRM despite its failure in the music industry all damage the credibility of publishers – and readers are aware of the disconnect.

The essential editorial skills of publishers keep being pushed back onto authors and agents. Publishers used to be experts in typography and production – but ebooks are full of typos and layout issues. He believes publishers have taken everything they’re good at and decided not to bother with it any more because it’s all electronic now: it is a betrayal of what they’re good at.

Five years ago, Amazon just sold books. Now it has an end-to-end digital supply chain – something no publisher considers doing. We have alienated readers and writers and given them few good reasons to come to us. Authors are starting to notice our stereotype of the “mad author at the Book Fair”. Agents will start taking rights elsewhere – it is already happening with Andrew Wylie, and Catherine Cookson.

Summing up, Bridle concluded that publishing is not a healthy industry. We need to re-think outdated business models. Instead of battling over the Google Books Settlement, for example, we need to come up with our own solutions. The book is a way of publishing, delivering and marketing that has only existed for a century or so – and this is changing.

Publishers are not yet irrelevant – but if we don’t act soon, we soon will be.

Richard Charkin

These debates so often have an unspoken assumption that “publishing” means “literary fiction”, and Bloomsbury CEO Richard Charkin brought a much-needed inclusion of educational, STM and academic publishing into the discussion. This is a group of publishers he considers more relevant than ever.

What would lawyers do without LexisNexis or Westlaw, or scientists without Elseveir, Springer or Wiley? These publishers take the material of academics, digitize it and distribute it; they have made it freely available at the point of access with the Open Access movement. Yes, Pearson is a big corporate publisher that includes Penguin and the Financial Times – but Pearson Education is more innovative and entrepreneurial than most publishers.

Charkin added that publishing is a service industry – and it’s about servicing authors rather than retailers. Publishers also need to get better at getting products out more quickly, and marketing them 24/7, not just at launch.

Q & A

Thoughts expressed by members of the audience included the observation that the music industry is ahead of publishing; that they were dispirited by the disparaging attitude to authors and aspiring authors; and that where people used to read and watch, now they want to write and create.

Trade publishers just don’t understand social networking – they’ve missed it.

Andrew Franklin countered by agreeing that, yes, people want to write – but please don’t burden us with having to read it. Social media is great – but the numbers are very small – whereas publishers have access to a huge number of people.

The Future of Publishing

It’s a shame that the debate doesn’t seem to have moved on from last year – but I don’t think it should come as a surprise that publishers don’t think they are irrelevant, or that some regard authors as a necessary evil. The difficulty for publishers is that, whether they know it or not, they are not as essential as once they were. Authors have a choice. They have options. They can self-publish.

This is why it is so surprising that, in this day and age, publishers seems to be doing less – not more – for their authors. When I was a publisher, the main thing authors complained about was the perceived lack of marketing. Publishers usually have tiny marketing budgets per book, and only a select few titles get the full publicity treatment. I think many authors are realistic about this and recognize that they are largely responsible for marketing their own book – whether they like it or not. Fortunately it is easier than ever for them to do so, using social media – and try telling an author like Neil Gaiman that the numbers are tiny. Publishers, however, need to find a way to support their authors’ social media marketing efforts – whether with technology or training.

But today I also hear many authors complaining about dropping production standards – along the lines of : “You’d better be sure there are no typos in your final draft, because the publisher won’t proofread it.” This resonates with what James Bridle says about even the specialist editorial functions of publishers declining, agents taking up the slack, and what Cory Doctorow says about a de-skilled, outsourced, hollowed-out industry.

The question is: if you can market your own book, if you can produce it yourself to a high standard, and if you can distribute it as an ebook – why, exactly, would you need a publisher? Publishers need to find some value to add in between author and reader – and this isn’t as clear as it once was.

Is the advantage to self-publishing that you never have to print a book? Possibly – though not because no one will buy it – because you can self-publish ebooks directly for the Kindle. This is a growing trend. Try telling self-published ebook author Amanda Hocking that she will be silent without a publisher. She’s 26 years old. And a millionaire.

What do you think? Join the debate by commenting below.

About Jon Reed

Jon Reed is a writer, lecturer and social media trainer. He is the author of Get Up to Speed With Online Marketing (2nd edition, Pearson, 2013) and The Publishing Talk Guide to Twitter. He runs the social media consultancy Reed Media, providing training and workshops on social media marketing. He previously worked in publishing for 10 years, including as publishing director for McGraw-Hill. He launched Publishing Talk in 2007. More about Publishing Talk...

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26 Responses to Debate: Will publishers soon be irrelevant?

  1. Amber says:

    I’m definitely seeing the points! They’ll turn aside a good manuscript if they’re in a bad mood the day they read it, or any other number of reasons. And if you do manage to get past the golden gate, they don’t even market or edit your work anymore? What does a publisher have to offer me aside from credibility?

    The problem with self-pub, of course, is that it’s hard for one drop to stand out in the vast ocean, and since anyone can do it, a lot of crap does get out there. But I think that with the online tools we have now like recommendations and rating systems, the good stuff will rise to the top.

    The old wisdom was that if it’s good enough, it’ll be bought by a publisher, but that’s not always true. Instead of having my career hinge on one person’s opinion, I’ll let the market decide.

    • Rosie says:

      But I think that with the online tools we have now like recommendations and rating systems, the good stuff will rise to the top.

      I see recommendations and rating as one of the systems which isn’t working for self-publishing. A book blog I followed for a while routinely returns 4 and 5 star reviews for self pubbed books, to the point where I question how they can separate an excellent read from an okay one for their readers, and whether their opinion is smilar enough to my own to use it as a source of recommendation.

      Likewise 5 star reviews on amazon seem to be far more common for self pubbed titles than their traditionally published equivalents, because making sure you get them there, and fast, is one of the basic tenets of marketing a self-pubbed book.

      To my mind, these systems as they stand are too easily manipulated to be effective at allowing the good stuff to rise. Readers need to be very sophisticated at interpreting the quality of the rating system and separating the unprompted reader comments from the promotion.

      While I have read some very poor traditionally published books, I am not yet confident that I can pick a winner worth spending money on in the self published arena unless a personal friend or relative tips me to it.

  2. Interesting points – only time and peoples purchasing decisions will decide it! Will tweet to our followers.

  3. Amazon may pay a 70% royalty, compared with a publisher paying 10% – but it is the size of the cake, not the size of the slice that is important.

    True–for some authors. But for those of us who don’t feel the need to be household names, a big slice of a smaller cake works just fine. For the couple Joe Konraths and Amanda Hockings, there are many of us others self-publishing who are not getting rich but, quite contentedly, have made it well into the black. Not to mention, by retaining full ebook and POD rights to my works, the skinny (but long) tail is all mine.

  4. The entire discussion seems to miss a major point that could eventually change the entire industry. Self publishing authors can now arrange POD books if digital sales prove print copies would sell. Poor quality writing can be overcome by hiring qualified freelance editors for proofing and editing at reasonable cost. Even marketing can be sub-contracted at an affordable price. With 70% gross profit realized from digitally self-publishing it comes down to whether the author wants to write full time, become involved in the publishing industry, or allow the traditional agent/publisher to continue profiting from his or her talent.

  5. Rich Holman says:

    For me the key is in what do publishers offer and from some of the points raise in the debate, it’s currently ‘being a big name’. Google is a big name and so is Amazon, there is nothing stopping them employing clued up publishing types to bring back the old ethics of typesetting and filtering. Same goes for new indie start-up publishers.

    Point accepted on STM & Academic publishing, but this has always been the sectors that don’t get much media attention for some of the wonderful innovations they do.

    But one thing is clear, as creation tools become more available and authors skill-up with self-promotion via social media and with 70% royalty, it will seem increasingly tempting to go it alone. Why wait 18 months to get published with sub-optimal marketing and typesetting, when you can get to market in less than 1 month.

    That said, big publishers won’t go away, but the chances of them being as big seem to be diminishing.

  6. The publishing industry and writing is in the midst of a serious upheaval. Younger, independent, author-centric publishing houses are going to take the industry by storm in the next ten years. Big publishers may not go away immediately but more through a steady decline unless there’s a sudden revolution of the mindset.

  7. The paradigm is shifting. It really makes no sense to continue cutting down giant life forms so that we can write things on them, not to mention the fact that more and more readers are seeing the convenience of ebook readers. I’d also like to point out that the younger generation (to my age group) is becoming the main market now. These are kids and adults who grew up in the model of “technology makes it easier,” and “a new gadget every day”!

    More and more quickly, readers are seeing publishers, not as MARKETS for their books, but as FILTERS. Meaning that if a publisher does not see fit to publish a book, it must be unworthy of a second glance. However, this too is changing, thanks to the increasing embrace that good writers are giving to the idea of winging it. Fact is, publishers need to clasp onto their new role. They need to see themselves as filters, sell themselves as such. In the future there may be no such thing as an editor, as they will all become private filters that readers pay for shelter from the noise.

    It also wouldn’t hurt if they gave their writers more support, as many who turn to self-publishing are doing so because their publishers are either unwilling to publish certain projects because of market concerns, or they simply won’t do anything more than listing a book in a catalog or putting up a few signs. Writers have gotten wise. We can do that part ourselves. It also wouldn’t hurt if publishers took this opportunity to poach a few self-published authors, as in the case of recently signed Amanda Hocking, provide them with hitherto unseen support, and maybe see the content creators as the revolutionaries they are, instead of encroaching masses about to eat their business. Paradigm shifts are not ends, they are opportunities.

  8. I read all of this and I just kept thinking, “Man, what a bunch of dinosaurs!” I mean, seriously, get with the program!

    When I started writing my book I had all of this fear about traditional publishers and agents. How I would handle it – the stress of waiting and waiting for months, maybe years.

    Then I read more and more about self-publishing and even though a few traditional publishers seemed almost mortified at the fact, I went with it.

    I can’t tell you how FUN it has been to self-publish, thus far. I’ve got a book out there, electronically, available all over the place and people ARE reading it!

    So, publishers, problem?

    • Dave says:

      You will never know the targets you have missed. How can you cram years of distribution contacts and expertise into your unassuming approach to successful marketing of your book. I wish you well!

      • Amber says:

        If the publisher isn’t willing to put the money and effort into using that expertise then where’s the benefit for us? I figured the whole point of getting a contract was that I wouldn’t have to handle that as much, but if a publisher is going to just print it and go “you’re on your own promoting this” then what’s the point of all that time, effort, hoping and waiting?

    • Gary Dorion says:

      I’m not sure if “dinosaurs” also applies to the traditional publishing business in Ryan’s post but, if so, then I agree. It’s already in its demise. It’s somewhat like the oil industry trying desperately to hang on to what it has had. Traditional publishing has had its day and will never dominate the world of writers again. Sayanora.

  9. Steve Emmett says:

    The argument will rage for sometime. I have a publisher who has done a great job on editing and so on. I consider myself lucky in this respect. It’s simply not on for the big publishers to crow about ‘quality’ when reality shows different. I’ve bought books recently with big names on them and found some shocking errors. Everyone needs to put their house in order.
    And would I ever consider self-publishing? I’m not ruling it out.

    • SL Clark says:

      When every author says: “I’m thinking about it”, publishers will be forced into this new reality. Sadly, they believe an extra 5% is what they can offer – when it reality, *everything* they provide must be top notch, because authors can HIRE better for MUCH less…
      Fun times to be a writer, challenging to be a CEO.
      -SL Clark
      Heart Press

  10. I agree with Dave – there’s still some value with the right publisher who is willing to put some effort behind marketing a book. You have a long, tough road to walk Ryan. You’re far braver than I would be. As a virtually unknown published author, I’m not content with a few hundred people reading my work. I want thousands. Hundreds of thousands. And I know I can’t get it on my own. But if publishers don’t change, the names who have been around as household names for years will be superseded by new ones. Similar to the 2009 banking disaster that toppled Lehman and AIG – the big publishing houses will have their day as well and only the strongest will survive. The hope is, that readers and writers will benefit from such change.

  11. Jarika says:

    The publishing industry in its current state is sickening at best. There isn’t much that authors gain from going through a publishing house unless the house actually does its job. To take so much and give so little is unchecked avarice. Most authors’ books don’t do stellar numbers. Period. It doesn’t matter if they go through electronic means or a traditional publishing house. The industry has taken a dive all around. The JK Rowlings are the exception, as are the Amanda Hockings. Part of the reason for the uninspiring sales is because of the lack of enthusiasm on the publishing end. It seems as though the tried and true methods of promotion are played out, and it only makes sense. We’re in an age of information, wherein people eat info for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There are more modes of communication now than ever. Yet, the publishing industry is still using the same tried and true methods which are obsolete today. In order for literature to thrive again, publishers, authors, and everyone in between has to come together to figure out which way to go next.
    As far as the publishing industry being obsolete, I vote ‘yes’ but only because the way of doing things is obsolete. I think there will always be a need for a “publishing industry” even if the new version of that is e-books.

  12. I’ve had experience with both routes and both leave much to be desired. The publishing industry is beset with astonishingly narrow thinking and trapped by paradigms that will ensure their eventual decline and destruction. They have also made writing all about the bottom line, which discourages quality and experimentation. The self-publishing industry suffers from uneven distribution, fractured publicity and the simple fact that authors often have to spend too much time selling, which isn’t a strong suit for most of us. The difference is that the self-publishing world is still in a learning phase, whereas the publishers stopped learning eons ago. That will lead to their eventual demise, particularly if a truly viable self-publishing model comes to the fore.

  13. Gabriella says:

    It is hard to say what the industry holds but I find the changes exciting. As far as pub houses go I see the shift moving toward smaller epub houses which are combining with traditional pubs, this to me seems to be the best niche. The shift will come and the publisher will change but they will still be there in one form or another.

    I watched a documentary on the history of the printer. It was a fascinating look at the demise of the small printer press. Typeset was huge in the 1800′s and made giants and towns grow. Then came new technology and the big giants fell apart but the small businesses satyed. Then came the age of mass production and the little guys morphed into something else doing more than just print (fax/graphic design) or faded away. Soon there was a resurgence, a niche group, that demanded typeset work again and thus back in mode.

    I see the same changes with print/POD/epub. print in any form is still needed and those that shift with the market and technology will survive or will carve out a niche. Either way, pubs will be needed.

    Personally, as an author I will continue to submit to pub houses and let them do the dirty work. I enjoy the writing, not so much the editing and business end of finding a copy editor or a graphic artist for covers or a typesetter to upload docs. As for advertising and marketing, Ithink Ican handle that as long as they handle the accounting and the distribution.

  14. I don’t think so. Not for a while anyways. There will still be markets for them that don’t go to self pub. Travel books, lots of non fiction, textbooks. Lots of people that will never read a digital book until the day they die. But in 100 years, yeah, gone like the dinosaurs. Well, the big publishers. I like to think that smaller, trimmer publishers will pick up the slack, basically assisting people in self pubbing, help increase the overall quality of the written word. At least, I hope so, since my business hinges on it!

  15. I couldn’t agree more with most of these comments – self publishing is no longer the poor cousin to the traditional path. I was so discouraged when I sent proposals for my first manuscript to agents and publishers. Rather than embrace eager young authors, most in the industry treat us as something that must be endured – a chore to respond to. Many don’t even want to hear from us! When I self published my ebook instead, I immediately received so many amazing reviews, I started to realise that the agents and publishers were not going to stop me becoming an author. If the book is good enough, it will find an audience. You can’t rely on agents and publishers to judge your work – readers are the most important measure of your success.

  16. J.N. Duncan says:

    God, this debate/discussion is fun stuff. What an interesting time to be involved in publishing. Personally, I am still straddling the fence. There are advantages to both sides of this, as well as drawbacks.

    I happen to be published, and have a debut book out within the last month. My experience with my publisher has been decidedly positive. They have met my expectations in most regards. They’re good people who are good at their jobs, jobs that I don’t particularly want for myself.

    Self-publishing is a business. The author is CEO and responsible for all aspects. Some people love this aspect, others not so much. I have to kind of chuckle at the notion of writers being able to outsource the needed services like editing, proofing, formatting, and the like, for reasonable costs. I imagine this is a growing business for many. I can only speak for myself of course, but these reasonable costs are still beyond my means, as I imagine they are for the majority of writers out there. Save up, you say? You’ll still save on time over what regular publishers take to get things done. Sorry, not in a financial position to be saving much of anything.

    Then you get, what I imagine is more the norm, the writer who tries to figure out and do all of these services by themselves. This isn’t to say one can’t learn to do all of these aspects, but the notion that a writer can singularly become capable of performing all aspects of this in an expert manner, is wrong.

    As a writer, I really only want to focus on one thing, being a better writer. I, like many others, aren’t so entrepreneurial minded that we want to take on everything. Merely trying to write and market is difficult enough. Of course, this all comes back around to one important factor. The reader. How much investment in quality is really needed to be marketable to the reader? What is the line for the general reader regarding a quality product? It varies of course, but at some point, the product becomes good enough to make money, and perhaps that doesn’t require a standard as high as what has been striven for by the publishers.

    This is all in regard to fiction mind you. I have no knowledge about non-fic/academic publishing, so I can’t offer any opinions on that.

    One final point though, with regard to self-publishing, and that is the economics of selling cheap. The only way to get an inferior product to be accepted by the marketplace is to make it cheap enough so that the buyer does not care about the investment. You buy crap from the dollar store, are you really that put out if it breaks within a week? Same thing with books. A buck is an impulse buy, one requiring little or no thought. Is it any good? Hmmm, doesn’t matter, I’m only out .99 if it sucks.

    Just on pig-headed principle alone, I won’t ever, should I decide to pursue it, price a book at .99, regardless of the economics. My story, and every other writer out there who has invested so much time and effort to bring us a story worth reading, providing our imaginations with such wonder and joy, is worth more than an f’ing McDonald’s cheeseburger or the craptastic plastic toy from the dollar store.

  17. Ira Nayman says:

    I have self-published three books in print (and, 19 on my Web site), and, for my next two books (a novel and a collection of short short stories) I have vowed to find a publisher. Why? I am dreadfully bad at self-promotion and feel that my writing is not getting the audience it deserves. I am hoping that having a publisher will help open doors for me (in terms of reviews, interviews and public appearances) that I seem incapable of opening on my own.

    For better and worse, it seems to me that publishers still have their uses.

  18. Gael says:

    The writing part was easy even tho it took 5 years. I then found a gaggle of people with their hands out wanting huge sums of money from me after my non earning 5 year contribution to the book. Editing, reviewing, book covers? Now with a lame publisher, all smiles before publication, silence after, and hating the self promotion required I think that to write a book is to create an albatross.

    Self publishing? I am less than impressed with those trying to wrestle the book out of my hands and into theirs, using shame, guilt and manipulative techniques, for a huge fee of course. Bah hum bug on the whole thing!

  19. angelina light says:

    I have been in two minds wheather to selfpublish or go the conventional route. Thanks for helping me make up my mind. The conventional route it is.

  20. JackieB says:

    I was an indie publisher of kids books. I am considering how to get involved again. Mine was a small press – invested all I had because I am also a writer and love books.

    There is so much stuff required to get a book out – all the supporting the writer. Just like in a movie, without all the other people around her, who’d actually know Angelina etc existed?

    But I had occasions where once I had edited the book, got it a fantastic cover, started to work with the buyers to ensure it would get into schools etc, the author decided I was the “middle man” and dumped me. In most cases, their book didn’t get anywhere because they did not get just how important many of the duties the publisher does are. I never fought to get the books back because i knew that individually they weren’t going to pay my mortgage anyway. Plus, with a completely destroyed relationship what would be the future of that book with me anyhow. I’m not at all saying the work of the publisher is rocket science (I am making a movie right now and you’d have thought you can’t do that without George Lucas too.)

    Just saying that if what you want to do is write, the best way is through someone who loves to make sure that you don’t have a hyphen at the end of a page. Who loves that tedious behind-the-scenes work and who LOVES to see that product in affordable paper from that company that only detective work found in the backwaters of Timbuktu! Same deal re getting it down digitally.

    But as for me, I’ll probably set up offering support to would be self-publishers.

    There will be a place for publishers and isn’t it better to be paid an advance rather than having to pay out for EVERYTHING or missing things because it isn’t your day-job? Most of us aren’t Hocking or Stephen King and are writing and publishing because we love stories.

    Good luck!

  21. Mike Murphy says:

    What i took from the debate was that publishers aren’t going to become irrelevant at all, provided they can move with the times and provide valued skills in a way that continues to be of use to the author and the reader. What that means is probably going to require publishers to push what they are good at and offer it in more tailored ways. Authors and readers are more demanding, independent and I would argue more knowledgeable in a new environment, and this is a good thing as we as publishers will know how to assist more refined needs.

    Far from being irrelevant I think publishers could be ever more integral.

    (I also learned that Andrew Franklin’s humour still doesn’t sit well with a fair few people in the industry!)