Publishing as collaboration, spam e-books and the publisher as risk taker

I've read quite a few articles recently which have sought to call time on trade publishing. Many of them, written by evangelists for the self-publishing movement, argue from the starting point that the publishing industry is wasteful of talent and resource, and publishers act as an unnecessary barrier between the authors who write books and the public that wants to read them.

But while there are some amazing self-publishing success stories out there, I’m not sure that this model is scalable enough to work for more than a handful of authors, and relying on it could end up depriving readers of the content they want. It’s also worth noting that many of the self publishing success stories come from authors who are already established very much with the help of a publisher.

So I thought it was worth mounting a defence for trade publishers here. Indeed, as books and the web move ever closer, and the selection of content available to consumers via the Internet grows exponentially, I'd say we need publishers even more than any other time in history. And here are my three reasons why I believe trade publishers are here to stay.

1. Publishing is a collaborative business

Writing might be a solitary business for many authors, but successfully taking a book from manuscript to Amazon and Barnes & Noble is an intensely collaborative process. Even the simplest book needs an army of people to make it possible: from copy editors and proofreaders to the people who key in the metadata for e-book stores and market it to potential readers.

This is true even for self-published books. Look behind the media stories and you'll find that successful self-published authors are a cottage industry in themselves, employing a retinue of people to check their copy and their contracts. And while it's not unreasonable to expect some authors to prefer to exercise total control over how their books are taken to market, most prefer to hand it over to publishers. And do see this, we need look no further than the self-publishing sensation, Amanda Hocking. She may have made a name by publishing her own books, but when given the choice she still signed a deal with a traditional publisher.

2. Consumers want a finished product, not the slush pile

In a world of near infinite choice, how do consumers decide what they want? In the book world at least, the act of ‘being published’ has historically been a hallmark of quality. It was the sign that a piece of work had been selected on the basis of some merit, and that the publisher believed there was an audience for it. This work was then put through the publication process to ensure the book reached its potential audience in its best possible state. Professional writing and publishing warranted the price that readers were expected to pay for content.

If publishers disappeared tomorrow, that hallmark of quality they provide would vanish as well. And the net effect would be that millions of consumers could no longer assume that the book they were downloading to their Kindle was what it purported to be.

For example, the lower reaches of the many e-book stores are already full of 'spam e-books': books of questionable quality written by bots who scrape sites like Wikipedia for articles which they republish as ‘original’ work. Without publishers, it’s very likely that what would fill the vacuum they left by mainstream publishing would be some self-publishing and a deluge of ‘spam’ content that could drown out the voices of authors in search of an audience.

This would turn the act of buying a book online into a detective story, with the buyer playing the bewildered sleuth. Consumers would have to verify multiple sources to check that the book they were about to buy was really the content they wanted to avoid disappointment. Or even worse, they might simply start seeing book shopping as just like sorting through their spam folders and stop buying books altogether, which none of us want.

3. Publishers take the risks that preserve culture and learning for posterity

It’s easy to feel cynical about the publishing industry when we see a ghost-written celebrity memoir selling for seven figures, but look behind the headlines and the best-sellers and you’ll soon see that publishers continue to make a unique and irreplaceable contribution to our culture. By identifying the content that they believe is worth making available to a wider audience, they ensure that ideas, research, stories and insight that have the potential to change the world get the room they need to rmature. And they also (and it’s surprising how little this point gets raised) help ensure that writers are rewarded for their efforts, even if a book takes its time to find an audience

Without the publishing industry to support writers at pivotal states in their development we may well see a flowering in genre fiction, short non-fiction, memoirs and the like, but what about the more challenging (I hesitate to say worthy) genres and projects? The Mysterious Affair At Styles or The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo would probably have existed even if publishers never had, but I doubt whether we’d have works like Time Regained, Middlemarch, Moby Dick and Catcher In The Rye without publishers who had the will and foresight to make ‘difficult’ books happen.

Whenever a publisher buys a copyright they take a risk. Many of them don’t pay out; some of them turn into commercial successes; and a very select few of them change the world, and become classics that last down the ages. And while it’s fair to say that many classics aren’t as easy a read as the latest piece of chick-lit of Scandi-crime, I’m sure we all agree that we’re culturally richer for their presence on our bookshelves, physical or electronic.

[In related reading, you might also want to take a look at Anthony Horowitz's recent article in The Guardian, where he also ably defends trade publishers.]