What’s the Point of Publishers in a Digital Age?

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EgoAs e-books grow and bookstores close, there’s a growing murmur that publishers are no longer relevant in the digital age. Authors now have the ability to self-publish their books and get electronic distribution on their own. So, who needs a big legacy publisher to get their work to the masses? This sentiment is magnified as some frustrated authors leave their legacy publishers to chart their own path. A greater sense of freedom and control is offered in this brave new world where the author becomes the new publisher.

However, this utopian perspective forgets one major point – human nature. All authors come standard with a healthy dose of ego. It takes cojones to tell the world, “I’ve written a book and you should read it.” And, the ego will never disappear, no matter what social media or digital technology might bring. The inner influence of ego makes a critical impact upon the way an author chooses to make his or her work public. That’s why the author ego may be the single biggest reason that publishers will continue to survive.

As a marketing consultant who’s coached over 400 authors, and an author myself, I’ve seen one desire remain constant. Authors want someone else to value their work. Writers light up when other people are willing to pay money up-front, dote upon, handle boring details, and sing the praises of their books. The ability to provide this type of assistance and stroke the author ego gives publishers legitimate power. When the average writer hears, “You’re special and we’ll help you,” how can they resist?

The more success an author achieves, the stronger the ego’s influence. For example, many of the recent successful self-published authors, such as Amanda Hocking, Paul Young, and Darcie Chan, didn’t stick with self-publishing. They jumped ship to lucrative contracts and a team of helpers at a legacy publishing house. Even Amazon, the company responsible for making self-publishing popular, has created their own legacy publisher imprints. Why? Authors generally make publishing decisions according to their egos. If you’re skeptical, let me be more specific. Here’s how the author / publisher dance works:

1. Authors want to get paid for their work. Publishers act like big literary banks, paying out advance money to purchase a manuscript. Most authors can’t resist someone offering a check for $15,000, 25,000, $100,000, or more. In addition, most authors have no desire to become a business-person or a full-time entrepreneur. Self-publishing poster boys, such as John Locke and J.A. Konrath, represent a small minority of serious writers. The typical author simply wants to write and enjoy the accolades. Why self-publish a book and try to sell each copy yourself, when you can get paid up-front with a fat check?

2. Authors hate dealing with the details. Publishers will do the dirty work. Creating a book involves boring stuff, such as editing, page layout, cover design, converting the manuscript to e-book format, sending sales information to retailers, setting up distribution accounts, managing payments, handling returns, etc. Plus, these steps don’t include the all-important need for consistent marketing. How can the author ego rebuff a team of people who say they’re willing to handle those aggravating details? You can argue that publishers tend to fail in the marketing department. But, if that’s the case, why do most authors keep coming back for more?

3. Authors want everyone to read their books. Publishers hold keys to access the masses. They can provide the inside track to national bookstore distribution or a coveted appearance on Good Morning America. While this aspect of publishing has largely become an empty promise, authors will still take the bait. A writer’s ego can’t resist telling friends, “Look at these great promotional activities my publisher is doing for my new book.” If those activities fail to occur, authors get mad and breakup with their publishers like pouty teenagers. But, the ego cannot survive alone, and before long they’re flirting with each other again.

The love/hate relationship between authors and publishers has endured for over a century. Digital self-publishing and e-books represent wonderful new opportunities. But, the power of new technology is no match against the power of human nature. Therefore, publishers need not fear extinction. The literary ecosystem is bound by an unseen force that affects every author. What’s the point of publishers? To exist and thrive by keeping the author ego healthy and alive.

Ego image via Shutterstock

Rob Eagar

About Rob Eagar

Rob Eagar is the founder of WildFire Marketing, a consulting practice that helps authors and publishers sell more books and spread their message like wildfire. He has consulted with numerous publishers and worked with over 400 authors, including several New York Times bestsellers. Rob is the author of Sell Your Book Like Wildfire, which is considered the new bible of book marketing. For more information, visit: www.startawildfire.com.

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12 thoughts on “What’s the Point of Publishers in a Digital Age?

  1. I know that some authors pursue traditional publishing for credibility because of the stigma that still surrounds self-publishing. I chose to self-publish even though I had an agent and publisher interested, but I have encountered criticisms along the lines of “you only self-published because you’re afraid of peer review”. I think things are changing, though.

  2. Rob’s insight into author ego resonates well with my own work from the editorial dimension of publishing, but I think he overstates the nature of self-publishing as requiring an author to ‘go it alone.’ That is, in traditional/legacy publishing, there are still numerous points in the process that require authors to undertake the boring, tedious work (working with reviews, assessing copyedits and proofers’ comments), and some relish being a part of it (interior design, front covers). And surely, places such as Author House help stroke author egos and promulgate their self-publications! I welcome the self-publishing movement, but I realize that ‘human nature’ also seeks the imprimatur of reliability or accuracy that publishing houses often (successfully) provide. And I’m not simply asserting a truth to cover my hind end!

  3. hey rob, enjoyed this, i can’t comment about trad. route but it would appear to me (based on my research and reading) that you may be addressing the 1% of traditional pub’d authors who have their work praised, fully supported, fully promoted, etc. by the legacy houses…. wouldn’t it be true that the bulk of trad. pub’d authors are responsible for promotions, setting up reviews, book signings, building platforms, learning soc. media? i’m sure the legacy houses see it as a good investment to put advances in place and spend promo dollars on the very BEST writers they have (best = proven track record) but am I correct in understanding that the bulk of titles published never even earn back enough to cover their first print run?? what intelligent business operator would advance money and/or spend promo dollars on anything less than a “sure” thing. (and am i correct in that the legacy houses struggle mightily w/ determining, even today, what a sure thing is??)

    egos are mighty, but so is humility and i question whether the huge bulk of writers are anywhere close to have the chance to have their ego stroked by big publ. houses…. today, a very viable alternative exists and it is working..

  4. I am sure that your writing here reflects your experience, and I’ll admit I have a healthy does of ego that I like getting stroked now and again. But as publishing currently stands, I really feel I am better off self publishing. The current editing process appears to be a joke with many trad publishers, little more than copy editing, and in many cases poorly done copy editing. Sure it’s possible for trad publishers to get their authors on Good Morning America – but maybe one out of a hundred actually gets that kind of marketing help. The rest need to manage their own marketing. If I’m going to doing my own editing (or paying out of pocket for an editor), and handling my own marketing, I might as well take on cover design and formatting for 70% royalties as a self publisher, instead of the 15% royalties I’d get from trad publishing.

    I do believe trad publishing still has a place, and an important one. But I think more and more writers are going to be starting out in self publishing and trad publishing is going to need to make some serious changes in the coming years to keep up with changing technologies andmarkets.

  5. Interesting, another post that paints traditional publishing like a bus we self publishers could have just boarded. The traditional publishing world has become a closed society – perhaps justifiably so given the volume of books written. It provides some value for people who are able to enter, but the doors are closed for most of us regardless of whether we write a good story or not.
    As for people like Amanda Hocking, I’m sure she was able to negotiate a great deal that is only open to the high sellers.

  6. Too many generalizations. I’ve been published traditionally and I’ve self-published. Before I went with another publisher, I’d give a hard look at the contract. What rights does it obligate me to sell? When and how frequently are royalties paid? Ultimately, the contract determines the author’s future career. The advance isn’t the only determinant; authors should consider their position 20 years from now.

  7. Love the “author ego supports publishers” thing. I’ve been saying “traditional publishing is the new vanity press” for a couple of years.

    Most of the rest of this apologia for publishers is retrograde vision. Foe one thing, those $50 $100 K royalty advances are part of the glorious golden past. An the few thou you get these days is pointless. You’d be better of shining it on and going for more points. (The extreme case of that thinking is, of course, self-publishing). If an advance isn’t enough to live on for a year or two, it’s pretty pointless.

    The idea that wanting everybody to read your books means trad publishing is quaint, frankly. No publisher has the reach of amazon. No store chain has the numbers (the one’s that are still around, hear what I’m saying?).

    The fact that huge-selling writers sign contracts means nothing. Any marketer knows that you points of growth scale where you start turning to avenues with smaller returns in order to get everybody who’s out there. AND, we still haven’t learned how that turns out… if Hocking’s fans will pay ten bucks to a corporation, not a couple of bucks to an online “friend”.
    And you omit people like Barry Eisler who walk away from big advances, and Cory Doctorow who rides all horses at once.
    What we might be seeing is a situation where publishers only earn from deeply established Steven King type authors who are big enough and rich enough not to bother with SP and raking off the cream of already established indie authors. Trouble is… those big entrenched writers are aging. And indies jumping aboard may or may not continue.

    Much of this stuff reminds me of some cartoon of the Titanic going down and a captain with a bullhorn telling survivors they’re better off climbing back aboard because they have better food and deck chairs than the lifeboats do.

  8. As the author of this piece, I’m amused by the response. Everyone who commented proved my point precisely that authors have big egos – especially indie authors. Traditionally-pubbed authors moan about dealing with legacy publishers, and indie authors moan about not getting accepted by legacy publishers.

    According to all the negativity I hear about legacy publishers, you’d think they’d be on the brink of disaster. Yet, when you look at their financials, most of those old behemoths are doing quite well. And, they’re even adapting to the digital frontier. According to Digital Book World’s brand new e-book bestseller lists, the vast majority of top e-book sellers were from the Big Six:

    \The debut list, August 11 – 18th, includes only four titles from publishers other than the six largest publishers: Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin, Random House and Simon & Schuster…The majority of e-books sold last week were from major publishers selling books at higher price points, indicating that smaller publishers, self-published authors and low-priced titles offered cheap as ‘daily deals’ are not sustaining enough sales to be considered ‘best sellers.’”
    http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2012/big-publishers-and-higher-price-points-dominate-new-dbw-e-book-best-seller-list/

    I’m both a self-published and traditionally-published author – and made six figure revenues in both categories. So, either avenue works. There is no right or wrong way to publish. Technology gives us many choices to enjoy. But, the author ego will always be lurking behind the scenes.

  9. So tired of hearing the question What’s the Point of Publishers in a Digital Age? It’s like asking What’s the Point of Big Movie Studios in the Age of YouTube?

    If anything, what I’ve noticed changing is what publishers actually do choose to publish. If publishers go extinct it won’t be because of the “digital age.” It will be their own fault. They’re losing sight of what they should actually be doing, which is publishing the very best books they can find; not publishing something because it’s marketable or commercial.

  10. Enjoyed this piece. My chief reasons for going the self-publishing route: 1) found a great illustrator I enjoy working with for children’s picture book series because ‘author selecting illustrator and working closely with’ is not the norm with traditional publishing; 2) not averse to purchasing the illustration talent plus needed services such as editing, design, etc.; 3) what I don’t have is time (given busy day job) to send manuscripts to agents and traditional publishers – and wait for weeks, even months for response; 4) with the time I do have, been able to build website, blog, explore ways to best direct (control) developing writing career. Not sure if a publisher shows interest what I will do – that would test your “ego” theory. Right now, plan to keep self-publishing. I think there’s a new “balancing” underway in the market: self-publishing will take a bigger piece of the pie over time.

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