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