Subscribe via RSS or e-mail      

The Ideal Publisher

eBooks and Publishing

As accounts grow of publishers both attempting to grab rights from authors without appropriate compensation and misreporting sales (for instance, see Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s series The Business Rusch, though I will say that I’ve had personal experience with both of these issues), I have to say I’m nervous about the possibility of working with a traditional publisher again. At the same time, while selfpubbing is certainly making a splash and is working very well for some authors and some projects, in other cases it doesn’t yet seem to me an adequate replacement for tradpub.

With that in mind, I’d like to share a daydream with you, a daydream of a kind of large-sacle publisher that could and should exist and thrive in the brave new world of publishing. My thinking is that such a publisher will have a different emphasis and approach than traditional publishers and will develop value and market share through 1) cultivating unusually good relationships with authors and 2) an unusually sophisticated understanding of new technologies for delivering and communicating about books.

I would love to see one or more of the current major publishing companies turn into what I describe here, or one or more small publishers grow big in this way– but so far, I’m not optimistic.

Here are the five things we’d need to see in an ideal post-eBoom publisher, other than (of course) excellent choices in what to publish (good filtering and quality control is always valuable). Some publishers are doing some of these things already: certainly there are good companies out there who are acting with integrity toward both authors and readers. As far as I know, though, no big publisher is ringing all these bells yet.

1. Doesn’t hog rights
It seems perfectly reasonable for publishers to buy specific electronic rights from authors for specific compensation. However, trying to get electronic rights thrown in with print rights for nothing, underpaying for electronic rights, trying to seize all electronic rights that may ever exist, trying to seize any rights in perpetuity, trying to seize any rights without compensation to the author, or sitting on rights like sequels and foreign sales without exercising them in a way that the author gets properly paid–all of these approaches strike me as reprehensible.

As an aside, I’ll say that I think any similar practices on the part of agents, as well as the practice of some agents (a minority, I hope and believe) trying to secure payment for the author’s future work or projects in which the agent has made no contribution, are also reprehensible. In fact, I’ll go further than that and predict that agents and publishers that persist in perpetrating these predatory practices (apparently the letter of the day is “P”) will fail and be crushed by the juggernaut of change in the publishing world. Sure, there will always be a greasy black residue of predatory agencies and publishing houses, just as there always has been, but it will not be a substantial or wealthy residue, and all it will get from most authors, readers, and honest industry professionals will be scorn.

2. Deals fairly and honestly with authors
This seems like it should be self-evident, but based on what has been going on in publishing lately (and to some extent, for a long time), clearly it needs to be spelled out. The ideal publisher will report sales accurately, transparently, and often; will promptly revert rights it is no longer using; will communicate well with authors; and won’t lie or withhold meaningful information in communications.

The reporting question deserves a side comment: currently the big publishers generally speaking report on sales a couple of times a year in a confusing, printed report that is often incorrect or misleading. There is no reason–and I say this as someone with two decades of professional experience in database development and computerized reporting–why the industry can’t over time move to a more Amazon-like model of live sales reporting, with reasonable allowance for returns and related qualifications. My impression is that the current, inadequate reporting system is kept not only to save the cost of converting to something more informative but because publishers often gain financial advantage by holding back and keeping control of data.

3. Provides both print and electronic editions
Nothing too surprising here: just publish in appropriate media. I don’t see anything wrong with publishing print-only and letting authors selfpub their own eBooks either, but I suspect that large companies that continue to do that will soon go out of business, as so much more income is available in the eBook world.

4. Improves the quality of the book
The ideal publisher will have an editorial hand in a book’s content, at the very least having a competent advocate in the company who really understands the work and its audience. At the other end of the spectrum, the company might do old-school editing of the book to help the writer improve it, but I don’t see this as essential in all cases. If more of the burden of ensuring our writing is good falls to us writers, that doesn’t seem unreasonable to me.

The book will also be well-designed, both in print and electronic versions. This includes designing for the right audience: for instance, a writer friend’s historical adventure series was packaged and sold with a young adult cover featuring a hunky model type, giving it a YA historical romance feel. This was a disservice to everyone involved and (I believe) seriously limited sales of the book to its natural readership, which would seem to be primarily adults and teen boys.

The electronic editions will be developed by people who know what they’re doing, and they’ll be carefully proofed before they’re uploaded. Some publishing houses’ idea of an eBook seems to be an automated file conversion that loses important characters and formatting and doesn’t take into account the difference between book and screen. Preparing eBooks for publication isn’t that hard; publishers should take the time to get it right.

5. Puts the majority of their efforts into helping the book find its natural audience
Why, in this day and age, would an author even need a publisher? After all, self-produced eBooks and print on demand editions can work as well for the reader as publishing houses’ offerings if done well.

I think there can be three answers to that question: preparation, design, and reaching readers. Of the those three, skilled professionals (editors, proofreaders, cover artists, book designers, and eBook formatters) can be hired to do the first two; only reaching readers is specialized to the strengths of a publishing house.

Publishing houses already have a leg up in reaching readers, especially insofar as booksellers and review venues will consider a book worth at least a little attention if it’s simply published by a big house. There’s an implication of quality control and investment in the book that makes it automatically non-trivial. But the ideal publishing house will need to go further: it will need to become a company whose primary concern, after acquiring quality writing, is to be masters of promotion and publicity for the purpose of reaching the exact right readers for a particular book. This doesn’t mean large-scale advertising and spamming the world; it means working with the author to create or enhance Internet presence, creating strategically impactful events for the author to participate in, being assiduous in getting books to appropriate review venues, and being masters of every important form of media, from magazine ads to store displays, Twitter to YouTube trailers, author Web sites to signing tours.

When I say that publishing houses need to be exceptional at this task, I don’t mean that they owe every author a huge promotional effort: I only mean that publishing houses should consider it their mission to help make the step from author to readers who want that author’s work, with as little wasted effort and mismatching as possible. That job is tremendously difficult, as complex and variable in its way as writing a good book (and as solidly based on certain key principles). It makes sense that someone should need to specialize in that work and earn a living doing so in a way that will benefit readers, writers, and publishers alike–while potentially keeping good literary agents in business and supplying Hollywood with a steady stream of new material into the bargain.

Will publishers go extinct?
Alternatively, it could be that authors or people they hire will take care of preparation, design and reaching readers. I’m sure there are marketing firms and individual professionals who have the mastery to properly market books without publishers being involved, though I think because publishers invest in a book rather than simply getting paid for promoting it, they’re better-positioned and more credible advocates.

Yet marketers will do in a pinch, which means the ideal publisher isn’t necessary for the ideal publishing experience. It would be more of a pain in the neck for authors to have to coordinate and pay proofreaders, cover artists, book designers, technical personal, marketers, and so on than it would to simply sell the book to a publisher, but DIY for writers can be a financially viable approach. If the ideal publisher doesn’t emerge, publishers as a whole may eventually dwindle to insignificance.

For all I know, the ideal major publishing house exists now–but I haven’t talked with any author who’s seen it, and I talk with a lot of authors. Maybe that’s because some of my suppositions here are wrong–though if so, I don’t see how, and would need you to point it out. You’ll also need to point out anything I missed: as far as I can tell, a large-scale publisher that offers quality books and does the five things above would be an unqualified win. Or maybe I’m right on target, and before long we’ll be entering into a brave new world of ideal publishers–or else no publishers at all.



  1. Judson Roberts  •  Jun 7, 2011 @3:52 pm

    The “publisher” that I think comes closest to this is Amazon. Of course, they only function as a traditional publisher on a very small scale so far, but they’re building. That’s not what I’m talking about, though–I don’t know how Amazon is as a traditional publisher, but as a self-publisher, they fill all of your criteria pretty well with the exception of #4.

    Currently, Amazon does not really get involved with the actual product (with one exception which I’ll explain below)–they leave that up to the authors. But (1) they certainly do not hog rights; (2) they deal extremely fairly and honestly with authors–Amazon pays the best royalty rates in the business, they pay regularly and promptly, and provide authors comprehensive, transparent reporting of sales data; (3) they provide both electronic and print editions, IF the author elects to publish POD print editions through Amazon’s CreateSpace Division (and it’s within CreateSpace where authors can pay for editorial and cover design assistance for their books, but I have no idea what the quality level of such work is); and (5) Amazon’s excellent search engines can be quite effective at helping books find their natural audience. My own Strongbow Saga historical fiction series never found its natural audience when it was published by HarperCollins, but it is finally doing so now thanks to Amazon.

  2. Allen Moore  •  Aug 2, 2011 @9:53 pm

    So Amazon is blurring the line between traditional- and self-publishing. Sounds like good news for those of us who have spent years sending out queries and manuscripts to agents and/or publishers without getting beyond the odd kindly personal rejection or at best a request for three chapters. But here’s the question: have they blurred it enough for sales of books they publish to count as professional publications? The conventional wisdom at the workshops I’ve attended is that self-publishing is professional suicide. Doesn’t that still apply? Or should we advise a young author just starting out, with a novel we really like but who’s suffering the usual pangs of serial rejection, to just blow off the big-name agents and Baen’s towering slush pile and log on to Amazon’s CreateSpace?

    And if we do, and they do, and their PODs and e-pubs start flying off the virtual shelf and those big royalties start rolling in, would any level of success suffice for the gatekeepers at Codex or SFWA to admit them to the hallowed ranks of professional writers?

  3. Allen Moore  •  Aug 2, 2011 @9:59 pm

    I mistyped my e-mail address on the foregoing comment. This has the correct one.

  4. Luc  •  Aug 2, 2011 @10:39 pm

    Professional suicide: no, I don’t think that applies any more, and the reason is that many well-respected, successful writers with lots of traditional publishing contracts to their credit are now self-publishing, for instance works with lengths that are rarely published elsewhere (like novellas), works that have reverted rights to the writer and are no longer being sold by the original publisher, and original works of saleable length that are unusual or experimental or sometimes just on which the writer thinks that she or he can get a better income. If you already have a readership who knows you and is interested in your work, a readership who will seek your work out, it’s not unreasonable to want to publish through a system that will give you a 70% royalty rather than one that will give you a 10-25% royalty.

    Additionally, some writers are seeing significant success and readership from self-publishing alone–Amanda Hocking is a good example. So self-publishing may still have some stigma attached to it, but it’s nothing like it once was.

    Further, there’s no reason to mention self-published works when contacting a publisher or agent; unless they’ve sold very well, they’re immaterial.

    So I don’t think self-publishing drags people down at this point. Is it considered professional publication? My sense is that the answer is yes if you sell a lot of copies and no if you don’t. If you can go to a publisher and say (with some kind of substantiation, like an Amazon ranking) that you’ve sold 10,000 copies of your self-published novel, that is likely to get some respect. If you’ve sold 10 copies, it won’t.

    The one question remaining that I can’t answer (and I’m hoping someone else can) is whether an editor or agent who actually begins researching a writer whose work they’re interested in will ever consider it a mark against that writer if they discover the writer has self-published some work. I find that a little unlikely, but I have to admit that it seems possible there could be industry professionals with a strong enough bias against selfpub that they would take that approach.

Leave a Reply

Allowed tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

%d bloggers like this: