The Imaginary Battle Between Authors and Publishers

Anyone can publish a book online, as long as they have access to a computer, an internet connection, and a handful of braincells. This is, by and large, an excellent thing for the human race.

However, what began as a simple devolution of the process of connecting with readers is now an epic battle. Depending on your viewpoint the story is either:

A few STALWART SELF-PUBLISHING HEROES, bravely striking a blow against the gathering darkness of THE DEMON HORDE OF ESTABLISHED PUBLISHERS.


Brave GUARDIAN GATEKEEPER PUBLISHERS, making humanity’s last stand against the turgid wave of dross written by SELF-PUBLISHING MORONS WITH NO TASTE.

Grab some popcorn, right? Except this conflict is a dangerous distraction, that’s nothing more than a sop to the disgruntled on either side.

Bad Seeds

The genesis of this false dichotomy of writer vs. publisher isn’t hard to discern.

Statistically, most of a writer’s interactions with publishers and agents involve rejection. It’s easy to circumvent the dopamine drain of this process by bypassing the entire thing and just putting your books online. It’s my ball and I’m going home. They can’t reject you if you don’t ever submit. You can’t get dumped if you never ask anyone out. Who needs ‘em, anyway? Let the readers decide!

Publishers look at the vast seething mass of self-published books out there that bypassed them completely and it stings. The sudden devaluation of an entire industry is a body-blow to their professional self-worth. We’re all that stands between the reader and this deluge of terrible writing. If a large part of your identity consists of being an arbiter of taste, it’s fairly easy to assume that anything that slid around you is appalling trash.

Upon this foundation, an entirely unnecessary edifice constructed of acrimony and distrust has arisen.

Unnecessary Evil

I don’t think that this needs to be a battle. Certainly it’s not the one that we should be fighting. The decline of literary quality and popularity of reading won’t be the fault of self-publishers or established publishers.

We’re all on the same side here.

Isn’t the whole point of it all to get great books from the minds of authors to the hands of readers? To improve that process — and keep up with the march of progress — both parties are going to have to make some compromises and changes.

Self publishing authors must recognize the essential things that are brought to the table by a publisher:

  • Publicity. Almost every book lives or dies on the publicity it receives. You can’t read a book if you don’t know about it. Some authors are good enough at marketing their work that they don’t need any help. That’s great. But not everyone is a skilled publicist.
  • Design. One of the biggest failings of a self-published book is often the awful cover. There’s a reason “don’t judge a book by its cover” is a hallowed proverb. People do!
  • Editing. Most people that read a book they enjoy have little idea how important a part good editing played in its creation. It’s crucially important to have your book edited. It shows when you haven’t.

These three things are the special secret sauce that every excellent book contains. No author should spurn them as unnecessary.

Publishers, on the other hand, need to take note of the quickly expanding market that has evolved to provide the above services. It’s emphatically no longer the case that in order to have the above things happen to their book an author has to go to a publisher. Not only that, most major publishers can’t even compete with freelancers in this area. Their big overhead, weak titles that they carry for various reasons, and vast number of concurrent projects all mean that a talented individual will easily beat them by providing a better, more personal service at a lower rate.

If I were a major publishing house I would be busting a gut trying to get ahead of this trend before it sweeps my feet from under me. I’d slim down, shape up — and stop treating authors as a renewable resource.

Forest for the trees

This doesn’t need to be an Us and Them. Publishers aren’t evil fat cats trying to milk their herd of tame writers for all they can. Mostly, they’re just people who like books and want to make a career getting them in front of readers. Self-publishers aren’t ignorant jackasses peddling their steaming excrescence to unsuspecting readers.

Almost a quarter of Americans didn’t read a single book last year. This is a growing trend, not a momentary blip. Isn’t that terrifying? If we want to keep literature alive, we’re going to have to work together — not waste time on imaginary ideological brawls.

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