Why publishers still matter

At a time when it has never been easier to self-publish, what is the value of a publisher? Are they redundant in this brave new world? Sam Jordison explains how conventional publishers, and particularly independents with distinct characters like his own Galley Beggar Press, are perhaps needed now more than ever.

Independent publishers


“As more authors hear about the possibilities self-pubbing offers, and read about success stories… what could possibly motivate them to ever sign another publishing deal? Publishers, once an essential part of the equation, are no longer needed to connect authors and readers. And, amazingly, they don’t seem to understand this yet.”

So says self-publishing champion Joe Konrath. And ouch! Ouch! It stings! Joe Konrath has a lot to say about what he terms “legacy publishing”. None of it complimentary. But nearly all worth reading. Possibly before finishing this article you should head over to his website and fill your boots. He’ll give you a great overview of the case against people like me – and possibly entertain you in the process.

While you’re on his site, I’d also recommend having a scan of one of his books’ opening chapters.  Draw your own conclusions about the quality control and editorial services offered by conventional publishers. I say “draw your own conclusions” because I am a publisher, and, as you can probably guess, my opinion is hopelessly biased.

It also probably won’t surprise you to learn that I think publishers “understand” plenty and that we do have something to offer both writers and readers.

I get depressed when I read articles saying that authors should train themselves to be salespeople as well as writers. Should they really?

To readers, it’s hopefully pretty obvious what a publisher can offer: a handsome, properly edited, properly proofread, properly typeset, and carefully chosen book. I stress that last bit especially. A good publishing brand should offer a seal of quality, and, if it’s a brand you trust, a sense of personal interest.

As I say, I’m biased. But this is something I think that small presses can do particularly well. If you buy something from Influx Press, for instance, you know that you will get a high quality, probably quite cheeky and certainly entertaining book that will be firmly rooted in one interesting geographical location. If you buy something from And Other Stories, you know it will be clever, thought-provoking and thematically daring. Salt will give you a book that is entertaining – but which will also have allowed their author the freedom to take risks and have fun.

My own publisher Galley Beggar also aims to fulfil expectations about quality and about literary boldness. We also now have a reputation for taking risks – but if we can take risks, it’s only because, like other small presses, we trust our readers. We are only able to put out books that others can’t because we know that we have readers that are prepared to take a punt on us.

In short, a good part of our brand (the best part!), as it is with every small press, is actually directed by reader expectations.

So while self-publishers might reasonably argue that they can build up a direct relationship with readers, small presses offer authors something even better: a different and diverse readership that they don’t have to build up for themselves. Since we are also able to get our books into physical shops, we can also hook them up with that beautiful and treasured thing, the casual browser. The person who picks up a book by chance and falls in love with the writing. The ideal, dream reader, in other words.

Already I’m getting ephemeral. Let me try to go down to earth, with some practicalities. Nowadays, it’s easy to buy editorial services, and cover designers – but I would argue that those offered by a good publisher are different and, to be blunt, better. I don’t want to criticise the work of people who offer professional manuscript assessments. Not least because, I’m one of those people. I find this kind of editorial work rewarding and I’m often delighted with the way a client will improve their work following my suggestions. But there are important differences between the work I do for clients and the work I do for authors. Ultimately, I’m paid by the client and can only push my advice so far. The relationship with authors I publish is naturally more robust.

Small presses can also offer all kinds of help with publicity. We generally tend to have more Twitter followers than the average punter. We have relationships with newspapers and reviewers. We are also prepared to put in legwork on behalf of our authors – and ideally allow them to get on with the job of being a writer, instead of having to also be a self-publicist. Of course, I love it when writers are able to make a good splash on Twitter and generate their own publicity. But I don’t expect it. I get depressed, in fact, when I read articles saying that authors should train themselves to be salespeople as well as writers. Should they really? Some it suits. Some, quite rightly, just want to stay in their garret and get on with the job go putting words on the page. As a publisher, I’d hope I can support that.

Talking of supporting writers, the other thing that small presses can offer is passion. We commit to books and to writers. No indy publisher would put out something they don’t like. We aren’t bankers, or lawyers. We aren’t here for power or gain. We’re here for love. We love our books and we love our authors. And I hope that this show of faith can make a huge difference. I’d also hope that in an age when anyone and everyone can publish anything and everything, small presses are actually more needed than ever. We can help ensure that among the clamour of voices, good writers get the attention and the care that they deserve. We can help bring their writing to as many people as possible.

Sam Jordison, for Waterstones.com/blog



10 thoughts on “Why publishers still matter

  1. Couldn’t agree more. I know someone who self published their books, and I think it’s fair to say that the people they did it with couldn’t care less. I’m not going to go into it, but believe me that I was disgusted and shocked.

    On the other hand, I’ve had no end of awesome experiences with traditional editors, and this is just for short stories and anthology. They’ve worked with me and my stories, through thick and thin, for months at a time, and this was before I even agreed to let them publish it. I’ll be continuing up that path until I get interest from a traditional publisher of novels. :)

    Oh, and thanks for this!

  2. I came to this site via SaltPublishing after a very helpful workshop today in Liverpool (organised by Writing on the Wall) and encouraged by the words of Linda Bennett, one of the Guest Speakers. I realise I’ve been lucky by attracting the attention of a “traditional” publisher before I’ve even found myself an Agent, and even luckier to see that both my current novels are doing reasonably well.
    Therein lies my problem. A ‘windbag’ like me who is comfortable with Novel-length works is dismayed to see that Salt define a Novella as 20,000-30,000 words. Some of us are just getting into the swing of things @ 20K words! It feels a tad unfair that longer works can only by submitted through an Agent …
    Having said that, perhaps it’s time for me to step outside my ‘Comfort Zone’ and see if I can’t write a complete yarn aimed at the Modern Dreams series, keeping to the parameters suggested by Salt. Who knows, I might learn something new – like when to SHUT UP!
    Paul McDermott

  3. Some publishers are good, some publishers are bad. Some agents are good, some agents are good, some agents are bad. Some authors are good, some authors are bad. Some readers are good, some readers are bad. Some teachers are good, some teachers are bad. Some pupils are good, some pupils are bad. Some parents are good, some parents are bad.

    But I didn’t understand “And ouch! Ouch!” in your article, mate! Okay, I have a funny novel called ‘Children of England (half title). Are you willing to take risk?

  4. Aah – the ad hominem argument:
    “Joe Konrath’s books are rubbish. We need publishers to protect us from books like that!”
    Joe’s blog is funny – but it’s also aimed at writers, not readers. He’s a big guy: he doesn’t need me to stand up for him. But he’s also a busy guy, busy standing up for authors like you, Sam, and like me. I’ll deal with your points about writing later – because this is a blog for readers.
    No reader goes into a bookshop expecting to find the books arranged by publisher. They expect some sort of division by genre/age group, and after that, for things to be alphabetical. You may notice that libraries are similar.
    So, the whole idea of publishers having a ‘trusted brand’ for readers just won’t wash. Readers trust other readers (by word of mouth or reviews), and then they trust booksellers, which is why Waterstone’s puts their little cards on the shelves. Amazon lets the reviews do the talking for them.
    I hope you’re not going to object to the whole e-reader phenomenon: that would be rather sad. So, given that an electronic bookshelf is effectively infinite, what’s the problem? Are you saying that readers have too much choice? That they should be treated like children and given books to read by publishers? If not, then let readers be adults and make their own choices. You may not like Joe Konrath’s books, but millions of readers do. That’s their choice.
    You effectively say that Joe’s books draw into question “quality control and editorial services” Really? In what way? Where’s your evidence? Joe’s books are as professionally proofread as any other book, and much better edited. I recently finished two books where there was no evidence of editing whatsoever – the publisher may have worked on the first couple of chapters, but after that, nix.
    I also looked at the covers of books on the Galley Beggar website. Oh dear. If I were one of their authors, I’d be looking elsewhere – no one is going to be attracted to those covers.
    This brings me neatly to your points about writers. There is a huge elephant squatting on your argument, which you refuse to acknowledge. I get 70% of the cover price of my books from Amazon, paid into my bank account on 60 day terms. How much do you get from your publisher?
    And the whole publicity thing: ask the 99% of legacy published authors how much publicity they got from their publisher, and how much they had to do themselves. Yes, Stephen King gets 2m high posters in bookshops, but he doesn’t need the publicity. What about the writer whose books were only in the bookshop for five weeks before being returned unsold?
    You were very lucky, Sam, because your book was chosen to occupy a large space on its own in Waterstone’s where it could breathe. How many authors are that lucky?
    Finally, I promise not to tell the police about your activities as a professional manuscript assessor. You say that you only push your advice so far because the client is paying you. I believe that’s also known as fraud by misrepresentation. Your clients are paying you to tell them the truth; unless, of course, your adverts say, ‘Let me read your book and flatter your ego.’ But I doubt that.

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