Monday, October 26, 2009

Do Authors Still Need Publishers?

In my new post today over at Huffington Post, I ask the question, "Does Stephen King still need a publisher?"

I think the answer is no.

Once an author develops the platform and fanbase of a Stephen King, Dan Brown or J.K. Rowling, why not self-publish? They can hire their own team of editors, designers, marketers and sales force, partner with a couple big distributors, and sell their books for less yet still make 2-3X the profit.

If publishers are going to remain relevant, they need to do what Stephen King can do for himself, only better.

The HuffPo post is an updated derivative of one I originally wrote here back in April, in which I speculated the risk of publishing would shift to the author. Given the changes we've seen in the industry since April, I'm more convinced than ever that author will continue to shoulder a larger share of the risk of publishing, and this will lead to a dramatic transformation of the publisher-author power balance in favor of authors.

For most of the last couple centuries, if you wanted your book published, you had to work with a publisher, because they controlled not only the printing press but the means of distribution as well.

Over at the Huffington Post story, a great discussion is already taking place in the comments. MJ Rose, well known as an early ebook advocate, a self publisher, and now a mainstream commercial author, argues that publishers remain relevant because they control access to brick and mortar retailers. I don't disagree. Publishers still control access to physical shelves.

Looking ahead, especially as ebooks rise from a likely 5 percent market share in 2009 to 30 or 50 percent within the next five years, publishers will be hard pressed to maintain the same relevance.

If in five years half or more of the market has gone digital, then that's half the market any author can distribute to without the need of a traditional publisher. Smashwords already has agreements in place to distribute books to several major online retailers as well as the top mobile apps, and within the next couple years we'll have all the major retailers covered.

How do you think the role of publisher will change over the next few years? Do authors still need publishers? Comment here, or join the discussion over at HuffPo.

OCTOBER 18 UPDATE: The column at HuffPo has sparked some interesting debate and discussion, at HuffPo, on Twitter and in the blogosphere. Some Twitterers, apparently concerned I was questioning the value of publishers (I love publishers BTW!), created a special Twitter hashtag of #publishersmatter and a spirited debate ensued (click the link to view the thread). Kate Eltham, a writer out of Brisbane, Australia, and the CEO of the Queensland Writer's Centre, contributed to the discussion with an intelligent response on her blog, Alphabet Soup.


Daniel James Palmer said...

Perhaps--as is the state of the music biz today--the best marketer/authors will build a fan base sans an agent/publisher. And in turn, those authors could earn a modest (very modest) sum selling direct to their tight collective of fans. What's missing for me however, is the industry filter (get an agent/find a publisher) that pushes the "so so" author to achieve a quality with their craft. So perhaps some publishers go out of business, but if the sad state of the music industry is any barometer, they will never be irrelevant, or in my opinion, replaceable.

Emily St. John Mandel said...

Do authors still need publishers? Well, as a writer, the question is: do I need a team of talented people with combined decades of invaluable experience to edit my books, craft a marketing plan, take care of housekeeping like obtaining an ISBN and copy-editing, create the cover art, make the sales call to Barnes & Noble, print galleys and work tirelessly to get them in the right hands, bring me to conferences like BEA and The ABA Winter Institute to meet booksellers, present my books to regional sales teams, distribute the books domestically, contract with other companies to handle foreign distribution, pitch me to writer's festivals and bookstores, and maintain relationships with hundreds of booksellers?

Um, yes.

Stephen King arguably doesn't need a publisher anymore, but I think most of the rest of us do.

Lee said...

The quality lies, and has always lain, with the writer - at least a serious and therefore self-critical one.

Anonymous said...

I don't think anyone NEEDS a publisher. But for fiction, it helps. Once a writer develops a following, then they can pretty much do what they want if they keep it up and don't get lazy.

I think that non-fiction writers with a niche product (like myself) should always self-publish.

Glenn G. Thater said...

If an author finds a way to build a robust and loyal following, that author doesn't need a traditional publisher to be successful. The challenge we face is - how to build that following. How do we get our work in the hands of enough readers to develop that fan base? is one piece, perhaps an important piece, in that challenging puzzle.
-- glenn g. thater
author of Harbinger of Doom

Maria said...

Certainly those with a backlist and/or following are going to gain the most from the self-publishing movement.

Do we need publishers? We need some of the things they offer--proofreading, editing, covers, and so on. But as most of us found out, publishers aren't willing to provide that to just anyone, so many of us had to go it alone (or find the help elsewhere.)

I think it will be great when the doors open wider and some of those valuable services are offered in partnership--rather than in a very narrow gate-system that we have now.

author page:

Amy Blackwelder said...

Publishers are still relevant because authors don't have the funds to promote and advertise their books on their own.

As an author: I can self-publish, pay an editor, design my cover, promote online and locally offline and perhaps even nationally through ingrahm-but the books will cost more than through a publisher and the promotion behind it won't be as strong.

However I do feel a shift in power and in need from the publisher in this day and age.

Authors have much more self reliance and effectiveness than they did just ten years ago.

Lidivic Seth said...

The author's experience and knowledge of the business is, as a matter of course, what will determine the usefulness of working with a publishing house. I'm in agreement with Ami Blackwelder that [most] authors do not have the funds to promote and advertise their books. However, Glen G. Thater is also correct about gaining a following and fan base. Whatever the medium used to advertise or promote one's book, the self-publishing author will be most effective if the readers are well understood.

Coming from a technical writer background in engineering, I know the importance of constructing my written work for different audiences (business, technical, extremely technical, and layman audiences). Likewise, while working overseas as an ESL instructor, I wrote my own workbooks for students of different ages (including the CEO of a factory in Hiroshima, Japan).

Getting the following of readers on the web can be a difficult challenge, as the web is a very distracting environment for readers (One day everyone loves your work, and the next day readers are following a new trend somewhere else).

An alternative to traditional publishing is blogging. I've found that my science and scholarly blog gained readers faster than I'd anticipated. The reason for which I suspect is the care I give to the readers of my blog. While I'm not anti Google Adsense, I do try to place the most useful tools and links before hitting my readers with advertisements. Some of the ads I have removed entirely, and instead place my e-books where Adsense would normally be. The idea is to make my blog useful to readers. If they appreciate the blog, then maybe they'll continue to read my posts and purchase my books (which has worked quite well for me in less than a year of blogging about my books).

Things like integrity are important to my readers. If I say I'm going to look into a problem, I then follow through.

I also follow a motto: Complaints are fine, so long as you provide a solution to the problem stated.

I think a following will build up as readers get to know the character of the writer (because e-publishing for yourself is a more personal and direct approach than traditional publishing).

The use of a traditional publisher may be helpful if you are an author who has spent many years on the writing of one particular book. Also, if the book is a work of non-fiction, particularly in the area of health & medicine, then a publishing house with experience in medical publications would be the wiser choice (as opposed to self-publishing). It's just safer to have a team with knowledge of laws and regulations to review your work.

Anonymous said...

Reader Following and Self-Publishing

Why do I write?
I think that this question is one of the selling points of my work. It is, in a sense, all about me (and my relationship to my readers).

I'm very critical of my own work. I write books which I deem as 'kind-of-good' books. They're not best sellers by any means. What I try to sell, however, is my character. These are things which I believe others will find interesting about me (a useful leverage in blogging).

How does one sell character?
One area I write about is role-playing games (RPG). Now, keep in mind that I'm not an expert on RPG. However, I started playing RPG back in 1982. This gives me some veteran status in the RPG world.

I write some of my work for people of my own age who also share a love for the old RPG games (Dungeons & Dragons, Top Secret, Gamma World, After-the-Bomb, etc.).

More importantly, however, is that I know that there exists an audience of younger players who are curious about the old games--and the people who grew up playing these older RPG games. Not being an expert in the rules of RPG does earn me some criticism, but it doesn't dissuade people from reading my books (economic pricing of ebooks has boosted my sales in one year alone). My love of old time RPG comes across to my readers.
In addition to being a veteran of RPG gaming, I've quite a story to tell about just how it was that I came to play the game. My story starts off in the Middle East, where I came across underground caverns and explored the open desert. This story, combined with my interesting work history, reels in my readers.

One of my other useful selling points is integrity. Take my science and scholarly blog for example ( While I do some advertising of my books, and include opinions on scientific subjects, I also provide answers to the problems I address. One of the biggest difficulties on the web is inconsistency with data. Keyword searches don't produce the answers people are seeking. I've tried posting as much as I can to help people take a shortcut to find an answer (I'll admit that it is nice to be able to use a resource on the web that isn't just about selling a product). I know my audience, for this particular blog, are people who want to read something intelligent (they're not looking for the latest iPhone thrill, but perhaps are more interested in the GIS technology--or more importantly, places on the web where science enthusiasts can collaborate with others on topics which apply to their profession).

The internet is a vast place. I do not sit down at my computer hoping to bring all readers into my following. There's a following for every kind of writer.