In the brave new world of digital and self-publishing, Lisa Buchan, CEO of Sparkabook, poses a question that few dare to ask – do writers need a publisher? It’s most certainly a query that traditional book agents and publishing houses loathe. But, as authors take greater control over their work, it’s an inevitable discussion that needs to be had.
Previously, creative types labored in the name of their art. If they encountered someone who had enough money and power to commission them to complete further works, then they were truly blessed – and ultimately so was the rest of society. The first publishers actually were benefactors – people who sponsored a writer they liked. And, the books these writers cranked out would go almost immediately into the patron’s personal library. In other words, all the sculptors, painters and writers were at the mercy of these affluent individuals. The patrons weren’t making an “investment,” since they didn’t need to generate income for themselves. Art was done purely for art’s sake.
Contemporary publishing isn’t quite so paternalistic, but it’s close. When a publisher accepts a manuscript, they truly are making an investment in the author – in both time and money. They work with the author to polish the final product; have someone design the book jacket and any illustrations inside the text; and engage in marketing and advertising. Consequently, for their efforts, the publisher lops off a certain percentage from the profits. Book agents do basically the same, except the actual printing. If the writer is foolish enough to relinquish all rights, then that means the publishing house can sell movie or TV rights to the book, and the only benefit the writer will see is his or her name in small print beneath the term, “Based on the book by…”
As with any investment, it’s always a risk. An agent or editor may fall in love with a particular book, but – even with heavy marketing – that’s no guarantee it will sell. Every publishing house wants to discover the next Stephen King or Anne Rice. But, they won’t know if they don’t take a chance with the writer. King, for example, couldn’t get any of his horror short stories published when he began his writing career. So, porn magazine purveyor Larry Flynt, of all people, published them. Ernest Hemingway endured almost a hundred rejections before he got his first story published. If a publisher doesn’t accept someone like John Grisham – only to see him go with another company and start making millions – then obviously that first publisher starts kicking themselves. Therefore, publishing is filled with more regrets than glory.
But, as self-publishing gains more respectability and becomes the norm, agents, editors and publishers are squirming. They’re akin to the British Empire seeing power slip from its grasp, as millions of people in India refuse to bow to their authoritarian rule. It’s frightening to them, but exciting to the rest of us.
Read the rest of Buchan’s editorial here.