Publishers: What are they good for?

O'Reilly editors examine the role of traditional publishers in light of Amanda Hocking's independent success.

Update, 3/25/11: Amanda Hocking has reportedly signed a $2 million deal with St. Martin’s for her next series. Here’s the news and here’s her thoughts on the deal.

Self-published author Amanda Hocking turned heads when estimates suggested she’s making big money. Hocking’s age — she’s 26 — and her distribution method of choice — low-priced ebooks sold directly through Amazon, et al. — undoubtedly contributed to the attention.

The inclination is to paint this picture in broad strokes: An upstart author finds success outside the traditional method, which reveals the imminent demise of the stodgy incumbents (insert David vs. Goliath and/or “Innovator’s Dilemma” references as needed).

It’s a good story, but Hocking isn’t buying it. In a blog post titled “Some Things That Need to Be Said,” Hocking makes two important points:

  1. Success in any domain is unpredictable. “… While I do think I will not be the only one to do this — others will be as successful as I’ve been, some even more so — I don’t think it will happen that often,” she writes.
  2. Self-publishing and traditional publishing are branches on the same tree. “Self-publishing and traditional publishing really aren’t that different,” Hocking says. “One is easier to get into but harder to maintain. But neither come with guarantees. Some books will sell, some won’t.”

Her full post is worth a read.

News of Hocking’s success led to an interesting back-channel conversation on an O’Reilly editor’s list. The perspectives articulated in the resulting email thread reflect many of the important issues at play in today’s publishing world. With permission, I’m moving a few excerpts into public view below. I think (and hope) there’s an opportunity to instigate some broader discussion.

Amanda Hocking on Amazon
Screenshot of Amazon’s Amanda Hocking page

What do publishers offer?

In the email exchange, Brett McLaughlin considered the return on investment of traditional publishing’s bread and butter: in-depth editing. Is editing as important as publishers think it is?

Many of the things we think are of incredibly high value turn out to be of far less value to the consumer. Certainly, we can say that editing of a Kindle fiction book probably needs to be less rigorous than a print technology book, or even more so in the case of a language-heavy theological commentary … I’d do well to think hard about what’s worth holding a product up in the name of “editing” and what just doesn’t matter to the paying public.

Tim O’Reilly noted that good editing adapts to the author and the project:

Sometimes, we need to almost become co-authors; at other times, we need to just step back and let the author speak, even if it’s a bit different than we would do it ourselves. But ideally, editing is a conversation in which the editor helps the author clarify his or her own ideas, the order and learning path, and the depth of treatment.

Russell Jones made an intriguing point about publishing processes. What once was mandatory is now optional:

Rather than a required step in publishing, editorial is in the process of switching from an imposed step by publishers to an optional step by authors. It’s this change in focus that makes publishers nervous. But I don’t think it should, necessarily. As Tim points out, there are times when the author’s original voice is sufficient, and times when the editor/author conversation becomes paramount.

As I see it, the future of publishing and editing is to identify those touchpoints and offer the appropriate services as required at that time. And we have numerous services to offer, including: artwork, audience research, marketing and advertising, public relations, design, technological expertise, sales and distribution, brand association, community services, update and notification services, bundling, and of course, editorial.

The very fact that authors can publish works without a traditional publisher automatically changes the publisher’s role from one that imposes process on authors to one that offers services to authors. Nimble publishers will recognize this sea change and adapt.

Mike Loukides looked at the “cheerleading” editors give to authors:

The economics of publishing are changing in ways that make it difficult for publishers to do the kind of rewriting and revision that we used to do, but that’s only part of the picture. A huge part that we haven’t thought about enough is what I call the “cheerleading” role: supporting and encouraging the author so that he or she makes it down the stretch. So, though we’re going to have to rely more on writers who can deliver good prose without lots of help, that’s a small part of the value we deliver. There’s a lot of value in shaping the approach and pushing the author toward the finish line.

Many characterize Hocking as a self publisher, but that’s not quite right. The companies that own the distribution/sales platforms Hocking and other authors use are in many ways the real publishers. In the email thread, Tim O’Reilly used Amazon to illustrate this point:

I think it’s important to frame all this correctly. We’re not really talking about a situation where authors are self-publishing so much as one where we’re watching Amazon become a publisher. Amazon is starting with the now standard Internet approach of “publish first, curate afterwards” (vs. the old scarcity model of “curate, then publish”), but it’s also clear that as the ecosystem develops, Amazon will offer more of the kinds of services that Russell is talking about.

If Amazon and Apple and others are publishers now, what competitive advantage can traditional publishers claim? Brett McLaughlin said the things that happen around the writing process — the conversations, the shaping, and the author-editor relationships — are key differentiators:

There is huge value in saying: You’re getting access and long conversations with an editor who is engaged in your field, who is reading and thinking and talking to others about the same topics, who reads everything you’ve already written, and will engage you.

In short, you’re pair-writing, and the result isn’t just a spell-checked, green-underline-less document in Word that can be turned into a web page or a Kindle product. What you’re creating is a book that is cognitively and substantively better, because you are thinking better. You are well-reasoned and provocative and well-organized, and you have had your pre-suppositions challenged by a great companion. Sure, your book is better as a result, but so is your speech, and your sessions at conferences, and your work product. Ultimately, you are a better thinker.

Your thoughts?

Even when you want to be open minded, it’s hard to fully understand the field of play when you’re ensnared in a system. I fall into that trap all the time, and I’m probably caught in it now.

As such, I’m curious to hear what other folks think. Do the perspectives outlined above seem on target? Or, is the thread of optimism that runs through these points tied to a misplaced sense of publisher self-worth? And here’s a question for authors: Are publishers still useful?

Please weigh in through the comments.

Portions of these excerpts were edited and condensed.


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