What purpose do book publishers serve?

We’ve written a lot about the disruption in the book-publishing industry over the past year or so, with Amazon (s amzn) not only creating a huge market for authors to self-publish on the Kindle — thereby avoiding traditional publishers altogether — but also signing writers to its own imprint, and cutting the Big Six publishing houses out of the picture. But it should be noted that working with a publisher can have its benefits as well as its disadvantages, and writer Edan Lepucki has put together a nice list of reasons why someone (including her) might decide not to self-publish. If publishers have any weapons against Amazon, they are on this list.

Lepucki, who writes for a magazine called The Millions and is also an author, says while she sees the benefits of self-publishing — the freedom from a traditional book contract, the ability to control the way the book is marketed, that self-publishers typically keep a larger share of the proceeds, and so on — she has decided not to self-publish her first book. In an earlier essay, Lepucki wrote about how she had given up trying to market her work to publishers, but despite a number of authors describing how easy self-publishing is, she says she has decided to pursue a traditional book deal (others have come to different conclusions: despite some misgivings, Marc Herman says he decided to publish his journalism about the Middle East as a Kindle Single instead of as a traditional book).

Publishers can help a book rise above the noise

One of the reasons the author says she has come to this conclusion is that, while many people seem to see the publishing industry as dead in the water, she still believes there are good publishers out there, that they serve a purpose and that their recommendation of a book has value. As she puts it:

I trust publishers. They don’t always get it right, but more often than not, they do. As I said in the piece that started me off on this whole investigation: “I want a reputable publishing house standing behind my book; I want them to tell you it’s good so that I don’t have to.”

This gets at one of the issues that keeps coming up every time I write about self-publishing, and how Amazon’s Kindle and other tools allow a writer to reach readers without having to go through a publisher. These posts often get comments that could be paraphrased as: “But then the world will be full of terrible writing, and how will we find the good stuff?” And certainly one of the primary functions a good editor or publisher can provide is to filter through content and select the best (of course, that also means that much potentially valuable writing is not chosen).

Lepucki also mentions some other downsides of self-publishing, including that it seems to appeal mostly to what writers call “genre” fiction — in other words, the kinds of stories that self-publishing phenomenon Amanda Hocking turned into a $2-million gold mine. For more literary fiction, Lepucki says, self-publishing is not as obviously beneficial, because the potential market is much smaller. And as others have pointed out, self-publishing also tends to work better if you are already a recognized author, such as J.A. Konrath.

Self-publishing often means Amazon is in control

The author also mentions her reluctance to become “Amazon’s bitch,” as she puts it, by making her work only available through the online retailer and its mobile platform. While self-publishers see themselves as fighting the system, she notes that they are really just exchanging one large corporate entity for another:

I don’t mind if someone else chooses to read my work electronically, just as I don’t mind if Amazon is one of the places to purchase my work; I’m simply wary of Amazon monopolizing the reading landscape.

But one of the biggest reasons Lepucki gives for not wanting to self-publish is also one of the best weapons good publishers have in their fight not to be disintermediated by Amazon, and that is the relationship that forms between a publisher — and the editors who handle a book — and an author. As she puts it, even the notes on her rejected manuscript from the sub-editor who handled it showed “these professionals are valuable to the process of book-making.” For every publisher who treats their writers so badly that they switch to Amazon, there are likely others who value that relationship and work hard to improve it.

That doesn’t mean traditional publishers can rest easy, of course. Amazon is clearly out to dominate the entire electronic book-publishing ecosystem to the best of its ability, and it has some powerful weapons to bring to that fight. But as long as some authors still think like Edan Lepucki, they will have a chance.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Marya and Mike Licht