Monday 26 December 2011

Publishers as gatekeepers

Self-publishing and small cooperatives
Certainly the way we publish is changing. More and more people are self-publishing or forming publishing cooperatives. The sensible ones are using an editor and a copy editor. They lack the resources of the bigger publishers to promote and distribute work. However, they can sometimes feed into a niche market. This is fine.  Sometimes, however, the size and scope of the writer’s circle of influence might be what is selling the book rather than the merit of the book.
Established authors going it alone      
Some authors are going with the traditional publishers for new work but self-publishing their out-of-print titles, most commonly via Smashwords or directly to Amazon Kindle. These writers don’t have to worry too much about promotion. They already have their name. They can sell many of these titles as backlist and good old Amazon makes the link visible for them.
There is now also crowd-funding where the great general public determine which works get published and actually offer the financial sponsorship upfront. However, again, whether a book gets published may have little to do with the content of the book but to do with how popular the writer is. Most crowd-funding organisations expect the project leader – in this case the author – to have a big following on social-networking sites. Arguably, authors should have such a following but that should be because they are good authors not because they are good at social networking.
Content overload
There is so much available to read now. Some content is offered free as an incentive and some is offered very cheaply – especially in the form of e-books. Then there are all the blogs, Facebook pages and web articles flagged up by others. We can’t possibly read it all, so how do we choose?
Developing trust  
We tend to follow the links and recommendations of people we trust, and occasionally we’ll follow something we simply find interesting. We have traditionally trusted the publishing houses to scrutinize work before it comes to us.  We all know they don’t always get it right – they can disappoint and they can also overlook gems. But on the whole, we know that the work has been vetted rigorously and some professional editorial work has gone into it.
What the reader pays for
Interestingly, many of the traditional publishers offer their e-book titles for only a few pence less than the paperback. Can we assume that this reflects just how much time and effort goes into that gatekeeping? With bulk printing, stock, warehousing and distribution only involve minimal costs. The employees of the publishing house are obviously doing something else. Cynically we might say that they are making a tidy profit. I actually rather doubt it. Even where a publishing house is doing well, if the executives put their business energy into almost any other sort of enterprise they’d make much more money. The must be some care about books in there somewhere. And in fact, publishing houses could be driven out of business because of the ease with which we can now go it alone.
Who will offer quality control now?  
If this happens how can we retain the quality control? Can this be left to the reviewers? If the publishers merely become reviewers, how will they get paid? Could they become freelance editors?
We curse our publishers often – as a writer / publisher I’ve experienced that from both sides. Both the apparently overzealous editor and the author who cannot let go of a certain character or passage of prose can annoy seriously. It strikes me though, that publishers, the big ones and the small ones still have an important role to play, even if that role is going to take a different form soon.                     


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