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Thursday, 22 November 2012

What Do You Love/Hate About Traditional Publishers?

Way back, in the fogs of the ancient past, when men were apes and women were damned glad to be fleet of foot, traditional publishers took on a role in the world of books. They sought out and nurtured talent. They actively encouraged good writers. They sold their authors’ books. It was a dream world, where writers could actually spend their time writing, learning technique, coming to grips with the process of telling stories, unburdened by the constant need to expose themselves to their public like some lurid music hall act.

Way back then, the publisher took on the tasks of marketing and sales, jobs requiring entirely different skill sets from those needed to produce creative fiction. Sales people are a breed. They are driven by money and the idea of reward. Creative people are artists, driven by the need to express themselves and living in hope that someone somewhere might enjoy their output sufficiently to pass a positive comment and maybe even recommend it to a friend. Publishers organised the production of the book; engaging and paying for skilled cover artists to draw attention to the work, hiring editors to iron out inconsistencies and grammatical errors, choosing the font most suitable for the text, taking a pride in turning the creative work into a marketable product. Publishers negotiated with booksellers and others in the book trade to get the volumes on the shelves of stores and libraries. They produced publicity material and arranged for signings and, sometimes, tours by their authors.

All this activity released authors from the need to worry about a side of writing mostly foreign to the creative nature. It allowed writers to spend time actually learning their craft and developing into practitioners with insight, depth and experience. Their writers grew in talent and value to their readers. The authors were protected from day to day anxieties regarding deadlines and targets and sales list positions. They could actually get on with the job of writing; the role for which they were best fitted.

Of course, there were downsides, for both writers and publishers. Occasionally a publisher would encourage a promising prospect only to discover either a lack of real talent or a lack of discipline, which resulted in the one-book author or the procrastinator who promised but never actually delivered. For the writer, there were restrictions in genre. Publishers would light on the first novel and then drive the writer along the same route time and time again, trying to turn their protégée into some sort of word machine churning out endless versions of the same, once-successful book until both the writer and his readers became disenchanted with the whole business. Readers then turned to some other talent whilst the writer went off to be a plumber or park warden instead.

We have reached a stage in publishing today where the potential for a better deal for all is possible. Because it costs almost nothing to produce an ebook, financial risk for publishers regarding that first novel is no longer relevant. The only potential loss involves their time. The monetary layout is negligible and there is no concern for overheads with a warehouse full of unsold books. The publisher can devote time and effort to marketing the books and, should the ebook prove successful, can then produce a POD, again at little cost, but with the confidence that the book is likely to sell well. This is a win/win situation for publisher and author. The writer is spared the time-consuming and destructive work of marketing and can get on with the actual creation of a really good book. And the publisher can return to the role of nurturing mentor and guide, taking care of those tasks most authors find so onerous; i.e. marketing and sales.

So, why are so few publishers doing this? Why are so many locked into the recent cycle of backing pointless celebrity with huge advances only to lose these enormous sums when the product fails the first test of quality? I suspect it’s because publishers, along with most other businesses, are now run by bean counters rather than by those with imagination, flair and taste. As long as money is seen as the only worthwhile outcome for publishing, traditional publishers will continue to fail and decline. Once they start to understand and return to their original role of mentor and protector of talent, there is a strong possibility that they will flourish as never before. I just hope they discover this fact before I’m too old and decrepit to benefit from such services.

As always, I value your thoughts. Please comment freely and pass on this piece to as many of your writing/reading friends as you can.

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