at least 2.5 cheers for publishers

As Megan McArdle reminds us, “Publishers are middlemen. Everyone hates middlemen.” Maybe we can think a little more clearly about all this if we drop the term “middleman” and think about what publishers do.

I’ve published a dozen books with a variety of publishers, and here’s a partial list of what they have done for me:

  • edited my text, several times, looking for and correcting errors of all kinds
  • transferred the text from a word-processing document to a typesetting environment
  • chose a typeface and a design
  • laid out the text according to that design
  • designed a cover
  • solicited endorsements
  • sent the book to the printer
  • distributed the book to bookstores (including online ones)
  • created multiple digital version of the book
  • distributed those to sellers
  • sent review copies to appropriate sources, and followed up when necessary to encourage reviews
  • arranged for some combination of readings and (TV, radio, online) interviews
  • kept track of sales and mailed me royalty checks

Almost all of these things will need to be done, in almost all cases, if you want your book to be successful. And you can do them all yourself, if you are so inclined, and then keep all the money you make — if you make money. But you’ll have to put out money first, especially if you want hard copies. Even if you’re content to do an e-book only (thus dramatically reducing your sales opportunities), you’ll have to make major investments of time and energy — which will leave you less time and energy for writing. Then there’s the question of whether you actually have the skills to do any of this well.

So maybe you’ll want to farm some of that stuff out? Well, okay, but that will cost more money up front — and the more of it you farm out, the closer you’ll come, as Guan Yang has pointed out, to re-creating publishers — but out of your own pocket, and assuming all the risks yourself.

So take that route if you want. As I’ve said, it has worked for some. But know what you’re doing.

As for me, I plan to continue to seek contracts with publishers. I am very grateful for all they have done over the years to assume most of the financial risks of putting my books out there, and to take out of my hands a great deal of work that I don’t want to do and wouldn’t do very well. I write better than I design, market, sell, and distribute; and I enjoy writing much more than I would enjoy doing any of those things. The publishing system seems pretty well designed for people like me.