Why We Still Need Publishers

Susie Rodarme

Staff Writer

Susie Rodarme is obsessed with small press literary fiction and tea. Other notable skills: chainmaille weaving, using Photoshop semi-correctly, and drinking gin.

I wrote a post over at Insatiable Booksluts recently that drew some attention from unexpected places. The post was a satirical dramatization of the publishing vs. Amazon situation; I’m not an Amazon superfan, but I do like to make decisions based on correct information (see also, “Amazon Is Not a Monopoly or a Monopsony”), so I’m often writing about this topic–not because I don’t like publishers, but because I know that I can like publishers and also believe that they could rethink their business model.

Some who found my IB post commented that they thought it was only a matter of time before publishers went out of business, that self-publishing would take over and be The Way to publish books going forward. Amazon gives authors better terms and publishing is becoming an obsolete middleman, or something to that effect.

I was surprised to get this response, because I’ve always been vocal about the fact that, yes, we need publishers. I want to clear up the idea that I’m egging people onto the anti-publishing bandwagon.

A major anti-publisher argument seems to be that authors provide most of the work and publishers just scoop up their product, package it, and make money on it because they are “known” and authors are not. Publishers do so much more than that, though.  Publishers perform a necessary and not-easily-replaced service to the book industry as a whole.

The role of the publisher isn’t to take a book that’s pretty much finished and turn it out to the public. Editors help shape books in significant ways. A good editor doesn’t just tell you that you have made typos or that your sentences are grammatically incorrect; a good editor looks at every part of a book, from character development to plotting to theme, and tells you what doesn’t work, what works really well, what needs to be cut, what needs to be built up. A good editor reconstructs a story from the raw materials and makes it as good as it can possibly be.

Case in point: The Great Gatsby went through heavy editing to become the well-beloved novel it is today. Fitzgerald’s editor gave him loads of constructive notes–it didn’t fall out of F. Scott as a fully-formed entity. Books often need revision, even if they’re written by super-famous authors.

A good editor has experience editing a lot of different novels and brings knowledge to the table from years of publishing experience. They know what works, what doesn’t work, what is now a cliche, what sells, what flops. They know if there are five other novels just like yours, but better, that are slated to come out later this year. They know if you’re truly talented or writing out of your ass.

Publishers know books. They know the industry upside down and inside out. They don’t just provide a printing and design service for authors; publishers provide expertise. And authors, you need expertise. We readers don’t have that expertise, no matter how many books we’ve read; it’s a whole different ballgame on the business end.

Working with a publisher is forming a partnership. Part of finding the right partner is finding someone who will offer you a fair deal. You don’t have to take the first offer, or any offer, if you don’t like their terms. But don’t knock what publishers bring to the table, because it’s irreplaceable to many of us as readers and customers.

Frankly, for me, a reading world without publishers would be terrible. I would probably stop reading new books full stop. What would you do if publishing vanished altogether?