From Dr. Syntax:
This week’s screed against book publishers comes from Matt Yglesias at Vox.com, who proclaims, “Amazon is doing the world a favor by crushing book publishers”–a headline that shouts clickbait but fairly reflects his piece. Yglesias, whose work I have often admired, notes that he’s the child of two authors and has published a book himself, so his hatred seems to be honestly earned. Writing of the “fundamental uselessness” of publishers, he says they are going to be “wiped off the face of the earth soon” by Amazon “and readers will be better for it.”
Book-business types rolled their eyes at Yglesias’ hostile tone and ignorance of some key facts, but I saw it cited as smart and “thoughtful” by a number of media people and others who I’d have hoped would know better.
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Curation. The function of choosing what work is most worth presenting to readers is derided by some as a retrograde, “elitist” notion. Why should publishers appoint themselves as selectors of what people ought to read, when everybody can put their work online and let readers judge for themselves?
For starters, think about the staggering number of books released every year: in 2013 it was close to one million–304,000 traditionally published and more than double that number of self-published books (precise figures are hard to collect because many self-pub titles, including those produced on Amazon, aren’t captured by standard industry measures). A customer going into a bookstore confronts what may seem like a dizzying number of titles. But all of them have been through a multi-step screening process where agents, editors, marketers, and booksellers have determined these books have value.
When I was a publisher, I probably turned down a hundred books for every one I published–and most of those had already been screened by agents who filtered another hundred for each one they sent me. Imagine the bookstore–more like a mega-warehouse–where all of those titles are on the shelf.
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Investment/Venture Capital. Publishers pay advances against royalties, taking substantial risk that enables authors to undertake time- or money-intensive reporting, or sometimes just to feed their families, while they’re working on their books. Even novels sometimes require travel and research. This point has been made by several other writers (such as Franklin Foer and Evan Hughes) so I won’t go into depth on it here. Suffice it to say that unless someone is willing to risk substantial advances, the only authors who’ll be able to devote months or years to their work will be those who are independently wealthy.
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When authors who have not already captured the public’s attention publish themselves, by and large the results do not prove the uselessness of publishers. The average sale of a self-published title is under 250 copies, somewhat less than the average number of friends on Facebook. (I say this not to bash self-publishing, which is a fantastic opportunity for some authors and demonstrably a route to stunning success and riches for a few. But just because some authors achieve stunning success without publishers does not mean the latter add no value.)
The tragedy of publishing is that publishers are never as good as marketing as they would like to be. Any thoughtful bookperson is all too aware of this, even before disappointed authors like Yglesias remind us. Blockbusters aside, the revenues generated by any individual book are barely enough to cover much more than the cost of mailing review copies, maybe a couple of online ads or a handful of author appearances. That every new book is a unique product, whose audience won’t be quite the same as any other book, means that each marketing campaign is a matter of inventing the wheel–horribly inefficient. And for these reasons, the time and attention of publishing personnel are also limited resources that are typically stretched too thin.
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Marketing a book is a far larger and more complex process than just listing it on Amazon or buying a New York Times ad. In a publishing house, the marketing process begins even before a title is acquired, with an editor kindling enthusiasm among colleagues. As the process gathers steam, word is spread out to the world by publicists, sales reps, e-mails and personal letters, schmoozing, and gossip, plus advertising, review copies and free advance e-books, social media, and paid promotions with bookstores and online sellers.
As soon as a manuscript enters the publishing pipeline, the house is communicating with retailers, reviewers, media producers, movie scouts, foreign publishers, and all the other channels by which readers hear about books, telling them what makes this title worth reading. One of the oldest publishing truisms is that word of mouth is the most effective way to sell books, and in some ways a publisher is a large group of people organized to generate word of mouth and amplify it as widely as possible.
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If lower prices are good for readers, so is diversity in the marketplace of ideas. If Amazon were to “crush” publishers, first of all, book sales would plunge as printed books, and thousands of sales outlets for them, largely disappeared. The publisher-less world Yglesias imagines will also be a bookstore-free world, totally dominated by one seller that will have even greater sway over what gets promoted than it does now. It will also have the ability to change at whim the terms it offers to authors, in their disfavor, as it already has more than once. That’s my idea of a dystopia, not of readers being better off.
It is naive to imagine that trading many different publisher-gatekeepers for one or a few massive retailer-gatekeepers would result in authors “seeing their total income rise.” As for readers, the serendipity of browsing bookstore shelves and of discovering a book you didn’t know you were looking for, or of getting a great recommendation from a clerk who knows your taste, will be nostalgic memories– replaced by a search function and algorithms completely controlled by one or two companies who make the “giant conglomerates” that own publishers look puny and who may tilt the playing field for their own purposes.