If You Guys Were Publishers, You’d Publish Books

So I watched The Social Network the other day, and there was a particular scene that grabbed my attention. In the scene, Mark Zuckerberg (the inventor of Facebook) tells a group of Harvard grads who are suing him: “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.” It took me a moment to parse this zinger, and once I did I thought it might just be stupid. But a couple of items in the ebook news this week made me think of it again.

The first was Joe Konrath’s invented dialogue on his blog between an author and acquisitions editor. To spare you wading through the whole thing, the gist is this: digital avenues to publishing have made traditional publishers rip-off merchants who gouge authors to line their pockets. It plays into a deep vein of mythology in the aspiring author world – publishers are out to get authors, steal their work and change it, steal their profits and then dump them when they prove not to be profitable anymore. And to those authors, I say this: if you wanted to self-publish your book, you’d self-publish your damn book. To Joe Konrath’s credit, he has actually done this, and made a very decent living doing so. But a brief flick through the comments of his blog post are a sideshow of authors who agree with him, but haven’t actually found success by self-publishing their work – digitally or otherwise – all beating the same drum: the publisher is dead, long live the self-publisher.

The other bit of news that has been flittering around the blogosphere over the past week is that Amazon is setting up a script assessment arm. Essentially they’re creating a space for writers to critique each other, with the best scripts that float through the system being passed along to Warner Bros in an exclusive first-look deal. There’ll be cash prizes throughout to motivate writers, and any writer that does get their script successfully turned into a film is guaranteed $200,000 from Amazon. Many bloggers, understandably, are seeing this as the death knell for script assessment, and can easily see Amazon turning their vast infrastructure into doing the same thing for book manuscripts.

I can see the same thing happening. But I’m not as convinced that it’s going to work. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love it if it did. When Authonomy first started, I thought it was a fantastic idea. Get a community of writers together to assess each others’ writing, and the best will surely rise to the top, to then be skimmed off by enterprising publishers. But to the best of my knowledge, this hasn’t worked fantastically well for HarperCollins. And I don’t believe it will work fantastically well for Amazon either.

The thing about publishing books is that there is a massive proportion of people who read who also want to write. Massive. And here’s the other thing: most of them are bad. So while the theory behind getting writers to do their own filtering is enticing, the logic is flawed. You can’t ask bad writers to assess other bad writers and expect them to find gold. This is why the industry uses a pool of readers, editors, agents, publishers and even other writers to help filter out the bad from the good. All of these people are talented and have a stake in the outcome, and work very hard to maintain a standard of quality in published books. And readers still complain that too many bad books are published. And writers still complain that there are too many ‘gatekeepers’.

So, bring on the self-publishing revolution, I say. Let all would-be writers who cannot get noticed by an agent or publisher publish their own work. And let us see if it succeeds. Because I strongly suspect that if these writers and companies were publishers, they’d already be publishing books.

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Joel Naoum

Joel Naoum is a Sydney-based book editor, publisher, blogger and writer. He is passionate about the possibilities of social media and digital publishing opens up for authors, publishers, booksellers and the whole book industry.

6 thoughts on “If You Guys Were Publishers, You’d Publish Books”

  1. Oh dear, as a reader I agree completely that so many terrible books are already being published, even with the hoardes of “gatekeepers”. I shudder to think of what it would be like if it were made even easier to get published.

  2. Hi Joel,

    Glad I discovered your blog.

    re: JK, isn’t Konrath’s point that authors can now consider self-publishing as an option rather than they should have self-published their book in the past?

    Obviously the problem for authors considering this – if they’re not already an established author like Joe Konrath or Seth Godin, who previously had the support of a publisher and now have a strong online presence and following – is that they have to want to invest the time and effort into building their own brand, tribe, community, followers.. whatever you want to call them.

    Obviously there a lot of authors who won’t want to do this. They might just want to.. maybe.. just write? So there is an obvious role for publishers there.

    On the other hand, I think it’s valid for authors like Godin to advocate an alternate strategy, encourage creative approaches and explore the possibilities. I’m sure any author who has been unable to get their book published would appreciate the idea of not giving up on their dream. Even if it’s a dream that no one else shares.

    And I imagine once in a while, we might just be surprised by what pops up.

    1. Absolutely. I don’t mean to imply that self-publishing is never successful, or that people should give up if major publishers aren’t interested. Self-publishing is one of many avenues to success, albeit one with a lower strike rate than the others. However, I do think many writers, both the self-published variety, like Konrath, and the unpublished variety, hold up new digital forms of distribution and self-promotion as proof that there is no longer a role for traditional publishing.

      I just don’t think that’s the case. Publishers still perform a valuable role in filtering the slush of bad writing through to the public, and I don’t think communities of writers’ workshops, Facebook or Twitter are going to replace that. Konrath undervalues the role that publishers play in that dynamic. Nobody wants to wade through bad writing, which is why agencies and publishing companies pay people to do it. Readers are not interested in buying ebooks that are of sub-standard quality in order to make the filtering process more democratic. They just want to read good books, and I don’t think the digital self-publishing revolution is going to help connect readers with good books any more effectively than the traditional model.

  3. What you said!

    The ‘mythology’ of how publishers work seems quite entrenched. Editors only want young authors, you have to write a trilogy, publishers use and abuse authors and don’t care about them, publishers will try to get authors for the cheapest cent they can – and so on and so forth. And it is just that – mythology! There is such a huge disconnect between what people believe about publishers than to what publishers actually do, it’s quite amazing actually.

    On those articles that claim because Seth Godin, Cory Doctorow etc are self publishing and therefore that means traditional publishers are nothing … almost all those articles seem to forget that it’s at least partially because Godin/Doctorow were traditionally published that they are where they are today and with so many fans that they can self publish without much risk. They may have done marketing in their own way, but their books were available at common bookshops and publicised or supported by the marketing and publicity teams (and considering their names, their budgets for marketing would be more significant than others), and that should not be ignored.

    With or without a publisher, I cannot say how much a well edited and designed book makes a difference. In particular for me at the moment is the layout design – too much spacing or irregular layout makes my eyes hurt.

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