Value Added: Is Traditional Publishing Obsolete?

A staggering 764,448 titles were produced in 2009 by self-publishers and micro-niche publishers, according to statistics released this morning by R.R. Bowker. The number of “nontraditional” titles dwarfed that of traditional books whose output slipped to 288,355 last year from 289,729 in 2008. Taken together, total book output rose 87% last year, to over 1 million books.

– Publishers Weekly

The internet and print-on-demand technology has made possible a gigantic leap forward in self-publishing in the last couple of years. Services like Lulu.com produce thousands of books per year by budding authors. In this environment, where anybody with the patience to sit down and write 70,000 words can get ‘published’, it begs the question – what value does the traditional publishing industry add to books?

This is especially pertinent with the rise in ebooks, as publishers defend the value of their intellectual property over their access to print and distribution services. If the author writes the material, and the publisher is no longer printing or distributing it – then what is it they actually do?

Matthew Reilly’s Contest was self-published before being picked up by a major publishing house. Last Christmas he was the biggest selling Australian author. Original copies of the self-published edition sell for over a thousand dollars.

Quite a lot, actually. The road to publication, from acquisition, through editorial, marketing, publicity and ultimately sales and distribution is one that traditional publishers have been perfecting for decades. I have witnessed books being torn apart and put back together by committed editors. Publicists, sales people and marketers work tirelessly to promote an author in whom they passionately believe, but who may have sold hardly any copies. Publishers develop their authors, book by book, over a number of years before seeing any kind of success. In other words: authors are not born – they are made.

The proof of this is in the pudding. Although the internet is full of people complaining that publishers don’t actually do anything, this doesn’t translate to the books people buy. There are very few self-publishing success stories – the fact remains that in order for a writer to be read, their book needs to get picked up by a traditional publishing house.

What do you think? Have you ever bought a self-published book? Do you regularly read self-published books? Do you think traditional publishers are obsolete? In what ways have traditional publishers failed their readership? If you are a budding writer – is self-publishing a viable option for you?