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?

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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.

13 thoughts on “Value Added: Is Traditional Publishing Obsolete?”

  1. I agree with you totally.

    I haven’t read any self pubb’ed books, but other reviewers I know have and say they haven’t found any worth reading (also the editing is always sub-par).

    A lot of professional writers associations don’t accept a self published book as a real publishing credit (as usually for full membership, you need to have x books published or x short stories published).

    Even if stuff like Twilight gets through, the whole point of publishers (apart from marketing) is quality control.

    1. True. Though I doubt any publishers would pretend that the Twilight phenomenon is a publishing failure – I’m sure they’re quite glad they let that one through!

      Sadly, I think self-publishing happens because there are almost as many hopeful writers as there are readers – it’s just that not everyone can write well!

  2. Joel,

    Great post, as usual. With my own book coming out, I am learning the hard way just how crucial the editorial process is to the authorship process.

    For all of you out there who are considering self-publishing – don’t. I have three degrees in Creative Writing/English Lit/Communications. Before my book deal I had already been working as a professional (creative) writer for 15 years. I’ve been a journalist and editor as well as a writer, and spent 8 years teaching creative writing at university. Oh, and won a few international awards and things.

    Clean copy, then? Not on your life. I’m wading through 20-40 corrections on my manuscript PER PAGE. I’ve given some examples of this on my blog: http://www.bit.ly/9gsXxL

    My skills might be specialised to writing, but I’m learning VERY CLEARLY that editing is its own *profound* specialisation… Not to mention that the input of everyone from the cover illustrator to the press and marketing people affects just what kind of book you make. It’s very much a co-operative afffair – and should be, lest the work of one mind never get very much further.

    I would *never* buy a self-published book after this. I don’t even trust MYSELF after this editing process, so I certainly wouldn’t invest in anyone else’s non-specialised “have-a-go”-ism! Lack of clarity, much??

  3. I think there’s a misconception that self-published means not edited. You can hire an editor without going through a large traditional publishing house.

    On the question of buying a self-published book: I generally buy books that are recommended by people I know and trust, I don’t just walk down to the bookstore and pick up something because it was vetted through a publishing house.

    I think we’re going to see more and more titles gaining success without going through traditional publishers. With most books being bought online, access to physical outlets (the only real advantage a traditional publisher has) will matter less and less.

    I think it will come down to author reputation and following. The real success stories will be people who can get their book in front of influential people who will recommend it.

    1. Hi, thanks for commenting.

      I certainly agree that self-published authors can hire editors. However, in my experience, when authors are hiring their own editors, they don’t pay enough, they don’t get qualified enough people to do the edit, and because they are the one who gets the final call, they don’t make the tougher editorial decisions.

      So yes – true in theory, not in practice. That’s not to say this won’t change, but the sheer amount of money and levels of checks and balances a publishing company can offer an author will trump what a person can do for themselves ninety-nine times out of a hundred.

      People don’t hesitate to condemn a B-movie made in their neighbour’s basement with no budget, but somehow when it comes to books everyone’s an expert.

  4. Hey Joel,

    Why not set an online test paper? One uncorrected page of a novel in development, and whoever can match what a trained copy editor has done to it wins a free Mars bar/equivalent from Boomerang books.

    I think an online editing test is a really, REALLY great idea. If the publishers agree, I’m more than happy to offer up a page of my book that I know for certain is *plastered* with pencil-marks after the copy edit.

    Siddhartha, while the idea of authors-without-publishing-houses sounds democratic *in theory*, the devil is in the detail of “hire their own editors”. Without publishing houses, only those with the initial capital to hire their own editors would even consider writing books. I don’t even want to think about all the books that would never have been written if that was the paradigm we were all left to write within.

    The digital revolution will be negotiated by the publishing houses – and some houses will adapt better than others… But while readers keep demanding the one thing no individual writer can ever guarantee – CLARITY – I don’t think that publishing is likely to die quite yet.

  5. Hi Joel,
    great post. I’ve self-published and I have purchased and read self-published books. I would much rather have had a great editorial & publicity team behind me than do it myself (an I’m sure there woud have been a corresponding larger number of sales) but on the other hand I learnt a huge amount from that experience, and will be a more grateful and receptive author if I ever do have the honour of being published by a house.
    In terms of the quality of the self-published books that I’ve read, they tend to be excellent – maybe because I’m reading by suggestion from friends and because in the SF field there’s a lot of oddball voices out there and that’s a flavour I can’t get enough of. Self-published authors can be very passionate and determined, and yes that means they may not be paying a lot for editorial input, but we can cook, and give massages and we know a lot of other talented people, so don’t assume that we’re unable to attract talented teams … but no matter how determined I was, in the end there was only me coordintating and that release date just kept getting closer!
    I’ve read some fiction that’s been published by major houses where the editing has been totally phoned in (eg the Trade edition of Peter Hamilton’s Misspent Youth), and if I was those authors I would feel pretty gutted (and possibly in the departure lounge).
    I do like Cory Doctorow’s approach where he gives copies away, but in the licensing blurb at the front of his books he points people to buying copies for libraries etc. (check it out here ) from his publisher.

  6. There’s definitely another post in giving ebooks away for free – I heart Cory Doctorow. And he’s a very interesting case. Though he is published by (several) major publishing companies around the world.

    I don’t mean to completely disrespect all self-published authors. I’m sure there are some excellent books out there that have been self-published – certainly in some areas where there is virtually no market, there is no option but to self publish (certain areas of academia, pulp SF and horror, poetry and even short story anthologies come to mind). I applaud the fact that it is now easier than ever to self-publish – and I reckon a lot can be learned by attempting it.

    My issue is with ideas like Siddartha’s above. I really don’t think we’re moving towards a future where more self-published books finding success are going to be the norm. Not only that, but I don’t see that situation as desirable at all. With the advent of the internet, the average person’s problem isn’t that they aren’t exposed to enough ideas or voices because publishers are somehow blocking access to them. It’s that there is way too much content and too much of it is bunk. I really do think the overall quality of content coming from publishing houses exceeds that coming from self-publishing. And I think this is the reason for the access publishing houses have to bookstores – and it will be why publishing houses will continue to get more exposure on online bookshops and with ebooks in the future. Publishers have not somehow finagled their way into their relationships with bookstores – they have these relationships because their books sell to people who want to read them.

  7. This is an interesting debate that’s unfolding. I do agree with the role of publishing houses in quality control. And yes, when an author has final say on all decisions, there is no collaborative process, or real objectivity in the process from manuscript to published book.

    I work in publishing and have seen the collaborative process that goes into details such as cover design, layout, and yes, the editing of the manuscript. Decisions and input come from the author, as well as editors, designers, and the publisher. I’ve seen what books have started out as and what they have become.

    While the publishing industry isn’t perfect, I think publishers play a pivotal role in the success (or lackthereof) of a book.

    That all being said, I love trawling book spaces for weird, unheard of books, and usually the ones I find have been published by small press houses. Maybe the key here is to publish with a smaller company rather than self-publish?

  8. And again, I agree with you, Joel, and Elena. I don’t think we’re moving to a future of self publishing, and the quote you use at the beginning of your post is all about quantity. How many of those sell more than 10 copies? 20?

    Last year the biggest book by a debut author sold was Fleur McDonald’s Red Dust, and knowing her personally I do know specifics of those stats (which I probably can’t say publically). Let’s just say she sold a LOT! I doubt any self published book could reach the level that she has.

    Also even some self published authors don’t advocate self publishing. As well as Matthew Riley, I think I know of two or three authors who self published first, then upon that was picked up by an agent, then a publisher – Simon Haynes and Martin Millar (both genre writers). Here’s Simon’s comments on self publishing: http://www.spacejock.com.au/SelfPublishing.html

    And my comment on Twilight was because even though it sells insanely well and has huge influence over the target market, I think it’s trash 😛 Just really well marketed and making-millions trash…But, to extend this thought – would it have become such a huge thing without the backing of a whole publishing house and marketing team, if it were self-published? I honestly think no. Not at all.

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