Do publishers matter?

by Pari

Last week, I was complaining to my husband that there are too many "authors" around these days. We’re basically a-dime-a-dozen. I stuttered, red-faced, bemoaning how the accomplishment of publication via traditional houses has been diminished by the advent and ever-increasing popularity of self publication.

My husband, a.k.a. The King of Reality Checks, said, "What’s the big deal? Who cares about publishers anyway? No one looks at that."

Well that knocked the wind out of my self-righteous sails.

Then I read, in its entirety, A Book Publisher’s Manifesto for the 21st Century by Sara Lloyd. J.T. referred to it in her excellent post on Friday. In the manifesto, the author takes a cold, hard look at the relevance of book publishers today and whether they’ll have the savvy and cojones to survive tomorrow.

At a time when MWA and other professional writers’ organizations are beginning to toughen up membership requirements based on traditional publishing practices; when fan conventions are doing the same; when people are opting for more control over their work and the speed with which their writing is published; when there are all kinds of "co-op" publishers; when major publishers themselves have gravitated toward blockbuster products rather than midlist author development; where there are more books than ever before but fewer of them are being read; when grammar and editing seem to be falling by the wayside (I can think of several reasons why this is happening. Another post, perhaps?) . . .

A person has to ask:
Have traditional publishers simply become obsolete?

Does publisher brand matter at all? Do Harlequin or St. Martin’s mean anything anymore? Is Simon & Schuster still known for quality? Do Random House, Mira, Intrigue, Soho, Poisoned Pen or Tor carry any value-added as far as the customer is concerned?

I don’t know, but those questions beget more:
Will publishers as we know them become such behemoths, slow moving beasts, that even traditionally-published authors will opt to self-publish in order to get rid of the middlemen (publishers and distributors)? When the big chains install print-on-demand machines in their stores, will there be any benefit whatsover by going the traditional route?

When a person looks at the pure monetary outlay vs. income, self-publishing has a certain appeal.

But . . .
I like to think that the fact that I was published by an academic press with a sterling reputation and stringent standards means something. I’d like to think that readers expect a certain amount of vetting, editorial scrutiny, and high production values before a book comes to market.

Have I been deluding myself?
Do readers care?

51 thoughts on “Do publishers matter?

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    This is a great topic, Pari. I don’t know about readers, but librarians certainly care, and I don’t know how much of a career any author can have without a strong presence in libraries. Once things are all electronic as JT was posting about last week? Well, I have no idea, but I highly suspect that at least libraries and bookstores, whatever future bookstores look like, will still require that screening and polishing process that books go through at traditional publishers

    The industry is changing, but some kind of pretty rigorous screening process will remain.

    And yes, it sure matters to ME as a reader.

  2. Mark Terry

    The key issue here is this:

    Who’s the customer?

    If you define the customer as the bookstore and the library, then yes, they care a great deal.

    If you define the customers as the enduser, ie., reader, then I would say it probably depends.

    For the typical reader who picks up a book at the local Kmart or Sam’s Club–no, probably doesn’t matter at all. In fact, they only seem to care whether it has James Patterson’s name on the cover, and don’t care one iota if he actually wrote the book or not. And you can now apply that to Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy and a number of other authors. When you look at that, it seems that the enduser JUST DOESN’T CARE.

    There’s certainly a percentage, albeit small, of readers who are very attuned to publishing brand names, but I can’t think of anyone who might go to a Borders to buy the latest Bantam. Still, in academic circles a certain type of nonfiction is going to have credibility based on its publisher.

    With larger publishers doing very little marketing, (and in many cases seemingly very little editing) it becomes harder and harder to tell exactly what it is a publisher does. It seems to boil down to packaging–typesetting, cover art–and distribution. Typesetting is getting easier and easier and cover art is done successfully by small presses and places like iUniverse, so the key component must be distribution. And with the advent of Amazon et al., it gets harder and harder to discern exactly what it is that big publishers do.

  3. Kaye Barley

    If I weren’t addicted to some of the list serves and blogs that I’ve been reading for several years, I doubt seriously that I’d ever pay attention to who publishes any book I read. This very subject came up on a list serve last summer and prompted me to do a quick little survey at a neighborhood picnic. There were 14 people attending. The number of books these people read averages 2 per week, per person. When I asked which of them knew who the publisher might be of the book they were reading right then, or of the last several books they had read, not one person knew. One person said he pays attention to the publisher – but only for the books he orders for the classes he teaches at Appalachian State University.Here’s what I don’t like – these big publishers telling writers what to write because they’re so sure they know what “we” readers want to read. Give a writer a plot, characters, etc. and we’re right back to Nancy Drew and the Stratemeyer Syndicate. While that might have been lovely when I was 7, I expect a little more now. And. If this big name publisher is going to expect me to pay $27.00 for a book, I’d like to know its been properly edited, which is NOT always the case. AND, I’d like it if the book doesn’t fall apart while I’m reading it. Which is also, not always the case.

  4. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Alex,I think you’re right about librarians and wonder if they’ll be put in the horrid position of becoming the arbiters of literature even though it goes against every bit of their efforts not to censor.

    Or, it’ll be a free for all.

    I do hope you’re right about the “screening.” But I also think as our profession becomes diluted/democratized, vetting runs the risk of going by the wayside.

  5. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Mark,Your point about distribution is right on target and one of the main considerations in that Publisher’s Manifesto.

    My question is: if the ultimate enduser, the reader, doesn’t care– won’t the libraries and bookstores follow? Aren’t they primarily responsible to this same endusuer?

    Publishers, big/small, traditional/self, don’t seem to do a tremendous amout of obvious marketing for their midlist authors. For traditional publishers, it’s all about creating the next James Pattersons and Robert Ludlums. For the self-publishers, they offer marketing at various prices and then use methods that do nothing to help the writer get meaningful attention.

    The one place where traditional publishers do have an edge is at bookstores; they buy that real estate on the front tables and endcaps.

  6. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Kaye,My point exactly. Most readers are totally unaware of, and don’t care, about the publishers.

    And in a way, big publishers do “tell” writers what to write because they only publish things that they think are sure bets. I don’t see THAT as evil, because people have to make a buck — but when it becomes short-sighted, copycat, and trend-chasing, it distresses me.

    Self-publishing allows folks to publish whatever they want, but I believe that without quality control and editing this freedom does little for literature as a whole or for readers.

  7. R.J. Mangahas

    Pari — This is a great topic, especially for someone who is trying to get their work published. As far as “self-publishing” it seems to me that it’s just a fancy word for “printing.” Don’t get me wrong, there have been self-published books that have been picked up by traditional publishers and have had success. But I see this as an exception, not a rule. In my eyes, an author should be PAID for their work, not have to drop a thousand bucks up front.

    Alex — I agree with you. Many of the writers I read I first picked up at the library.

  8. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Oooh, R.J.,I love this: “As far as ‘self-publishing’ it seems to me that it’s just a fancy word for ‘printing.'”

    I’ve been looking for words to describe the differences and these are so succint.

    There are self-published works that have gone on to gain great attention and renown — I’m not examining that in this post.

    What interests me is the services that traditional publishers really offer that matter — especially as distribution and the ease of creating a finished product become less and less of an issue.

  9. Louise Ure

    Before I started writing, I couldn’t have told you which publishing house worked with which writer. I think that’s still true for most people.

    The audience/end user comment above is most appropriate. The publishing imprimatur will matter to the bookseller or the reviewer, not to the reader.

    And that will only change when the distribution, buy back, and review policies change.

  10. Wilfred Bereswill


    I’m not sure I know what to say. I don’t come from a literary background and I guess I’m a bit like your husband; I don’t care. I can’t actually tell you the publishers of any of the books I bought recently.

    I’m in it for the story. I was in to Clancy, Cook, Crichton, etc. I’ve been sorely disappointed in their latest and I think that has a bit to do with those big publishers and their contracts and deadlines.

  11. Barbara Meyers

    As an author, my experience has been that most readers have no idea what self vs. traditional print publishing means. They know nothing about advances and royalties, etc., and why would they? They are only interested in reading the book. I think authors are the ones who care most about this, and I suppose booksellers, but the average reader won’t know the difference and won’t care. As my non-writer avid reader husband says, “All I want is a good story.” If a self-published author can offer that and make it easily available to the reading public, more power to them.

    I doubt a self-pubbed author gets much credit or respect from agents or mainstream publishers, and maybe not from traditionally published authors, either, for a self-published work unless he sold oodles and oodles of the book.

  12. JT Ellison

    I think publisher’s do matter, especially to the author. And without the author, you have no end user.

    Yes, self-publishing is simply printing your work. Real publishing is being accepted by an agent, an editor, being EDITED, art design, marketing, distribution, placement, advertising, publicity. And while the publisher is doing all that, the author is writing another book. Oh, and you get paid, not the other way around.

    You’d think quality control would work to stifle too much unpolished work. Regardless, the time and effort that goes into traditional publishing is vital to make something that the author can be proud of.

    I do think they matter. I think the models will change, but the houses definitely do matter. Writing is still consider an art to them.It should be to everyone.

  13. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Louise,Succint and to the point. Thanks for this.

    Do you think we’ll actually see a tipping point on this?

    IMHO we are seeing it with reviewing; it’s not so much that policies are changing as that professional reviewers and their outlets are disappearing.

  14. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Will,I suspect you are in the vast majority here. And I hope I don’t come off sounding angry or upset.

    My husband’s comments were what got me thinking about my assumptions and whether I was using an old mental construct rather than looking at the situation as it really is . . .

  15. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Barbara,Good points.

    I wonder where the traditionally-pubbed/self-pubbed authors can find common ground AND still acknowledge and respect differences?

    I’m not sure. Yes, we’re all writers — but some of us opt for a really difficult process to get our books into readers hands while others opt for much more immediate processes they pay for themselves.

    Perhaps it doesn’t matter in the end.

    I just don’t know.

    What I do know is that people have very strong feelings on these matters and rarely TALK about them. The “discussions” I’ve seen quickly turn into cyber shouting matches.

    How can communication and understanding possibly happen in those contexts?

  16. Pari Noskin Taichert

    J.T.,Interesting take.

    I know that publishers matter very much to the authors who’ve opted to go the traditional route.

    But I feel a shift. Those of us who want the traditional method — and their publishers — are going to have to offer something truly distinguishable from other methods of publication or there won’t be enough “end users,” readers, to sustain the industry.

    No answers here. I’m just hoping to see if our collective of people who love books and mysteries can add to the conversation.

  17. Bill Cameron

    I think JT makes the key point. There’s a certain pleasure we take in the myth of the solitary artist, banging out their work in a garrett somewhere until at last the book is ready for the world to appreciate. And, sure, much of the writing does take place in isolation, but the end result is a novel, a manuscript, not a book. Publishing the book is a collaborative effort. As writers, we generally gain a lot through the traditional publishing process, our novels get made better through editing, our chance of being seen and read is realized through the market muscle publishers can bring to bear on our behalf. Sure, it’s not a perfect situation. We all also know that not all books are published equally, but self-published books far more often than not prominently display that lack of collaboration.

  18. Jake Nantz

    I don’t think publisher matters to me as a reader, provided they do their job (which many of them aren’t doing) and put out a good, sturdy, well edited, professional-looking product. I check out lots of library books, and I see TONS of editing mistakes in books by Bantam, St. Martin’s Minotaur, HarperCollins. So I tend to focus more on the story, because typesetting means it almost certainly wasn’t the WRITER who forgot the definite article “the” where it so obviously goes….

    With respect to self-published authors, I tend to think I have something in common with them: neither of us is published yet. True, they have a book they can put in your hands, but they aren’t published. I can print off my manuscript and get one of my students to create a phenomenally beautiful cover on the computer and have Kinko’s bind it in the cover. It’ll be worth about the same.The difference between self-published authors and me is that i haven’t quit. I didn’t give up and say “this one’s never going to get an agent/publisher, so I’ll say screw that whole industry and do it myself.” Instead, I realize that any novel or short story I’ve written that doesn’t “make it” just wasn’t up to par, and I need to get started writing a better one.

    Because like many of this blog’s readership, I will get published.

  19. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Bill,Thank you for this. Perhaps it is the collaboration that is key.

    I met a writer last year through another friend who self-published (she’s an example of EVERYTHING RIGHT in self-publishing btw). Then a couple of months, this guy sends me an email telling me of the “opportunity” to give him a blurb. The email struck me as incredibly arrogant.

    After a couple more exchanges that smacked even more of “I’m right and everyone else is wrong” attitude, I decided not to even read his manuscript. He chided me.

    Now, he’s decided to self-publish because NYC agents and everyone else just aren’t smart enough to get what he’s doing.

    I think of him as the antithesis of humility and the collaborative spirit.

    The interaction was a real eye-opener for me.

  20. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Jake,I admire you for continuing the quest. It’s become so easy NOT to do that.

    I’d almost agree about the “not published” part of your comment except for my friend who did self-publish. Hers was a book that nearly got published two times. The manuscript made it to secondary editorial/marketing meetings and was shot down both times by the marketers rather than the editors.

    When all else failed, she opted to start a little publishing company herself. She hired three other editors to comment and has a product that is marvelous.

    For her, self-publishing felt like the only option and I think she did it with extreme aplomb.

    So . . .

  21. JMH

    While “real” authors debate whether self-publishing can succeed and/or actually create a dent in the literary world, I set out on that course from day one, 2.5 years ago, and have never looked back. If anyone cares to know the truth, self-publication is easy and lucrative, and can compete head-to-head with traditional publishing, so long as the ultimate book appeals to readers. When that happens, all the other things (e.g. book reviews, bookstore placement, library purchases, author events, interviews, etc.) all follow. The universe is too connected. When something good is out there, people find it and spread the word.

    No one cares who the publisher is, including bookstores and libraries, so long as the book is competitive in the marketplace and is readily available.

    Also, things will continue to get easier and easier for “self-publishers.” Amazon Kindle shows us that we’re on the cusp of a digital revolution, which will change the publishing landscape beyond recognition.

  22. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Jim,I think that’s part of what I want to explore here.

    Are we traditionally published authors merely modern-day examples of the “Chinese Mother in Law Syndrome?” Do we just want others to “suffer” like we have?

    Or, is are there important and valid distinctions between these different paths?

    I’m asking because I want to hear from anyone who cares to discuss it civilly — as you have done in the above comment.

  23. Dave Zeltserman


    Publishers still do matter. Self-published books don’t reviewed in newspapers, and are near impossible to get into bookstores. It doesn’t matter how they good they might be, few sell more than a 100 copies.

  24. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Dave,Thank you for the comment.

    I wonder if things are changing on the review front as well?

    With fewer and fewer outlets from major publications such as newspapers and magazines, people seem to be depending more and more on amateur reviews online. If this continues, the distinctions — I think — will blur even further.

    As to bookstores, I see the same kind of trend. Fewer and fewer brick and mortar stores. If more stores continue to opt for virtual inventories, it won’t be difficult to have a huge stock of books — from all kinds of publishers/”publishers” — from which readers can pick.

    You do note, of course, that I continue to want to work through the traditional structure — but I wonder how long it will last.

  25. JMH

    “[A]re there important and valid distinctions between these different paths?”

    There are many things that are the SAME between traditional publishers and self-publishers, meaning there is no short cut either way: (1) the product must be good (good book properly edited, good cover, good pre-pub reviews); (2) it must be in the distribution stream (i.e. B&T or Ingram); (3) it must be made known to the world (book reviews, etc). What people who have never self-published do not realize is that these are all tasks which can be readily accomplished by a person with talent and energy.

    There are some differences, too. There is still a certain prejudice against self-published authors in the literary world. The prejudice is most visible among traditionally published authors, who tend to think of all self-published authors as wanna-be’s who didn’t meet the same standards they did. Fortunately, this collective prejudice means nothing in the marketplace.

    Also, certain book review organizations will not review self-published books–again, based on a preconceived notion that everything self-published is trash. Fortunately, these organizations are few and far between and have minimal impact standing alone. There are a far greater number of reviewers who are not prejudiced. My books have been reviewed many times, including print organizations such as Library Journal, ALA Booklist and ForeWord Magazine.

    In the end, believe it or not, a book that is placed into the distribution stream will succeed or fall on its own merits, no matter what the name of the publisher is who placed it there. How do I know? First hand experience.

  26. Dave Zeltserman

    Pari, I think it’s only going to get worse (if that’s possible) for the self-published. With fewer newspaper review space, there’s more competition both in print and online for traditional books to be reviewed, and I don’t think online review sites matter that much–if you get enough of them they might help get the sales up by a few hundred, but that’s about it. You need the Booklist and Library Journal reviews to get into libraries, and you need PW and Kirkus to get into bookstores, and then you need the newspaper reviews to find readers–and I don’t think that’s changing. And the problem with virtual stores for self-published (and small published) is that you’re dropping one more book into an ocean of books that nobody knows about.

  27. Fran

    We at SMB do try to educate our customers about publishers — Soho Press does consistently good work — but we know that most of our customers haven’t a clue about publishers, and that’s fine. They trust US to know and to do right by them.

    Yes, the big publishers can frequently be huge, soulless machines, but from a customer standpoint, they produce something that is uniform and comforting in its ordinariness, and at a reasonable (sort of) price.

    Small publishers can’t always say that, and lots of self-published stuff really can’t. Leaving aside the quality of the writing, because like anything some is really good, some is truly horrific and a lot is just mid-level, the biggest problem with self-published work and some small publishers is simply the price. It costs them more so they charge more. And customers don’t want to take a chance on a new author whose trade paperback costs $23. Just won’t happen.

    Sometimes a specialty item will get a publisher noticed. We have standing reserves for the Bleak House thumbprint editions.

    And there is kind of a level of success that goes with being published in a big house and going from paperback original to hardcover.

    Anyway, that’s my 2 cents.

  28. spyscribbler

    I haven’t a clue who’s published by who. If I’m in the middle of market research, then I might know, but I’ll forget within a week.

    If your customers are other authors, it’s going to matter immensely. If your customers are other academics, it’s going to matter immensely. If you customers are just “plain readers,” then they haven’t a clue.

    All that matters is getting your book in front of the reader, and showing that it’s what they want. (Icky cover will matter; unreadable writing sample will matter.)

    We have to focus on the reader, not our egos. For example, if I finish this spy thriller I’m writing, and I sell it, am I going to put on my website that I write a spy thrillers?

    No. Why? Because 17 people a day google “spy thrillers.” Over 2,000 people a day google “spy books.”

    A good percentage of readers searching for spy thrillers don’t know they’re called spy thrillers. They’re looking for spy books.

    Would I look like an idiot walking around telling other authors I write spy books? Probably. But, if the future does come and search engine placement becomes more important in an author’s sales, then I won’t care.

    And I’m sure, at some point, if people start buying more off the web, authors will need their publisher so they can reach that valuable first-page search engine placement.

    It’s just not about us, prestige or no prestige, respect or no respect. It’s about the reader. The only thing that matters is the reader.

  29. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Dave,And yet, Jim (JMH) says that he’s been reviewed in these traditional outlets.

    Again, I don’t have any answers. I’m just very, very interested in everyone’s views about it.

    We’re in an exciting time — one that both frightens and inspires me.

  30. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Fran,As always, it’s an absolute pleasure to read what you’ve got to say.

    I agree that some publishers DO have that branding identity in a powerful and profitable way.

    The price issue is important. I suspect it’s going to go down as POD technologies become far more commonplace. Here I’m thinking about the big chains and those machines in their stores.

    I wonder if part of the reason we traditionally-published folks still feel passionately about the path we’ve taken has to do with our personal definitions of success.

    You allude to that in your last statement and I think it might be more powerful than we realize.

  31. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Hey there, Spyscribbler,

    Very good points. You’re tremendously pragmatic.

    The whole question of ego is one I struggle with when considering these issues. Where does rationality (or self-justification) stop and mere offense or ego kick in?

    That’s why my husband’s comments felt so important to me.

    I wish we’d get some publishers or editors to comment in this discussion. It’d be interesting to know what they think about all of this.

    Of course, it’s probable that they wouldn’t comment anyway because it’s so iffy/touchy.

    BTW: I removed your double post . . . no egg on anyone’s face.

  32. billie

    Publishers matter a lot to me – as both a writer and a reader. There have always been imprints I admired and would buy a book published with the imprint because I knew it would be a well-done book.

    As a writer, there are some houses I would say no to.

    But I’m very much in love with the book as a gestalt – the writing, the story, the paper used, the type, the cover art. When it’s all done well and beautifully, there’s nothing better.

  33. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Billie,I love this. You’ve taken the discussion and brought in another element to consider.

    I’m going to think about whether there are traditional/big house publishers to whom I would say no.

    This is more food for thought. Thank you.

  34. Toni Kelner

    I’m going to try to answer this as a reader, not as a writer. (And darned if it’s not hard to do that.)

    Yes, publishers have mattered a lot to me. Even before I published so much as a limerick, I could feel sure that a Del Rey book would be a good piece of SF or fantasy, that a Ballantine Adult Fantasy book would likely be more erudite than an Ace and definitely more so than a DAW.

    In other genres, I knew what I was getting if I bought a Harlequin romance, and for a while, I bought as many of the Mystery Ink and Raven numbered titles as I could find.

    Those were all publishing imprints with their own identities. I think they were stronger in years past, but even now there are the various lines of romances, each with a different flavor. In mystery, it’s usually not hard to tell a Bleak House or Hard Case book from a Berkley Prime Crime or a Kensington book.

    So yes, I’d have to say that publishers matter to this reader. (To this writer, too, but that’s a whole ‘nother post.)

  35. Stacey Cochran

    I think an important follow-up question that I thought of is: important to who?

    Having a traditional publisher matters (or doesn’t matter) depending on the person.

    I just got back from a sort’a mini national book tour put on by my self-publisher. The tour had me working directly with the national events manager of Borders (initiated by my self publisher), paid all my travel expenses, and enabled me to bill for my hours. I spoke and did signings in Scottsdale (Poisoned Pen) and Borders stores in Phoenix, Sacramento and Palm Spring. Next week, I’ll be travelling to Detroit to lead an event at a Borders there.

    From my perspective, self publishing has helped me build a career and readership.

    I would love to publish novels with Harper-Collins, Simon & Schuster, or Random House one day, but for now, I am happy building my career the way that I am.

    I do respect you guys who do have the support of a publisher. It must be pretty cool.

  36. Jake Nantz

    Lifelong Wolfpacker here, got my teaching certification done at State after an undergrad from Lees-McRae. My Wife, a Meredith grad, and I are at almost every football game. Good to see some Wolfpack blood on here, and congratulations on what you’ve achieved Stacey.

  37. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Stacey,You’ve achieved an incredible amount and I stand in awe.

    My question for you is this: Why, with the success you’ve had, would you want to ever be published through “traditional” means?

    From where I’m standing, you’re doing everything necessary to build your career as is — and you’re probably earning more than you would with Harper or Simon.

  38. Tammy Cravit

    I find it interesting, from a business standpoint, that people seem to look at traditional publishing vs. self-publishing as an either/or proposition. It seems there are people who argue vehemently that traditional publishers are the only ones who matter, and others who argue with equal vehemence that the big publishing houses are pushing themselves to irrelevance.

    My question is, why does it need to be an either/or?

    Consider what happens when you shift focus from publishing to another business. Starbucks produces vast amounts of coffee, and has a great distribution network. They offer their customers a certain ubiquity, along with a consistency of product. They offer their suppliers access to a huge marketplace, and in return they likely receive those goods at a discount.

    On the other hand, my friend Alma serves darned good coffee at the Mexican restaurant she owns. Alma has five employees, all family, and no aspirations of becoming a multinational corporation. And the fact that Alma’s coffee sales in a year wouldn’t come close to what Starbucks sells in a day doesn’t mean she should sell her coffee pot and move on. Some people love her coffee and look askance at the masses who pay twice as much for the same product from the green-apron folks. And, likewise, some people happily pay $4.75 for their morning latte while looking down their noses at Alma’s tiny restaurant.

    So, who’s right? Which coffee is better? I think it depends on what you’re looking for. And, coming back to the publishing industry, it depends there too.

    To stretch my metaphor a bit, the big publishing houses are rather like Starbucks — they offer great distribution and (potentially) marketing channels, and a certain consistency of product. The tiny presses and self-published authors, on the other hand, are like my friend’s restaurant — they don’t have the visibility of the big guys, but they can still make a darned good cup of coffee.

    So, why should the publishing industry be any different than any other? Why couldn’t multiple business models coexist, giving authors the freedom to make choices — throughout their career — about which model would best suit their short- and long-term goals? Why does “published through a traditional publishing company” still make sense as a definition of who is and isn’t an author?

    My friend Frank has written a couple of spy novels. They’re self-published, and they’re not (nor do they aspire to be) Frank’s attempt at becoming the next Clancy or Le Carre. But he’s sold a few hundred copies, and is now in his third print run of one of them. None of the big publishing houses would likely pick up his work. But he’s content to tell his stories to a few hundred interested fans, and it seems silly to me to argue that his choice isn’t a valid one. Perhaps self-publishing isn’t the choice all of us would make, but it’s brought him the level of success he wants and a local fan base that enjoys his work. So what’s the problem?

  39. Allison Brennan

    There were many good points about distribution, and editing, and getting the book out there . . . I don’t need to repeat them. There are a handful of self-published novelists who have done well, because they wrote good stories and found an audience. Most of those end up with traditional publishing–because there is a big different between selling 10 or 100 or maybe 1000 books (and doing most of the sales work yourself) and having 10,000 or 100,000 or 500,000 books distributed into a mass audience.

    But the problem with self-publishing is that ANYONE can do it. You don’t HAVE to have a good book, a good cover, or be well-edited. And because of that, the few jewels that populate those who are self-published, carry the stigma of those who just want a book with their name on it or those who don’t want ANY editorial advice because they, of course, know what people want to read.

    Readers, however, for the most part don’t care about who publishes a book. There may be a few who look at a Harlequin and think romance (Ok, a lot–Harlequin has spent a lot of money on their brand, but there are few authors you might think of and think of a “harlequin” author, so it benefits the company, but not the individual.) or Berkeley Prime Crime and think mystery, but most people buy books because of word of mouth or because they like the author. AUTHORS can become brands easier (IMO) than a publisher.

    But readers don’t care much. Case in point: my brother-in-law went to BN to buy my newest release. An author was sitting at a table signing books and no one was buying. My BIL felt bad, because I’d shared how hard it is to do book signings sometimes unless you’re in your hometown (where I generally do well.) So he bought the book and had it signed and gave it to his wife. She started reading it and emailed me, saying she couldn’t get past the first three pages. She told me about the signing and asked, “Don’t publishers have someone to edit and proofread? There were a dozen typos in the first three pages and several incomplete sentences.”

    I asked her who the publisher was, and she replied “Author House.”

    The fact that I am with Random House and this author was with Author House was irrelevant to her–she put the poorly edited book in the same category as mine. I had to explain to her what self-editing was and the differences in the editorial process.

    The other thing that annoys me to no end is when I’m asked anything related to self-publishing my own books. I’m asked, “How much did you have to pay for your cover art?” or “How do you get your books into bookstores?” or “I have a manuscript–where’d you get yours published, I’d like to use them.”

    It’s because of questions like that that I refuse to sell my own books. Refuse. I would rather give a book away than sell it out of my trunk. If someone asks to buy one of my books, I direct them to amazon or borders or bn or walmart or anyplace else. But why can’t I sell one? Because that’s not my job. I don’t sell my books. I write them. I edit them. I revise them. I even proofread them along with two professional proofreaders that I don’t pay (but my publisher does.) But I don’t sell them.

    Okay, rant over.

  40. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Tammy,Great points.

    I don’t think it IS an either/or — but read Allison’s “rant” below yours to see some of the problems that crop up.

    I do think that self-publishing is a viable option for many people.

    What I’m having a difficult time with is how all writers are lumped in together in the conusmer’s mind and how that’s now shifting expectations in ways that I don’t like.

    If people open books where typos and bad/non-existent editing is the norm, will they come to expect that all books are that way?

  41. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Allison,Yours is not a “rant.”

    You’ve had the courage to express what many people feel but are too chicken to say.

    Next Monday, I am going to write about this some more — specifically about what’s happening to the word “author.”

    I really, really hope you’ll add to that conversation, too.

    I always learn so much from your comments.Thank you.

  42. Tammy Cravit


    You’ve expressed some very valid points in your post — and I agree with Pari that yours wasn’t a “rant”. One of the challenges of any “disruptive technology” — be it self-publishing, the Web, or whatever — is that the emergence of a new technology creates a period of instability for both the newcomers and for the established industry they’re challenging. And, of course, those whose livelihoods depend on the established way of things tend to be more uncomfortable about change than those whose livelihoods depend on the change.

    That being said, I tend to think that the consumer is smarter than the marketers tend to give them credit for. People vote with their dollars all the time, and authors of any stripe will sink or swim in the marketplace on the basis of the quality of the stories they have to tell.

    Word of mouth is, in my opinion, the single most important form of marketing out there, and word of mouth tends to be good at filtering out the junk. Tell a good story compellingly, spread the word, and let people who like a good story tell other people who like a good story. Ultimately, all marketing is viral, and I happen to be of the opinion that broadcast advertising is losing its relevance in today’s world.

    The genie is out of the bottle, the technology is out there, and we’re all going to have to figure out how to deal with it. I think that, no matter whether or not you go the “traditional publishing” route, this is the reality we’ll all have to deal with.

    Pari, have you read any of Seth Godin’s books? He has some very interesting things to say about marketing products in today’s world.

  43. Stacey Cochran

    Well, I think it’s a great question, Pari. I do continue to query agents with hope that one of my novels will eventually find its way to a major publisher.

    But your question is really right on…. what is my motivation to do so?

    I’d like to think that my most recent work is written in a spirit of selflessness and compassion, while hopefully being entertaining, and that those values might fit with the values of a big publisher like Harper-Collins. I may be motivated by money and power, but I don’t think that’s my ultimate goal.

    I think if I could ever get to the level of success of a Dean Koontz, Stephen King, or James Patterson, my real goal would be to use that success to help others… that’s the only satisfying reason I can come up with to drive me to want to be published with a major publisher.

    I don’t see enough altruism and selflessness on the part of bestselling authors. I would love to set up literacy programs and schools (maybe libraries) in areas where they don’t currently exist. And I totally believe in the power creativity to heal people’s lives and to give people order and meaning.

    I suppose what drives me to continue querying literary agents in the hope of finding a major publisher is tied to a lot of these things.

  44. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Hey, Stacey,Thank you for answering my question further.

    I was talking with the Director of UNM Press about reading and how NM is second only to Nevada for high school dropout rates.

    If I made it to the big time — made the kind of money the authors you mention do — I’d put it into literacy and libraries in a heartbeat.

  45. David J. Montgomery

    After seven years of being a mystery and thriller critic I have still not read a self-published or vanity-published novel that I thought was as good as even the average product produced by the traditional publishers — a bar that, in my opinion, is not terribly high to begin with.

    Even if the quality were there, though, there is still an important question to be asked: Given that the majority of traditionally published authors — with the resources of their publisher behind them, plus whatever efforts they engage in on their own — are unsuccessful, what does this imply for the self-published, who have only their own devices to rely upon?

  46. Richard Helms

    Dave Zeltserman wrote:

    “Self-published books don’t reviewed in newspapers, and are near impossible to get into bookstores. It doesn’t matter how they good they might be, few sell more than a 100 copies.”

    As one of the self-published who broke all of those standards (reviews in PW, Library Journal, Mystery Scene, McClatchie newspapers; three PWA Shamus Award Nominations; two Derringer Award wins; four figure sales; and shelf space in B&N and Borders along with many, many indies), I do have to say that there is a right way and a wrong way to self-publish.

    The right way, as Sandy Tooley and I both did, is to form your own company, hire a reputable cover designer, employ a professional editor (in my case, I married her, which makes her easily the most expensive editor of all time!), develop a marketing and distribution network, and establish street cred by putting out a quality product.

    The wrong way is to hand a manuscript over to a subsidy or co-op POD mill along with a check for three or four hundred dollars and wait for the bucks to come rolling in.

    Personally, I don’t care who the publisher is, unless it is an outfit I know to be bilking aspiring authors. I’ve read great books from self-publishers and atrocious books from majors, and – yes – vice versa. Good authors I read again. Bad ones are forgotten.

    Now that I have an AAR agent and am working on breaking down a door or two in New York, would I do it again? Looking back on everything that happened, and just how damned hard it was to put it all together, probably not.

    It was a hell of a ride, though…R


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