« Editorial

Why Writers Need Publishers…Or Do They?

The value of traditional publishers is easy to under-rate.

By Lisa Buchan

Lisa Buchan

WELLINGTON, NZ: During a recent conference I attended on Publishing Futures, the discussion touched on the global political views of the “abolish copyright” movement. This political lobby group asserts that copyright and the publishers battling to uphold it are getting in the way of a pure flow of creativity from writer to reader on the internet. I heard several worried publishers around me calling out the question “so what is our value as publishers?” Unfortunately the discussion swirled away without these voices being heard or answered.

I have been thinking a lot about the answers. It matters, because I am worried we will lose the publishing mechanism that allowed writers to become a professional group in the first place.

Publishers were patrons, but that has changed

The first publishers were essentially patrons – people who sponsored a writer they liked. They had the money and influence to publish the writer’s work and could discuss it with influential people who might buy a copy of the book for their personal library. Creative people (sculptors, painters, writers) were completely at the mercy of their noble patrons. Being noble, these patrons were not “investing” in a creative person — they were so rich they did not need to generate income. They were simply showing off their superior discernment by surrounding themselves with artists and artwork unique to their house.

Very occasionally a publisher was a printer or other middle-class champion who believed a writer’s work was so valuable it should be published for posterity. They then started a campaign to raise funds to publish a writer’s work (Shakespeare’s works were brought to the world this way — after his death).

Fast-forward a few hundred years and we can see the legacy of this patronage model in our publishing industry. Publishing houses pay advances to writing talent identified by their editors or agents. The publisher receives manuscripts, polishes them, designs and prints them as books, and then pours money into advertising and sales promotion to generate maximum sales. Publishers need to generate a profit to be able to invest in new titles, but publishing is a hit or miss business — many titles make a loss, with just a few good ones contributing the majority of income for re-investment.

The curious feature of this legacy investment model is that publishers get the most limited share options seen in the business world. Unlike an angel investor, who will demand voting rights and a significant percentage of shares in the brand being built, a publisher usually obtains just the license to the current work and sometimes a handful of future works. When a writer becomes a bestselling brand, and decides to swap publishing houses or sell direct through Amazon or iTunes, the original publisher who championed the writer is entitled to nothing except the residual income from older works.

Globally, publishers pour billions of dollars every year into the pockets of writers and their agents in the form of advances and royalties. If total royalties make up 10% of a publisher’s costs, then editing, production, marketing and distribution make up the rest. The problem is that when a writer self-publishes, all they see is the percentage of royalty they will make. This might be 70-85% of net sale price via a self-publishing platform – compared to 6-25% for a traditional publisher. However 70% of zero is still zero – and that is close to the number of copies many self-published titles sell. The value of traditional publishers is easy to under-rate. Even if distribution costs become lower as books are distributed digitally, the other costs of editing and promotion do not go away. Nor does a simple comparison of percentages take into account the original investment by publishers.


Given the number of public attacks on the value of publishers (I counted six before breakfast this morning), I find it interesting that so few writers choose to abandon their existing publishers. The big names we do hear about (Stephen King and a handful of others) are notable because they are so rare. I believe the reason lies in a hidden but highly valued service that traditional publishers provide – recognition.

Every writer has a list of “dream publishers” who would provide them with recognition (and status). The majority are forced to set their sights a little lower and are usually delighted to have a niche publisher accept their work. Being published by a small publishing house is kind of cool. Since less than 1 in 200 manuscripts submitted are ever accepted for publication, it is a mark of status to be accepted by any publisher.

The very small percentage of manuscripts accepted for publication leaves a roiling wake of frustrated writers who are adding their voices to the anti-publisher lobby. The good news about the socially networked world into which we are hurtling is that it will become easier to identify talent that might have been overlooked. The frustrated (but excellent) writers who self-publish e-books are more likely to be discovered by people on social media. Some recent examples are Kerry Wilkinson and the up and coming Anthony Karakai.

Emotional Support

A secondary reason for loyalty to publishers (and agents) is the emotional support and feedback that writers need. Writing – although wonderfully fulfilling – can create a confidence crisis in even the chirpiest of souls. Nearly every publisher and agent (and producer who has involved writers) has a story to tell of the extraordinary support they have provided to a writer in crisis. On a daily basis, a writer’s editor or agent may be the only people who care enough to read and respond to a writer’s concerns, thoughts and wild creative ideas.

This provides a partial answer for publishers worried about whether their value proposition is strong enough to survive into the future. Writers really do need the support publishers provide – creatively as much as financially, and a publisher’s brand status is an important source of recognition for writers, especially amongst the community that the writer identifies with.

The key to future success is to ensure your publishing house remains relevant to your community, that you are associated with integrity, open to original thought, and supportive of your writers (awards wouldn’t hurt either).

Lisa Buchan is the CEO of Sparkabook, the Wellington-based online book rights trading community. 

SURVEY: What is the Top Thing a Publisher Does for an Author?

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  1. Posted May 2, 2012 at 4:20 am | Permalink

    Very interesting post. As an (unpublished) writer, I still intend to seek representation through an agent and publisher because in my eyes, they are the experts and yes, I’ll admit it, I want someone to say that my writing is good enough to be on the market. I see so many writers turn to self publishing because of (a) they can’t be bothered to research agents/publishers, (b) they want to be published ‘now’, or (c) they see publishers as the enemy. Thank you for discussing this important issue.

  2. Posted May 2, 2012 at 6:15 am | Permalink

    Thank you for the well thought out and valid thoughts on this issue. I enjoyed your article. I can’t help but wonder, though, whether the value you discuss will be (or already is) provided by the emerging publishing model.
    Economic investment? I agree with your point that publishers invest in many books that make no profit – in fact I would argue that is one reason why many authors prefer traditional publishing. The author fortunate enough to be selected will often be guaranteed at least some income even if their sales are dismal. You mentioned that many self-published books sell close to zero copies. Yet many traditionally published books sink like a stone as well, only then it is after the publisher has invested resources and ends up taking a loss. One could argue that these losses are the reason most authors, even the promising ones, are unable to storm the gates of the publishing industry.
    Recognition? I would argue that only the traditionally published authors who achieve significant sales are picked up for multiple titles and then achieve recognition. And isn’t that the same on the self-published side? There simply is no replacement for a wonderful story that large numbers of people want to enjoy, regardless of the publishing model. Also related to this point, the most common argument I hear in favor of publishers is their role as gatekeepers, so readers won’t have to wade through the global slush pile. Yet there is no guarantee that titles selected by publishers will actually be enjoyed by the majority of readers — you say yourself that most published titles do not achieve a profit. I compare this to YouTube versus Hollywood. The YouTube model seems to be highly effective at self-selecting the videos that go viral … and without anyone having to take a loss on up-front investment.
    Emotional support? Clearly this is valuable. If the authors mentioned by the publishers had been self-published, though, would they have created alternatives for emotional support? Writers groups, online or otherwise? A writing buddy / critique partner? Hard to say, but certainly alternatives exist, and the successful professional will probably find them.
    I feel for the publishers, who are facing challenging times. It will be interesting to see how this all settles out. Thanks again for provoking some thought :)

  3. Posted May 2, 2012 at 6:47 am | Permalink

    Wow, you’ve got quite a lot WRONG here…

    This line is utterly laughable: “and then pours money into advertising and sales promotion to generate maximum sales.” Really? Perhaps for a small minority of books that the sales & promotion people feel are likely to generate the most revenue, but the majority – MAJORITY – of books a traditional publisher puts out will receive a few scant marketing dollars. To state otherwise is utter folly. I’ve been traditionally published for ten years now and between myself and my other midlist colleagues, not one has ever received more than a passing interest from the sales & marketing folks. Any promotion has fallen to US, the author, to undertake.

    Here also: “This might be 70-85% of net sale price via a self-publishing platform – compared to 6-25% for a traditional publisher. ” Uh, no. Amazon pays authors who price between $2.99-$9.99 a 70% RETAIL royalty (not NET as you incorrectly state) and Barnes & Noble pays 65% RETAIL. But traditional publishers DO pay NET, and it’s a paltry 25% which goes even lower once an agent takes their 15% commission. Honestly, such basic facts are not that hard to get right.

    “I find it interesting that so few writers choose to abandon their existing publishers. The big names we do hear about (Stephen King and a handful of others) are notable because they are so rare. I believe the reason lies in a hidden but highly valued service that traditional publishers provide – recognition.” King is still with Scrivener; he hasn’t abandoned his publisher yet. He has experimented in the past with doing it himself, but he’s still with traditional publishers. Barry Eisler HAS abandoned his publisher St. Martin’s. But as more and more powerhouse writers see what they can do on their own, you can expect that number to increase. Unless traditional publishers figure out how to improve their antiquated business model to better address writer concerns and draconian royalty rates. As to your claim of “recognition,” I would argue that falls in line with your erroneous statement about sales & marketing “pouring” money into the works they publish. Traditional publishers place most of their hope on a few precious authors, and leave the rest to do everything on their own. “it is a mark of status to be accepted by any publisher.” Perhaps, but status doesn’t pay bills. I’d rather be able to pay my mortgage than win awards or otherwise be lauded by a publisher (something I’m able to do with what I earn from self-publishing). Pay writers decently and that would go a long way toward lessening hostility toward traditional publishers.

    Finally, “A secondary reason for loyalty to publishers (and agents) is the emotional support and feedback that writers need.” I would argue the reason so many writers need “emotional support” is because of all the ridiculousness that currently goes on in the traditional publishing world. Long wait times for editors to read over a manuscript, incompetent agents who aren’t aggressive enough to champion their authors, publishers not forming partnerships with authors to include them in cover art, sales & promo decisions, a ridiculously flawed accounting and royalty system, and a host of other such problems.

    While I applaud you for trying to win back support for traditional publishing, your arguments here fall far short of proving that publishers are still a viable entity. The most important parts of the equation are thus: the author creates the content and the reader consumes it. Everyone else is in the middle and in the way. If traditional publishing wants to prove its worth, then they need to scrap the antiquated business model they still employ, cut their overhead, focus on building partnerships with authors (rather than the serf-like status most are relegated to), improve royalties – especially digital royalties, create a monthly accounting system that provides writers with better financial stability, and embrace new technology rather than run away from it.

    It’s that simple.

    Arguing about such intangibles as emotional support, recognition, and the idea of patronage is just more avoidance of the actual problems that may eventually destroy traditional publishers unless someone is smart enough and brave enough to confront reality.

  4. Carlo Carrenho
    Posted May 2, 2012 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    Good article, Lisa! You show the importance of traditional publishers without totally demeriting self-publishing. The key here is weather the publishers are being more than simple content distributors. Those who invest in editing and promotion probably have a guaranteed future, while those who have mastered massive distribution are in danger. After all, distribution is the main focus of the digital distribution.

  5. Posted May 2, 2012 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    Unlike Jon Merz, I have never been traditionally published. I tried for years, but the closest I came was an acceptance by a small UK publisher that turned into quite a fiasco. Well, that and a rejection from a large US publisher that only took four and a half years to receive.

    Despite this lack of traditional publishing credentials, status, and emotional support, I have been able to pay my bills for the last year and a half through my self-published titles. Could I sell more with a traditional publisher? Quite possibly. But then, I’d still be working my old job and my stories would be sitting in a drawer gathering dust.

    I am not saying anyone can do this, nor am I suggesting that anyone SHOULD. Self-publishing is hard. It’s hard to get noticed, it’s hard to earn a living, it’s hard to make yourself work each and every day, but…oh, wait…those things are all true of traditional publishing, too.

    What was my argument, again?

  6. Posted May 2, 2012 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    For some authors, who work in academe and publish scholarly monographs, not only is it “kind of cool” to publish with a traditional publishing house, it is absolutely imperative for them to do so if they are to gain the kind of “recognition” that they must have if they are to gain tenure and promotion, which is the really important ROI in their line of work. Every time someone writes an article like this, it is assumed that what is said holds for all of publishing. Clearly, it does not. Textbook authors would be another major exception. Not all authors are trade book authors, and what is true for that sector is not necessarily true for the rest of publishing. Self-publishing is simply NOT the answer for academic and textbook authors.

  7. Posted May 2, 2012 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    The problem is not publishers. The problem is the literary agent who stands between writer and publisher. People waste so much time in the search for an agent that it makes a huge joke of the claim that agents exist to save the writer precious time best spent on the creative process. I’d rather be rejected by a publisher than by an agent.

  8. Posted May 2, 2012 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    Any business model which is incapable of adjusting to the current situation does not have a bright future.

  9. Posted May 2, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    Publishers can still have great value to writers. There are some publishers which are outstanding. I know one which is paying writers about 70% of net on ebooks, and markets well enough that every book they produce hits the top 20 list for its genre in ebooks. Stuff like that is stellar, and well worth the effort of working with the company.

    So what changed, between 2008 and 2012?

    In 2008, a writer needed a publisher more than the publisher needed any individual writer.

    In 2012, writers no longer need publishers at all; by rough industry estimates, some 2000+ self published writers are making above the national median income from their writing. Writers might *want* to work with publishers, but they no longer *need* them.

    But publishers still need writers.

    The need has shifted. The roles are reversed. The writers have the hot seat now. Any publisher negotiating for a contract is aware that, if the writer elects to walk away, that writer can have the work up for sale in every major digital venue in a month or less.

    So the publishers who survive this? They’ll be the ones offering the BEST deals for writers. The best service. The best terms. The most respect. The least condescension. The clearest contracts. Publishers who excel in this new world will be the ones who treat writers as valuable business partners and suppliers.

    Because the ones who don’t? Well, writers have lots of other options now. Hard to be a publisher when writers don’t want to work with you anymore.

  10. Edward Nawotka
    Posted May 2, 2012 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    I still truly believe that almost anyone, offered a traditional publishing deal, would give it strong consideration — just because it is “optional” now, doesn’t mean it’s outmoded. There remains a huge population of people who would much rather not have to worry over the mechanics of publishing themselves and put that in the hands of people who only do that one thing for a living. And I still firmly believe that being a publisher is, as Lisa notes, an emotional commitment on some level — and ultimately that of taking responsibility for the success of another person’s work and well being, and not just your own.

  11. Posted May 3, 2012 at 3:41 am | Permalink

    There is a middle ground, and one that I believe will balance the best of a publisher’s expertise with the needs of writers,established and emerging alike. With both the encumbrances of the consignment system and the trappings of corporate publishing becoming passe, cooperative models of publishing in which both the publisher and the author share more equitably the risks and revenues of works are likely to become the future course. The 20th century model that placed marketing demands over editorial discretion and that positioned best-sellers as the pinnacle of the literary enterprise is deeply flawed. One hopes for the decentralization of the industry away from the conglomerates and the rise of a myriad of indie publishers who work collaborative and fairly with authors.

  12. LewisM
    Posted May 3, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    Though usually unrecognized, publishers will always have value to the READER. I applaud authors who’ve managed to make a living from self publishing, but most people don’t have the time to sift through all the self-published garbage to find the good stuff.

    As a reader, I depend on publishers to sort through all the crappy manuscripts for me and to make me aware of the exceptional works that they find. I’ve sometimes read and often recommended self-published titles, but without publishers, I’d get too tired of the bad books to continue reading.

  13. Posted May 3, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    Good thoughts Yosef. Similar models are starting to emerge amongst some of the small publishers I know, but without clear expectations some of these more equitable arrangements fall apart – usually because the author becomes dissatisfied and believes that the publisher should be able to magically generate more sales, despite readers not being interested in the book. I don’t know how to overcome this expectation issue – but I will ponder it for a while. Any new ideas or suggestions from readers of this article welcome…

  14. Posted May 4, 2012 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    A very interesting piece, particularly the history of publishing, however more in line with a person mourning the migration from horses to autos for transportation. The mourner will point out all the wonderful aspects of horse drawn transportation like the ‘emotional’ support of talking to your horse and patting it for a good job but fail to identify all the shortcomings.

    Your piece is a bit of a Pollyanna look at the publishing industry today. My experience as an author who entered the profession in 2007 with both an agent and traditional publishing offers opted to take the independent route.


    Jon F. Merz enumerated them all above.

    I will say Ms. Buchan, I did enjoy the article

  15. Posted May 5, 2012 at 2:51 am | Permalink

    A great post as to why authors still need publishers. I think if an author can truly self-publish, they should do it. By ‘truly’ I mean edit and market effectively, because then they can make some money, as long as they accept that they’ll have no time for writing. Traditional publishers are necessary for most qutbors. It is important that they realize that instead of treating publishers as the enemy. Thanks for the post.

  16. Posted May 7, 2012 at 1:56 am | Permalink

    “Why authors need Publishers” is really the bleeding edge on the evolving patterns of the end users habits. As said succinctly in this post, it is the publisher who brought dignity to the content published – but all behind the screen. Every manner in which the publisher contributes to refineent of the original work is intangible. The reader never gets to see it.

  17. Posted May 10, 2012 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    This is a thought-provoking article and a valuable contribution to the conversation ongoing about self publishing/epublishing versus traditional publishing in print. I’ve published with a small publisher and yes, the recognition is a thrill for an author. I’m considering self and epublishing because storming the citadels is a challenge. Publishers face a myriad of woes in the current economic climate and I’ve been on both sides of the fence, as an editor employed by traditional publishers and as an author wanting to be published. No easy answers lurk in the woodwork for either side. Let the debate continue…

  18. Vincent
    Posted June 11, 2012 at 6:15 am | Permalink

    Lets me put this in simple terms,because thats how I like things: simple.
    Would you be secure going into battle with a navy, airforce and a army behind you? Or! Going solo into the firestorm?
    A publisher allows you backup. Otherwise, as a solo mission think of yourself as special forces. Less head on and more guile and craft.

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