What Use, Publishers?

I had planned for a while to write something about the current contretemps between Amazon and my publisher, Hachette, but people like Peter Brown, Stephen Colbert, and Farhad Manjoo have said what I would have said, most likely with better clarity and more sense. So I urge you read their pieces.

There is one chunk of the discussion, though, that I wanted to weigh in on. And that has to do with the utility and necessity (and, perhaps, lack thereof) of publishers in general.

It has become fashionable in some circles to deride book publishers as out-dated, out-classed dinosaurs ripe for digital disruption. They are Old Media in a world of New Media, the claims go. They are holding authors back, ripping them off for a too-large percentage of the price of each book, offering little in return. For these crimes, they deserve to be sentenced to death.

What will replace them? Why, self-publishing, of course! Self-publishing is the Authorial Promised Land — no editors telling you what to do, no Sales team determining your placement in the catalog, no Marketing group telling you that promoting your book just isn’t in the budget…

It actually sounds great. And that’s mostly because, quite frankly, it is pretty great. There’s nothing wrong with self-publishing and quite a lot right about it. If you’re looking for me to beat up on self-publishing, you’ve come to the wrong place.

But I’m not going to beat up on publishers, either. And I don’t understand those who do.

Sure, publishing is more than slightly hidebound and needs to have the engine checked, but tossing it overboard entirely is the worst sort of overkill. As someone who has self-published1, I have never understood the zeal of some of my fellow self-publishers for burning the publishers to the ground. It borders on a religious mania sometimes. Look, a publisher is a means to an end, a distribution network for art. If it doesn’t work for you, then use something else. You have that option, as we all know. But why continue railing and fulminating against the model you eschew? It is truly, truly bizarre to see successful, wealthy people continue to pick at a scab that clearly bothers them so.

You won. You self-published and made a mint. Enjoy it! Sometimes folks sound like that crazy ex who can’t stop calling and texting to tell you how great his/her life is now.

“But Barry, those evil publishers are taking advantage of my fellow authors and I must do something!”


Look, there are trade-offs in every decision and down every path. If you choose self-publishing, you do so without an infrastructure of support. By and large, you have to learn on your own every little thing. When I self-pubbed Unsoul’d, I had to trawl (not troll!) a million forums and message boards to figure out certain things…and there were some aspects of the biz that I just gave up on because the information/advice was so thin and/or contradictory.

I still self-pubbed, though. Because I wanted to. And because — for Unsoul’d — the advantages outweighed the disadvantages.

For other projects, the advantages of a publisher outweigh the disadvantages.

And yes, sure, of course there are disadvantages to a publisher. There are things about my publisher I would love to change, things I am fighting to change. But that doesn’t mean I discard them, any more than the disadvantages of self-publishing make me dismiss that avenue out of hand.

What value do publishers bring? I’ll tell you. Here is a very small thing my publisher did for me that turned out to be a very big thing: When Little Brown bought the I Hunt Killers series, they revealed that information in a press release announcing their acquisition of Libba Bray’s much-anticipated The Diviners.

At the time, I was a schlub. Libba was the multiple New York Times bestselling author of the Gemma Doyle trilogy who had just won the Printz Award for Going Bovine. She was (and is!) a Big Deal. I was not. But by including me in that press release, Little Brown instantly did something I could not have possibly done: They raised my profile in the industry. By adding me into that press release, they were saying to the industry, “Hey, look, we think this Barry Lyga guy is important enough to merit your attention. We’re excited about what he’s got up his sleeve, and we want to make sure you know about it.” They put me in front of an audience of booksellers and industry gatekeepers who otherwise might have ignored my new series.

That’s value. Now, we can argue over how much value it is, sure. We can argue about whether Little Brown deserves to make as much as they’ve made from Killers and its sequels, but we can’t argue over the fact that it is valuable.

So we’re left to worry about the details. That’s fine. I don’t mind haggling over details. But that’s what we’re doing — we’re tweaking. We’re adjusting. Not burning to the ground.

Maybe I “get” both sides of the coin because I originally came from the comic book business. In comics, there is a large, thriving, respected self-publishing tradition. There’s no shame or stigma attached to it, as there has been in book publishing, so self-publishers long ago divested themselves of the weighty chips on their shoulders. No one is calling for, say, DC or Marvel to be driven out of business by a capricious Amazon.com. They just go about their business, creating great comics.

We can — and do! — have it both ways.

“Publishers are fine, for what they do,” the argument goes, “but they get too much money. They shouldn’t get 85% of your book in perpetuity. They should be paid a flat fee for their work.”

Well… Look, I’m the first one to raise my hand and say that royalties can be higher. That’s what my agent is for — she negotiates my royalty rate with every contract and wrings every penny she can out of the system.

But if “traditional” publishing collapses and self-publishing is the only option and publishers become guns-for-hire, then the reading public will suffer. Dramatically. You think diversity is lacking now? In a world of publishers-for-hire, we will behold an even more rigidly defined caste system, in which only people with money are able to write and succeed, and everyone else is out of luck.

Because to pay a publisher a “flat fee” for the work it does requires up-front money. Right now, can you afford to hire an editor? A cover designer? A proofreader? A copyeditor? Can you afford to license fonts? Can you afford to hire someone with the good taste to tell you which fonts to use?

“Those things aren’t that expensive.” You forget: I’ve done this, too. Good, talented people in these fields aren’t cheap, and “aren’t that expensive” is the motto of the privileged middle class. Where will the next voices from our impoverished communities come from if they have to pay even the paltry sum of a couple hundred dollars for a cover? That might not sound like much to someone who has already succeeded as an author or to someone with a stable day job, but what about the poor (literally) writer who is a genius, but can’t scrape together enough for rent, much less to hire a publisher?

(If you think I’m exaggerating, I urge you to do a little research on the subject. Poverty is no indicator of poor artistic vision; what brilliant works have we missed as a culture due to a lack of postage or a monthly internet fee? Here’s only one example of the depth of the problem: The Speculative Literature Foundation has a grant to help impoverished writers become authors.)

“You can barter for those sorts of services.” Um, OK. That might be true, but then you’re consigning professional designers and editors to a career based in barter. Does that seem viable? You’re going to lose a lot of good, talented people that way. The landlord doesn’t take “I designed a cover for this guy and he wrote me a great letter about why I can’t pay my rent” to the bank.

Publishers subsidize art. We can argue about the relative fairness of their business models (and hey — I have some bones to pick there, too), but I’m looking at the system as a whole. A publishing model with publishers can make it possible to hear voices we wouldn’t hear otherwise. Which, funnily enough, is something self-publishing excels at as well, only in different directions.

So…maybe we can have both? And stop throwing grenades at one another?

And maybe — just maybe — we can all look at the current Amazon situation dispassionately and agree that even if Amazon has done some wonderful things for readers and authors, that it deserves the same exacting, penetrating analysis we give to our royalty statements, our industry as a whole, and — hell — our work.

  1. To wit: My novel Unsoul’d. Go buy a copy, eh?


  1. Interesting article. I’ve never really understood the mentality of the Militant Wing of the Independent Publishing Movement ripping into traditional trade publishers, nor indeed the seeming belief that one size fits all – all of the time.

    Different authors have different personality types: some are perfectly suited to selecting a cover designer, finding the best editor and putting together a professional quality book – but many are not. If they can find a publisher who is willing to take a chance on their work and publish then that is probably the best route.

    We’re seeing far too many authors pushing out work which should not have seen the light of day in its current form (or possibly at all – but that’s another matter).

    Authors need support – they can either get that from a traditional publisher or they need to be part of a community such as http://www.bookmarq.net where they can seek support from others in writing, production and marketing.

  2. I’m with a small press, but it would be horrific for publishers to die out, because, as you said, only the wealthy would be able to publish. It just doesn’t make any sense to bash publishers. In fact, such bashing is a privileged thing to do because it says that, ‘Yes, you have the money to afford to publish your own book. Great. What about those of us who don’t?’ I certainly can’t afford it. That’s why I went with a publisher. And because it’s a small press, I can make about the same amount of money as a self-published author can, assuming the average price of their books is $2.99 and mine is $3.89-$6.99, depending on the publisher I’m going with and it’s royalty rates.


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