What does a publisher do, anyway?

Recently, I’ve been wondering about what we think about when we consider the word “publisher.” Traditionally, a publisher is someone who takes a piece of writing and turns it into something that other people can buy. Sounds about right.

Interestingly, most of the people that I’ve met who are wanting to get into the publishing business do so because they are drawn into the world of books, responding (at least in part) to a connection with the written word, sometimes as far back as early childhood. Maybe it was a particular story that transcended the words on the page, maybe it was some character that they identified with. Whatever the case, most of the people trying to get into publishing don’t do it because there is so much money out there just waiting to be claimed.

Because for the most part, there isn’t.

That’s the reality out there. Sure there are avenues out there that could be insanely profitable for publishers. You hear about it all the time. No wait, that’s authors. Maybe it’s the publisher that sells the books to the ereaders out there. Nope, that’s Amazon. Who is the publisher then?

The publisher is the driving force between author and reader. Even when the driving force between the two is the author him or herself (let’s face it: self-publishing is a possibility these days. It’s difficult, but it’s still there.), he or she will take on the role of the publisher, connecting the ideas to the page or screen, using distribution channels to hopefully get the words into the readers’ minds.

I think it’s time that we start to rethink many of the terms in the publishing world. I’m not sure if there is a tendency to think of publisher, editor, and agent as pejoratives, or if it’s just some of the jaded reflections on publishing that I’ve read recently, but I’d like to think that publishers, the ones that I know, would like others to know that they in fact don’t do it for the money.

I believe that a publisher is someone who recognizes the transcendant nature of a creative work (be it fiction or nonfiction) and dedicates him or herself to making sure that the work in question is presented in the most ideal fashion available (of course, it’s up to each publisher to define what the hell “ideal” means). One of the things that authors would be good to know is that if you have the privilege to work with a publisher, it is usually in their best interest to try to sell as many of those things as possible.

But here’s the thing:

Whenever you trade over the rights of a book to be published, you trade. over. the. rights. Authors who take money for the work and then complain about the publisher ruining the artistic integrity of the work in question are on shaky ground in my mind. The moment that you take money for your work is the moment that you are trading artistic integrity (a noble goal perhaps) for money. You are in effect, selling out.

Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, it’s good to get paid for creating content. But, and this is a big but here, I think that a lot of us want a cake and a fork to eat it with.

That’s what we hire publishers for. They are there to protect the artistic integrity of the author, as well as maximizing potential profit for the work. They are there to walk the line between art and commerce, and there are a lot of publishers who walk that line tremendously well (Go check out McSweeney’s or PropellerBooks or Tin House if you don’t believe me). Art and commerce, the yin and yang of the content world. Publishers are the integrators, the balancers, willing to think of the content in a new form, attempting to embrace that dichotomous relationship into a new, evolved form: the book.

Yeah, there are some crappy publishers out there. Some have lost that spark, that connection to the word that initially drew them in the magical world of books. But there are also some crappy dogs out there. I would never think to lump all dogs into some sort of label based on those few. I’ve known some great dogs.


One thought on “What does a publisher do, anyway?

  1. I think content creators ie. authors or artists, often need “someone in their corner,” so to speak. Too often we forget that a publisher’s goal is not to make a quick buck, but to help deliver the best possible content to the reader. Sometimes yes, that means making changes to the author’s vision. But guess what? Those changes make the story better (usually). But like you say, there are bad publishers out there, giving the rest of us bad names.

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