The Age-Old Battle Between Author & Publisher

To write what is worth publishing, to find honest people to publish it, and get sensible people to read it, are the three great difficulties in being an author.

—Charles Caleb Colton

Almost anyone can be an author; the business is to collect money and fame from this state of being.

—A. A. Milne

Publishing is no longer simply a matter of picking worthy manuscripts and putting them on offer. It is now as important to market books properly, to work with the bookstore chains to get terms, co-op advertising, and the like. The difficulty is that publishers who can market are most often not the publishers with worthy lists.

—Olivia Goldsmith

One of the signs of Napoleon’s greatness is the fact that he once had a publisher shot.

—Siegfried Unseld

Publishers are all cohorts of the devil; there must be a special hell for them somewhere.


As difficult as it is for a writer to find a publisher – admittedly a daunting task – it is twice as difficult for a publisher to sort through the chaff, select the wheat, and profitably publish a worthy list.

—Olivia Goldsmith

One should fight like the devil the temptation to think well of editors. They are all, without exception – at least some of the time, incompetent or crazy.

—John Gardner

If you’ve been following industry chatter, you may have seen some conversations lately about whether authors need publishers (or vice versa). Plus there’s now a Twitter tag for the discussion, #publishersmatter

To catch up, you can read these 3 pieces:

Do Authors Still Need Publishers?
by Mark Coker of Smashwords (e-publishing service)

What Do Authors Need?
by Kate Eltham at Queensland Writers Centre (Australia)

Do Publishers Still Need Authors?
by Guy Gonzalez, my colleague and audience development director for Digital Book World (My views align closely with Guy’s.)

Aspiring writers and authors can be extremely mistrustful and suspicious of publishers— creating a group only too eager to join the revolution where writers/authors have power and publishers become obsolete.

Those who can never get inside the pearly publishing gates feel marginalized and like they never got the attention they deserve, while those who do break in feel exactly the same way. As Daniel Menaker has said:

Many of the most important decisions made in publishing are made outside the author’s and agent’s specific knowledge. … [Publishing] silently colludes in trying to ignore the obvious …  that the first printing of your book will be three thousand copies, that it will not have full-color galleys, that no advertising or tour is planned, and that it has been assigned to a publicist who up until yesterday worked in the Xerox department. Why the collusion? Because this is a business fueled largely by writers’ need for attention, and no one wants to crush any writer’s dreams before a book is even published. Especially since every now and then they actually come true.

Today, many authors are left out to sea as soon as the book hits store shelves, a critical moment in the life of many books. By the time the author realizes what’s happening, the window of opportunity has vanished—that moment when you can ensure stores/retailers see the book as a quality and profitable item, leading to a good model (number of copies per store).

Other authors get turned out by their publishers when their books don’t sell, even if they could’ve been a quality midlist author with more time and investment. (Most publishers don’t have the luxury of waiting.)

Obviously neither of these phenomenon help the author OR the publisher.

I wonder if successful publishers of the future will attract quality authors mostly by …

  • the deep reach of their distribution (especially if to a particular audience)
  • their editorial/curation prowess and stable of quality authors
  • the support and service they provide authors

Publishers have done a poor job, at best, in the support and service role.

How many publishers actively support their authors when it comes to teaching them online marketing and promotion practices? How many will analyze their authors’ efforts at platform and branding? How many will give them the education, tools, or resources they need to be true partners with the publisher? How many will—at the very least—provide clarity on what the publisher will and will not do for the author, or explicitly convey their own strengths and weaknesses, so the author goes in eyes wide open?

While publishers of the future need to distinguish themselves by the quality of their partnerships, the quality of their audience reach (community), and the quality of their curation, I bet there will be publishers who become known for support and service, and attract quality authors like bees to honey—and be more successful because of it.

What do you say?

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0 thoughts on “The Age-Old Battle Between Author & Publisher

  1. Paul Fergus

    @Jane – I would say the definition of quality and good are too narrow and exclusive to work now. There’s a larger field emerging where quality/good depends on what the participants’ needs are.

    A person who wants to show identification by buying a book that wasn’t made on a lithographic press isn’t the same person who wants to buy a coffee table book as a social object. But they share a similar quality in that they want "fun-now", they just have different expectations of how to achieve it.

    Where publishers might still be able to participate is in the niche arena of tide. When a large mass of people want the physical object, a publisher can step in and make sure the group has instant gratification. And they will want that instant gratification, so they can talk about it with their compatriots, play with it. This requires a structure capable of responding to interest, rather than trying to direct or control (let alone predict) it.

    But why buy a book at all? If the contact is what matters, then a book is just a tool to make money. It’s no longer the focus, which means yes there’s going to be less money to be made. Costs are going to have to come down. Nobody is owed a living.

  2. Jane Friedman

    @Paul – Ah, becoming clearer what you mean!

    Although means of production and distribution many be undertaken just as easily by authors/readers as publishers, this fact doesn’t equate to similar levels of success, at least not yet. Kate E. says, "Even digital distribution, while frictionless, is not easy to convert to sales without the ability to engage a readership who’ll fork over money for your product." Some authors may be unwilling or lack the ability to do this. (However: Likely only the privileged and sought-after authors will be able to shirk reader-engagement responsibility.)

    Also – would it be accurate to say you believe quality to be a completely subjective term? Meaning that there really isn’t any distinction between the quality of book that’s released by a self-publisher vs. traditional publisher?

  3. Paul Fergus

    @Jane – I would argue that the concept of a publisher as an organization selling books in volume is already irrelevant. When authors and readers become their own means of production, what do they need the extra step for? Vertical is already here.

    The problem for publishers is that everyone is now a publisher and volume is niche. So that means making contact is the only game in town. And that starts with recognizing "there is no good or quality, there’s only your good and my quality".

    What publishers might still be able to do is make small changes in the direction of providing tools for author and reader to connect. Do it now, before distribution’s corpse starts to attract insects. When co-creators start asking you where your "mouse" is, you’ll know it’s too late.

  4. Jane Friedman

    @Julia – Great comment about relationships being excellent filters. I see more and more that readers look to relationships to help make decisions about what’s worth their time or investment.

    @Paul – You’re saying that it’s not the publisher’s problem to find ways to connect authors and readers? That’s one of the big questions facing us. Can/should publishers rely on authors to reach readers? Who else will be doing it if not publishers or authors?

    Publishing futurists like Mike Shatzkin have argued that publishing will become more "vertical" and more targeted in the audiences they publish for, and publishers will have more direct relationships/connections with readership. I tend to agree. Publishers’ strength today may be in wide distribution, with limited knowledge of or connection to the end consumer, but this model will not continue to work for all.

    What publishers "do" – that has to change. Or they can become irrelevant.

  5. Paul Fergus

    I don’t understand what terms like "good books" or "quality authors" mean. Those sound like chimeras to me, I’m staying clear of that kind of talk.

    As near as I can tell, publishers are about making money selling lots of books. Consumers making irrational decisions about what to buy. An extremely inefficient model.

    The only thing I’m interested in is how I get the next book I’m going to love in my hands. I want "fun-now", not "fun-maybe".

    Contact between co-creators (what is often refered to as "author" and "reader", again terms I don’t understand) is all that matters. What are publishers doing to develop that?

    Nothing, because that’s not what they do. It’s somebody else’s problem.

  6. Julia Tew

    Sounds like one heck on an argument for good PR 🙂
    I think excellent service will always be valued, regardless of industry, because it indicates a concern for the client, and clients (as people) like to feel important.

    With unprecedented access to information, people will seek out ways to simplify the noise. Relationships are excellent filters. Information coming from known sources receives more notice, thus to attract and keep quality authors, publishers will need to build relationships with said authors. By the same reasoning, on a separate front, publishers will also need to prove they maintain positive relationships with readers.

    If they cannot maintain healthy connections with these two stakeholders, I seriously doubt their ability to maintain at all. Ideally, this is what the brutal capitalist system will do– eliminate those with mediocre offerings.


    The other side is that cultivating relationships requires a fairly substanial investment, potentially limiting the number of writers any one publisher will pursue. Hmm.

    Enjoyed the piece. Thanks for writing.


    I recently did a whole blog of my own about whiney authors. It’s funny you should bring this up. I appreciate people self publishing and I appreciate editors and authors. But I think that this can go right up there with the previous blog you did about "Patience" and the blog I did about "How about a little expectation of self." Love it. I love the armour and ammunition comment too Maggie. Rock on.
    Bri Clark

  8. Maggie Stewart-Grant

    As a small publisher, my goal is not what’s going to make a million bucks in a month. It is sustainability. What will hit the market and be something someone even ten years from now will pick up and want to read?

    Beyond that, I want writers to be able to come to me and ask questions. I want to always have the time to be able to respond to them – to have a good relationship with the writers I publish.

    So let the wars go on. You’ll find my "armour and ammunition" is an open door and a cup of coffee.


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