The Age-Old Battle Between Author & Publisher

Publish date:

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?

Kaia Alderson: On Internal Roadblocks and Not Giving Up

Kaia Alderson: On Internal Roadblocks and Not Giving Up

Kaia Alderson discusses how she never gave up on her story, how she worked through internal doubts, and how research lead her out of romance and into historical fiction.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: Seven New Courses, Writing Prompts, and More!

This week, we’re excited to announce seven new courses, our Editorial Calendar, and more!

Crystal Wilkinson: On The Vulnerability of Memoir Writing

Crystal Wilkinson: On The Vulnerability of Memoir Writing

Kentucky’s Poet Laureate Crystal Wilkinson discusses how each project has its own process and the difference between writing fiction and her new memoir, Perfect Black.

From Script

Approaching Comedy from a Personal Perspective and Tapping into Your Unique Writer’s Voice (From Script)

In this week’s round up brought to us by, interviews with masters of comedy, screenwriter Tim Long ('The Simpsons') and writer-director Dan Mazer (Borat Subsequent Movie) about their collaboration on their film 'The Exchange', and filmmaker Trent O’Donnell on his new film 'Ride the Eagle' co-written with actor Jake Johnson ('New Girl'). Plus, tips on how to tap into your unique voice and more!

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Accepting Feedback on Your Writing

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Accepting Feedback on Your Writing

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake is not accepting feedback on your writing.

Writer's Digest Best Creativity Websites 2021

Writer's Digest Best Creativity Websites 2021

Here are the top creativity websites as identified in the 23rd Annual 101 Best Websites from the May/June 2021 issue of Writer's Digest.

Poetic Forms

Englyn Proest Dalgron: Poetic Forms

Poetic Form Fridays are made to share various poetic forms. This week, we look at the englyn proest dalgron, a Welsh quatrain form.

What Is a Palindrome in Writing?

What Is a Palindrome in Writing?

In this post, we look at what a palindrome is when it comes to writing, including several examples of palindromes.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Set a Trap

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Set a Trap

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, it's time to set a trap.