One of the things we have to be constantly on the lookout for is that insidious tendency to assume that the way things are is the way they should be. Just because we have developed a business called publishing, does that mean that if there was no such thing the world would be a worse place? Here’s a guy from Vox who knows we’d be better off without publishers (via The Passive Voice). These people, and Hugh Howey in the audio below provides another example, are completely wrapped up in the idea that publishing is a huge, rapacious business, conducted by international media conglomerates. So much do they dislike this business model that they forget that these conglomerates, while they obviously exist and do publish a lot of books, make up only a small part of the world of publishing. [Later: Inevitably others, many others, have commented on the Vox post before me. Here’s Dr. Syntax’s straight bat response, reminding us all of the things publishers actually do do.]

Publishers exist fundamentally to finance the publication of books. They do this in two ways. Firstly they pay the authors who write the books, often in the form of an advance against royalties, and then by paying the printers (and other businesses and freelancers involved in production) to get the books made.

The Digital Reader asks Are publisher advances truly critical? I’m inclined to agree that they are not really. I think that such books as are written solely because of an advance, are probably exactly those books we could perfectly happily live without. Of course we all know that some books take years of research, and that a royalty advance does finance that. I’d bet that smart people can figure out other ways to fund research.

Here’s a discussion from New America NYC “Will Amazon lead us to the golden age of books?” moderated by Nick Thompson, a journalist and featuring Hugh Howie (author), Sarah McNally (bookseller), Manoush Zomorodi (WNYC broadcaster) and Lucas Wittmann (publisher). It’s 48 minutes long and that may be more time than you feel inclined to devote to it! Some good points are made, and Hugh Howie, a smart guy, continues to manage to cleave to his pro-Amazon line despite saying some things which would make a clear mind hesitate as to the basis for that loyalty. As so often, the discussion is all about “publishing” which I guess we now appear to have accepted means just trade publishing. I don’t think we really get any clear answer to the question posed in the title, though everyone is really optimistic in their own way.

It seems to me that we really do NOT need “publishers” in this restricted sense. There are of course a few trashy small publishing companies, but the bulk of the books which there’s no real need for is coming from the trade houses. As someone says in the discussion trade houses say things like “we have to publish 300 titles next year” to cover costs, and this results in things being pushed onto the market which the market would be just as happy never to have seen. New York Review Books and Melville House are instanced as two examples of “good publishing” — small enough to publish what they want how they want. (Not of course that small companies don’t have schedules and budgets, as the discussion rather implies.) But big publishers depend on big sales. They stand at the plate like a slugger, aiming for a home run off every pitch. (I once worked with a trade editor who described her job in exactly those terms.) Sometimes they connect, but mostly they strike out. In order to keep that revenue up, given that approach, trade houses have to issue more and more publications. If you need 10 bestsellers to make your numbers, and your home run rate is 2.5%, then you have to publish 400 books to get there. This is a high-cost, high-risk business, and huge sums in unearned advances and unsold books will end up being written off. Not only is it difficult to succeed with this model — nobody deserves to succeed at such a meretricious task. It’s disgustingly wasteful and has no redeeming logic after you’ve passed over the money making. Of course the big five/four manage to publish quite a few good books along the way — but I don’t really think they deserve to, given their primary devotion to Mammon, and I don’t think those books would remain unpublished if the sluggers didn’t exist.

To the extent that e-books take the place of print books, the fundamental role of publisher (financing the operation) is reduced. Yes of course copyediting etc. do need to be financed, but there are freelance options which self-published authors can access on their own dollar. I could see a world in which there were no trade publishers: I think self-publishing via e-book and POD could easily take over the whole thing. “Could” of course doesn’t mean “will” — these international media conglomerates will have to decide that the home run derby just doesn’t pay off enough, and who knows when or if they’ll decide the game is not worth the candle. But a world without trade publishers is thinkable and not one which would deprive any readers of anything really important.

A good book will always find its way, even if its way doesn’t involve a trip to the bestseller lists. So much of the discussion assumes that a book is a failure if it doesn’t sell 10,000 copies, or whatever. But successful market penetration for a specialized academic monograph may be less than 1,000 copies. Such books — and there are other categories of publishing which might be placed in the same grouping — will require a publisher for longer into the future. The up-front costs of preparing an academic, especially scientific, work are just higher than for a novel, and may represent a significant barrier to an author. Publishing for a niche audience presents different demands than trade publishing, and is a business whose destiny is almost certainly distinct.