The real role of the book publisher is to finance the creation of books. Publishers supply the capital needed to get written works into public circulation. From that derives the justification for their earning a profit. The publisher puts up the money (and takes the risk). The Germans make no bones about this: the German for publishing company, Verlag, comes from the word for money-man, the verb verlegen carrying at its root the meaning of “laying out, advancing money”. Other languages tend to euphemise, focussing in most cases on the editorial or making-public aspect. Because it’s always been a “gentleman’s profession” we tend to prefer to keep this truth dark, and talk loudly about things like list-building, literature, culture, curation, taste, production values, beauty of design, and all that sort of flattering stuff. We even believe it.

Perhaps the most potent threat facing today’s publishing business is the sharp reduction in the need for capital in the book business. Good old Joe Blow can write his book and get it up on-line as an e-book for nothing. Nothing. Apart, that is, from his time and effort. Of course nobody may become aware of his book’s existence, but perhaps Joe’s all right with that, just wanting a few friends and family to see his account of The Fall of Singapore. — Just to make sure I wasn’t exaggerating when I made that statement, I just tested it by publishing a book myself. If you go to Amazon you will be able for $1.99 to buy yourself a copy of my translation of Heinrich Heine’s Das Buch Le Grand.


Obviously I had to have done the translation already. If you look at Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing site they will walk you through the publishing process. There are guidelines for formatting the book: as I use Pages on my Mac, I had to save the file as a Word file before I could upload it. But before that I went through checking mechanical stuff like, do the footnotes all work: i.e. can you double click on a footnote callout, get taken to the note, and then return to the text by double clicking the footnote number again. Amazon also don’t like extra spaces and mis-spellings. This last was a bit of a problem as Heine, great man and wit, makes up quite a few neologisms which I had to mimic in English. One of the more striking ones, if only because it’s now become almost a cliché is “snail mail”. I was already aware that many Kindle books run afoul of customer complaints about things as trivial as punctuation. If you, reader, object to the way a book is written you can write to Kindle and they’ll apparently take it down straight away. If anyone complains about the punctuation in this book I’m in trouble: it’s not my punctuation: Heine punctuated rather oddly and I think to change it would be to distort the effect of his prose. So I wrote a little note about this at the start of the book, and am keeping fingers crossed. Having saved the file as Word, I was now ready to publish.

You have to set up your account; address, phone number etc. You have to assert that you own the copyright, or the right to publish. You have to give them tax identification information so they can report your income (ha-ha) to the IRS; you have to select price and royalty. Kindle will be paying me their lower royalty rate (35%) on any sales. I opted to do without an ISBN. Then you upload the text, which takes a few minutes to get there. Finally I used their cover template to make the cover. It took me about half an hour to do the whole publishing process! After it was all over, although Kindle told me it’d take up to 12 hours for the book to show as available on the Amazon site, it was actually there within an hour.

Of course Kindle isn’t the only avenue, just the most common. Here’s Apple’s reentry into the fray, as reported by Ink, Bits, & Pixels. I find this one a little annoying as it appears to want to you do an illustrative book, and keeps emphasizing “interactivity”. The only interactivity I want is between the reader and the text thank you.

As Richard Nash says in this piece by Chip Rossetti from Publishing Perspectives, “With desktop publishing, publishing became something you do with the touch of a finger.” Well, it wasn’t quite the touch of a finger — maybe more like 25 fingers, but still abracadabra, there it is.

Now I dare say there will still be books that require capital: those things which become like consumer goods, with thousands of people flocking to buy them. A book is a handy package for gifting, and I dare say people will still want to do that. But now that the the road is wide open to publication without every touching a base called “publisher”, the number of books which will get (need) that full traditional publisher treatment will surely be sharply reduced.