Brooke Warner at Huffington Post rather sensationalistically accuses us (book publishers) of discrimination. I’ve no doubt we could do better in our hiring practices, but that’s not what HuffPost is on about. The discrimination here appears to be against self-published authors.

It’s a bit tough to be clobbered because people who refused to solicit your services end up turning out what some observers adjudge a sub-standard product.* Several large publishing companies offer services to independent authors. If they had asked us, we’d have done the job for them; but no, they decided to do things on their own. And now we get blamed for the allegedly bad outcome!

Lots of indie authors choose the self-publishing route for positive, independence-based or money-making reasons. Of course some self-published authors are going down this road because they have not managed to get a traditional publisher to take on their book. There are all too many indie authors who protest vociferously against traditional publishers whom they see as restricting the public’s access to reading material by refusing to accept their books and books by their self-publishing colleagues for publication. There’s an obvious illogicality to this — if the book is available from an indie publisher, in what way is the public’s appetite not being fed? In one sense their complaint may actually be justified: what they are effectively saying is that they are being disadvantaged in market access. Access to bookstores does tend to favor traditional publishers: the book retail business model has after all been built up over a couple of hundred years of business partnership in a form which suits its main participants. The business is based upon established routines of information exchange and broadly standardized methods ordering, invoicing and supply. It’s very hard for an individual author to get anywhere near duplicating this service, but that’s because it’s hard, not because there’s any plot to exclude the individual author/publisher. Just like librarians, booksellers cannot be talking to a sales rep, even if that rep is the author, 24 hours a day.

Random House and its fellow Big Fivers cannot publish every book ever written, though god knows with all this consolidation it looks a bit like they might want to. Any publisher has to discriminate between this book and that book — oops, there’s that word discrimination, but used here in its value-judgement-free sense of choosing between one thing and another. We have to be discriminating about what we publish: capital is not endless; money has to be made off any publication (or at least there has to be a good chance that money will be made) — publishing isn’t a literary charity after all.

This is sort of anti-publishing rant is of these classic ploys of setting up a straw man and then pouring ink all over him to “correct” a non-existent problem. For example “If traditional publishing were holding up a high standard with every book published, I might tone down my firm accusations of wrongdoing here, but instead they’re publishing so many books whose literary merit is questionable at best.” Come on Brooke Warner, if publishers were in business to publish only books of literary merit, things would of course be different. It’s not that we are incompetent, and think that Your Big Book of Dogs has the same amount of literary merit as War and Peace. We are in business to make money, and as long as there are people out there who’ll fork over money for schlock, we’ll be happy to provide it. But we can’t manage all the schlock, just as we can’t manage all the romance, mystery, sci-fi etc.

“The industry is promoting a singular message, and they’re banded together in their efforts to keep an entire group of authors out, based on a singular criteria” [if it’s singular, it’s criterion, Brooke] — “They’re united around the belief that if a publisher at a major house does not deem your work worthy that you are not worthy of receiving a fair review, of entering your work into a contest to be judged (fairly, ostensibly on the merit of the work), or of being a member of an association that touts itself as promoting writers’ interests.” Whoever “they” are and that sinister “industry” in which they are co-conspiritors, they are of course not really banding together to exclude anyone. They are all individuals and individual companies, making their own judgements and discriminations. How are readers meant to discriminate between good books and bad ones? If some of them come up with a quick-and-dirty conclusion that life is too short to look at every book, and the simplest way to cut is to disregard books from publishers whose name you don’t recognize, does that really amount to a plot? If you’ve written a self-published book of course you’d wish that The New York Times would give it a review. I’ve no doubt that 99% of the authors of Random House books might join you in that same wish. The fact is that very few books ever make it into the review media. There’s just too little space and too many titles.

The long and the short of it is that there’s absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t have self publishers and traditional publishers. They effectively represent different markets. For one segment to hurl insults at the other is a bit like people who prefer to fly from New York to Washington characterizing those who go by train as idiots.


* Let it not be assumed that I believe self-published books to be axiomatically sub-standard. Many of them are first-rate and any publisher would leap at the chance of publishing them — as is clearly illustrated by the many instances in which exactly this has happened after the book’s initial success as a self-published book. However, understandably perhaps, given a universe into which anyone can publish anything, an assumption has grown that many self-published books are not of the first rank of quality. Winnowing this immense output in order to find the ones you might be able to sell in your bookstore is a task which would take more time than anyone has available.