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Do Authors Still Need Publishers?

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Does Stephen King still need a publisher?

My previous post was an allegory for why book publishing is like venture capital. Publishers, in exchange for investing their cash, talent and connections, become part owners of the author's book project. Authors agree to share ownership in exchange for the privilege and prestige of publication, and the shot at commercial success.

In this second and final installment, I'll explore how the risk of publishing will shift from publisher to author, and how this change will impact the future of publishing.

Just as many entrepreneurs no longer need venture capitalists to launch their companies, authors no longer need publishers to publish.

No, I'm not anti-publisher. Publishers take enormous risks to acquire, produce and promote books. Good publishers add tremendous value to each book, to the author's career, and to the reading enjoyment of customers.

Publishing is a tough business. It's difficult for publishers to predict the fickle whims of the marketplace. They never know which book will become the next breakout hit, and which will bomb.

In recent years, publishing, like all media business, has struggled to compete against an explosion of alternate - and often free - product vying for their customer's ever-shrinking attention and wallet. As I wrote in my debut column here at HuffPost, if you examine the sales figures from the Association of American Publishers from the last six years and adjust for inflation, book publishing has been in a slow decline for several years.

The Big Squeeze
With the tough business conditions, publishers have been forced to cut back on investments. This means fewer signings of new and unproven authors; fewer signings of authors whose books are perceived to have limited commercial potential; and fewer post-publication promotional dollars to lavish on anyone except the most commercially promising author.

Sure, a commercial publisher has an obligation to their shareholders, employees, authors, and customers to run their business for profitability. The flip side of this, however, is that many talented and otherwise deserving authors can't get a publishing deal.

Many commercially published authors already assume some personal responsibility for post-publication book promotion efforts that were once the sole domain of the publisher. There's nothing wrong with this in principle, except that most authors are already under-compensated.

I've read that most commercially published authors maintain day jobs to support their writing. If true, it would mean the bulk of book authorship is performed on a volunteer basis.

Tools of Liberation
As I alluded in my previous column, at one time it was virtually impossible to publish without a publisher. Today, the game has changed. New tools for publishing, marketing, distribution, and selling are available to indie authors and indie publishers, often at little to no cost.

With free do-it-yourself publishing platforms for ebooks and print on demand books, authors can publish in seconds or days.

Of course, just because you're published doesn't mean you've written anything worth reading.

If indie authors want to stand out, they must invest the resources and effort necessary to produce and promote a quality work that satisfies readers.

The Future of Publishing: Risk, Reward and Power Shift to Authors
The power center in publishing will shift from publisher to author, and the traditional line between the two will continue to blur. Authors will become their own publishers. Commercial publishers will become service providers.

Commercially successful authors will have greater leverage to negotiate higher royalties and advances. They may also demand to retain digital rights, since the means of ebook distribution are now available to any author at no cost.

Some commercially successful authors will go indie. It's only a matter of time before New York Times best-selling authors, including those on the level of Stephen King, Dan Brown, James Patterson, and J.K. Rowling, realize they can self-publish their next book. Such a prospect should chill the spine of any publisher whose business is based on big hits.

Unproven authors who aspire to commercial publication will need to prove a market exists for their product before a traditional publisher will consider them. Self-publishing will become a vast farm league for commercial publishers. Publishers, including many new indie publishers, will compete against one another to identify, recruit and publish the most promising indie authors.

In the next few years, large media companies and book publishers will partner more closely with self-publishing companies, because self-pubbing services efficiently aggregate the slush pile. Not only do the farm league authors provide publishers a rich pool of talent, they also provide the opportunity for publishers to supply paid services to those authors willing to invest the necessary funds to improve the quality of their books.

What do you think? Do authors still need publishers? How can publishers survive and thrive in the future? Are you indie by choice? If so, why? Join the discussion below.

Mark Coker is founder of Smashwords, a publisher and distributor of ebooks.