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Who Needs Publishers & Bookstores? Writers, Readers & Everyone Else

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An idea has taken root in certain quarters that publishers aren't necessary any more. And for that matter, who needs bookstores? According to this facile argument, publishers and bookstores are both relics of the pre-internet days and just get in the way of writers and readers.

Why not just write your book, post it on an on-line book service, and let readers download what they want to read? Surely, everyone can make more money if you can cut out the middle-man. Why let publishers and booksellers stand in the way of progress?

It's a seductive argument. Amazon.com has propagated the idea, suggesting to authors that they should just hand over the text-file to one of its many subsidiaries and leave the rest to them. Since Amazon is now selling everyone's needs from baby diapers to funeral urns, why not just let them handle the book business from beginning to end? The Department of Justice seems to have bought into this argument, referring to publishers in its latest legal action as simply "intermediaries" between writers and readers.

It's an idea, however, that ignores the fundamental realities of the book business.

A Sense of Need among Writers
A superficial argument like this would have no chance of catching on if it did not reflect a real sense of frustration on the part of many authors. Unfortunately, mainstream publishers often turn down worthy authors. And even the ones who are published sometimes don't get the promotion and the readership they feel they deserve. Moreover, there is a sense that publishers are not willing to take the kind of chances they used to take on new ideas and unknown authors.

All of this has given rise to the growth of print-on-demand publishing, local publishing, e-book-only publishing and other inventive means by which authors try to get their work in front of readers. What these alternative methods have in common is that they are all a form of self-publishing. In each of these scenarios authors take upon themselves the tasks of editing, designing, distributing and promoting their own books.

For some authors and some books, this makes sense. Alternative publishing is an important part of the business, and it is an essential corrective for authors who feel shut out of mainstream publishing. It should also be a wake-up call to publishers to think a little more creatively about what they are doing and expand the types of books they are publishing.

The Role of Publishers & Booksellers
But none of this is an alternative to traditional publishing. Those who claim that the new, alternate forms of publishing make traditional publishing obsolete haven't really considered what publishers and booksellers do. The book business is an intricate, economic mechanism that differs substantially from most other segments of the economy. The print book market affects the e-book market, and the e-book market affects the print book market in ways that may not be obvious to the casual observer.

Books are fundamentally different than most other products. They're not like pools of oil that you can eventually find and dig up, if you look hard enough. Unless the economic conditions are right, there are many books that will never come into existence at all. Authors have to have a reasonable, predictable chance of reaching their potential readers, or else they may never go through the long, arduous task of writing a book. If you eliminate the publishing and bookselling businesses without having something stable to replace them, you run the risk of discouraging authors and leaving many future books unwritten.

Authors depend on certain functions being performed by publishers and booksellers if they are going to reach their potential readers. Moreover, these services are crucial to book buyers -- all book buyers -- whether they buy print books or they buy e-books. Without the services of publishers and bookstores, the books that readers want to read are not likely to be available to them in any reasonable fashion.

To understand this, you have to start with the author. Most authors work in isolation. Unless they are famous, there is ordinarily no ready market for the books they write. There may be a large potential readership, but the great majority of authors have no practical way to reach that audience. For the vast majority of writers, the cost of doing this would be prohibitive. This is where publishers and brick-and-mortar bookstores step in. Their principal role is to help authors reach readers that they aren't able to find on their own.

Publishers are the key to this process, because they make it financially worthwhile for authors to spend their time and energy writing books. Most people think the publisher's major expenditure is the money they pay authors as an advance against royalties. But the advance is often a small part of the publisher's overall expenditure. Publishers pay for editors to suggest textual revisions and correct mistakes. They pay for text designers and cover designers for the book, and they employ other designers to create catalog copy, website information and promotional materials. They have publicists who arrange media appearances and author tours. They have printers, binders and shippers who get the book out to stores. They have web experts to convert the book into an e-book format. And they have sales people who call on book stores, go through the publisher's catalog page-by-page with the store buyer, and sing the praises of the books they really like.

And that's just the beginning. At this point, it becomes the bookseller's turn to buy the books that they think their customers will enjoy, display them in an attractive fashion, send newsletters to their customers, arrange author appearances, alert local book clubs, and brief their staff about the new books.

And all of this is done for the simple purpose of putting the book in the hands of a reader with these words: "I think you'll like this."

An Essential Process
The process described above is by no means perfect, but it is the only proven way by which potential book buyers can become aware of books that they might want to read. That point needs to be emphasized. The careful and expensive process of promoting books and distributing books to stores is crucial to purchasers of both print books and e-books.

E-book purchasers frequently use bookstores to find out what they want to buy on-line. The process is called "showcasing." A recent survey conducted by the Codex Group, a book market research and consulting company, showed that 24 percent of the people who bought books from an online retailer said they had looked at the same book in a brick and mortar bookstore before making that purchase. In the case of customers purchasing from Amazon.com, that number jumped to 39 percent. Amazon apparently found this "showcasing" process so important to its business that last December it encouraged its customers to walk into stores, find the merchandise they wanted, and then send an order for that item to Amazon for a reward.

It's little wonder that purchasers who use Amazon.com and other on-line sellers rely on publisher promotions and bookstore displays to find what they want. There is almost no comparable way to do that on-line. Books on Amazon.com and other on-line sellers are typically listed in an undifferentiated format. There is no promotional effort on such websites that is at all comparable to what publishers and bookstores do. It is probably for this reason that statistics from those who have self-published on-line typically show sales of less than a hundred copies.

An Historical Perspective
It's important to step back from publishing and view it with a certain amount of perspective. Publishers have been publishing, promoting and distributing books in the United States for about two hundred years. Booksellers have been promoting and selling books for just as long. Virtually every major writer in the United States over the last century owes his or her success to this system. Although the system has its flaws, it has proven to be an extremely successful way for authors to find the audience for their books. And it is just as successful in presenting to readers a large selection of quality books from which to choose.

Moreover, it has proven to be a very democratic and egalitarian system. Many authors have started out with little money, but nevertheless they have been able to reach a wide audience because publishers and booksellers have invested their own funds to bring those books to the attention of the reading public. Without such a system, only the very famous or the very wealthy would be able to write books and reach a wide enough audience to sell those books and make a living. And without such a system many, many writers would be discouraged from spending the time to write books that they knew they would have no reasonable prospect of selling.

So the next time anyone says that publishers and bookstores are obsolete, you might ask yourself if they really know what they're talking about.