Two previous posts – on disintermediation and convergence – sought define the value-adding functions of publishers. Essentially, publishers (a) co-ordinate services and (b) provide a brand (in most cases, effectively a B2B brand). In addition, they operationise risk capital.
A prospective self-publisher needs to ask: what is the value of the above functions? Let me offer a few observations that I believe should inform the answer to that question more often than they do.
1. One needs to compare like with like. Yes, if one self-publishes without employing a proofreader, the cost of publication can be reduced. But proofreaders add value: a book that hasn’t been professionally proofread is an inferior product. The same point applies to other kinds of craft providers (cover designers, for example).
I make this point because I sometimes hear people say,”It would only cost me $X to publish a book, why would I want to let a publisher keep 90+% of the proceeds?” – to which my answer is, “That’s a good question to ask – but to produce a professional quality book would actually cost $x+Y” (where Y = all the services that the have been stripped out at the expense of quality).
2. The prospective self-publisher needs to factor in time. Yes, one can do for oneself some of the things that publishers would do and, by not paying oneself, one can do so without a cash outlay. But that doesn’t make these processes free. They all have an opportunity cost – which is the value (however defined) of what else one could have done with that time.
3. By extension from point (2), there is a division of labour point here. I once presented a seminar at the University of Zurich and one of my co-presenters – a social science researcher – said something along these lines: “I’m a good researcher. When I spend time researching, I use it very productively. But I’m no better at other things, like editing and indexing, than many other people. So as much as possible I pay other people to do those things and reserve my own time for what I’m best at”. I was struck by the hard-headedness of this view. The implication for the prospective self-publisher is: “The time you’re considering spending on self-publishing: would that be better spent doing what you’re already good at (presumably, writing)?”
You may discern from the above a measure of scepticism regarding self-publishing. I am, however, far from hostile to the phenomenon. I think it’s important to make the self-publishing decision rationally – but for some authors self-publishing will indeed prove the optimal route.
Overall, I think the best metaphor for publishing today is ‘ecology’. There’s a diversity of systems out there and productive links to be made between them. (I am, for example, currently in discussions with a self-publisher – an eminent professor – about acquiring the library rights for his next book.)
I don’t at all subscribe to the ‘end of civilisation’ jeremiad that one hears from some corners of the industry. When I survey the self-publishing books scene I feel the same as when I survey the blogosphere: there’s a good deal of creativity out there, there’s even more self-fulfilment – and, yes, there’s also lots of dross. That’s two cheers for democracy.
PS Readers may wish to compare a post on Digital Book World (30 Sep 2012) by literary agent Richard Curtis on this subject.