How important are publishers?

Among the professional colleagues I have made in the publishing business, I hold few in higher esteem than the witty and thoughtful Joe Wikert, a sharp-as-a-tack publisher at J. Wiley. He even has a highly readable weblog. How cool is that?
This afternoon, he asked a very interesting question about whether there’s value in building a direct relationship between readers and publishers. As a widely published author and member of the publishing food chain, I can’t resist responding here on my own business blog.

The question is a very interesting one, but as an author and frequent book buyer, though, I have to say that I’m more interested in the author/reader relationship than any sort of publisher/reader relationship. A relationship between the publisher and reader seems like it’s skipping a rung on the publishing ladder, somehow, as if listeners want to have a relationship with a performance venue rather than performers, or cinophiles establish a relationship with a movie production or distribution company rather than a director or actor.
To illustrate what I mean, if you were to ask me about the last dozen excellent books I’ve read I can instantly tell you the name of the authors (indeed, I’m one of the few who always reads the ‘about the author’ page too) but the publisher? With precious few exceptions, I can’t remember any of ’em.
Now let’s spin this a bit differently. What if you asked the question: should a publisher enable its authors to establish an effective and personal relationship with the readers? And the logical adjunct, should a publisher enable authors to sell their books directly, with the publisher doing the necessary transaction processing, packaging and distribution, while also offering a better than-just-royalties commission to the author? You betcha.
In fact, one of my frustrations as an author is that when I build Web sites to help promote my books, like my recent tech title Wicked Cool Shell Scripts, I link to an Amazon affiliate purchase page rather than the publisher’s page. Why? Because if I sell a copy through Amazon, I get my royalty from the publisher and an additional small commission from Amazon for handing them the transaction. Further, Amazon offers free shipping, a strong brand identity, and a venue where reviews, positive and negative, can help buyers make a smart purchase decision.
So instead of trying to cut out the proverbial middleman, the author, Joe, I challenge Wiley to take the lead and create an environment that helps authors promote and sell their books online. And I’d sure love to see some of my other publishers move in this direction too, needless to say!

5 comments on “How important are publishers?

  1. The pedant in me just can’t help this: Wikert, not WiCkert. (I’m digging his blog too)
    I get your point. And I like it. When you talk about publishers enabling authors to “establish an effective and personal relationship with the readers”, are you just talking about a blog hosted by the publisher? An occasional newsletter? A progressive dinner at readers’ homes? 🙂 If not a blog, I’m not sure what you mean…
    Good thoughts…

  2. Dave, I definitely agree that, in most cases, the author/reader relationship is the most important one–at least from a reader’s point of view. There is one notable exception in my own reading, however: I look to O’Reilly for many of my computer books. Most of the very best geek books I’ve purchased have been from them, and none of the awful ones. While there are certainly excellent geek books in my collection that are not from ORA, I look to them *first* when looking for a new book.
    Given that, I believe the publisher has unique value in establishing a quality standard, and done right, that gives readers reason to browse books by publisher. Establishing a direct communication channel between reader and publisher could strengthen that brand loyalty. First, readers love to know their opinions are respected. Second, publishers want to know what readers are looking for in their next book.
    As for the authors, it seems that most authors already have web sites and are easy to contact. Most aren’t nearly as resource-rich as yours, but I can’t think of a time that I wanted to contact an author–of geek books at least–and not been able to track down an email address.

  3. Hi Dave. Your question on the need for publishers is very much as important to ask as mine about resellers. I think the answer to both, at least today, is simple: Today�s publishing model benefits from some of the added value presented by all parties involved. For example, I noted �convenience� as one of the key reasons why we tend to buy books at our local store. There are other reseller benefits as well. What about the publisher? Hopefully the publisher is bringing the author a number of benefits, including financial backing (the advance), editorial help (developmental edit, copy edit, etc.), production/manufacturing, distribution, etc. Are there ways for an author to do any/all of these on their own, without the help of a traditional publisher? Absolutely. Believe it or not, I think there are plenty of examples where self-publishing makes more sense than signing on with a publisher.
    I�m more interested in figuring out how the publishing landscape is going to change in the years ahead. As I�ve mentioned before on my own blog, I certainly don�t see the printed book going away anytime soon. I do think there will be changes in how those books are distributed though. I also think there will be enhancements to the way content is distributed, both in print and electronically. I talked a bit about one part of this vision in a previous post on my blog ( ).
    By the way, I would agree with you that it�s very important to build the author/reader relationship. Harold Davis had a very insightful post on his blog related to this topic ( ). He notes that computer book publishers need to realize that reliance on the series approach is dangerous. Further, he states that the author is often the real �brand�. I think he�s right, at least in more cases than you might think… That�s one of the reasons I like the fact that we play up the author so much on our WROX books. Sure, the covers are all red and we have a number of different series within WROX, but what other computer books can you point to where the author is such an important component of the front cover that their picture is front and center? We also try to help the authors build direct relationships with their readers via our website, The showcase element on the site is our �programmer-to-programmer� area,, where readers can communicate with each other as well as the authors.
    Lastly, your point about having to send prospective customers to Amazon so that you get both your royalty and a percentage for being an affiliate is valid. Amazon has proven that forward-thinking retailers can disrupt the existing model. Why go to Amazon? Because, as you note, I�ll get free shipping, a good discount, I can see what other customers think of the book, etc. Despite several other sites copying this user experience, Amazon remains the #1 online book retailer, primarily because of the great brand name and reputation they�ve built. I�m trying to figure out how publishers can be this focused on the future and help alter and improve the entire model.
    I feel like you�ve got more to say on this though. What specifically would you like to see publishers do more of (or better) to help authors promote and sell their books online?

  4. Bren, you’re putting me on the spot now. What do I mean when I talk about publishers making it easier for authors to establish a one-to-one relationship with their readers? Just that there should be some order in the existing chaos, where some authors basically ignore all marketing, others market offline, but not online, some build rudimentary Web sites, and others put in hundreds of hours to create a professional, useful reference site that becomes a value-add.
    Smart publishers should be keeping track of all of these efforts and capturing and making replicable (if that’s a word!) the best of the best. Then every author might have at least a rudimentary site set up for them by the publisher, but within their own control, and the publisher could sponsor seminars (or online workshops, whatever) that share best practices. It’s in everyone’s best interest, don’t you think?

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