Must Publishers’ Roles Be Diminished?

By David Alan Rech of Scribe Inc.


On October 16, 2011, another headline appeared about authors bypassing traditional publishers.* It seems that publishers are becoming redundant. Obsolescence is always a threat.

Somehow, with the apparent change in the publishing world, we have lost confidence in what we do. We have abdicated our roles to those outside our organization: technology developers, literary agents, and even booksellers. Instead of understanding technology and the role we can play in crafting better books, we have dug in our heels. We insist on business as usual despite the fact that change does away with the “usual.” We have become complacent. Instead of developing a solid understanding of the processes and technologies by which we produce books, we insist on cheap, dead-end fads and let others lead us. We have surrendered our roles as the expert collaborators who can help craft authors’ ideas.

Our initial response to e-books was to ignore them or argue that they would never catch on. We followed that with reliance on the PDF format. Somehow, we believed that this awkward and, frankly, useless method of representing the print document would enable us to keep control. This was followed by using PDFs to create ePub files. Now the next fad—ePub3—is here, and people are talking about this as the answer to our problems. The reality is that the ever-developing sophistication of electronic readers will soon make ePub3 obsolete. Think about it: developers, whose livelihood is derived from introducing new technology, must come up with new “standards.” Otherwise, they will not be in business for long.

As publishers, we craft books. We help develop, edit, design, and put books into formats that make them both readable and attractive. We bring an understanding of grammar and the process by which information is conveyed and understood. We have developed the visual acuity to know how to make books readily understood and intuitively absorbed. We are experts at making authors’ works reach their full potential. Print is only one format in which books are now distributed. Books now exist in a dynamic environment, where we no longer control every aspect of the typography. Instead of leading to our demise, this affords us another opportunity to carve out and maintain our role in publishing.

Who better to help the transition from print to electronic products than publishers? Electronic readers have not changed a thing. The rules for good grammar, clear writing, and appropriate methods for conveying information still apply. In fact, the need to craft information in ways that engage audiences has never been more acute. Expressing information in ways that function statically in print and dynamically in electronic form may take some creativity. But isn’t that what we bring to our industry? Understanding how something is going to work in a variety of environments might require knowledge, but that is part of the value that professionals contribute.

We must stop confusing the methods by which we create books with the skills that we offer. Be it by dictation, writing or copying by hand, or typing on a computer, the art of editing and presenting information is about both the knowledge of subject, audience, and grammar and a whole range of other things, such as cultural awareness and sensitivity. Whether you work on a computer or a sheet of paper is meaningless (except that paper is wasteful, inefficient, and environmentally degrading). It may seem romantic to picture ourselves in particular ways, but that pretence is misguided. It may take some learning and tedious practice to master computer skills, but isn’t dogged attention to detail the hallmark of our industry?

We are creative intellectuals. To seek the simple answer and continuously rely on dead-end technologies contradicts our nature. We are the ones who should be embracing the publishing world in all its complexity. We should know exactly how our books will work on each device and how different platforms compare. We should be the experts on developments in our industry. Instead of postponing action in the face of change and confusion, we should be the agents by which the process is clarified. Our approach should be based on the reality of the situation, not on some ill-conceived notion of who we are or our personal reaction to new technologies. After all, isn’t this exactly what publishers have been doing since our profession began? By knowing all the details involved with publishing a book, we have accrued value—so much so that authors, booksellers, and book buyers (readers) pay us to share our expertise with them. By maintaining this position, we will continue to strengthen the role of the publisher. And we will not be threatened with redundancy, because we will be the ones on whom all others rely.

The act of abdicating our roles is precisely the reason we are threatened. I believe that we add a huge value to publishing. If we are willing to learn, embrace technology, and demonstrate the creativity we hold in esteem, then I think our value will be recognised and rewarded. If I am wrong, the conclusion for us remains the same. At least we will go out giving it our best shot.

*David Streitfeld, “Amazon Signs Up Authors, Writing Publishers Out of Deal,” New York Times, October 16, 2011,