“Dear Publishers, do we even need you?”

That was the implied response to the woman’s loud announcement that she’d self-published her book. She stood before the group of about sixty and proudly proclaimed that she’d done what “those stuffy publishers” wouldn’t do – publish her book. Her battle cry was very spirited, “Break free from the subversive reins of the gatekeepers! DIY!”

Zoiks. Considering I was due to get up and give a talk right after her, I pondered whether I should fear for my safety. Nothing worse than speaking to a hostile crowd. Fortunately, I think her call-to-arms in a valiant effort to slaughter the ruling class weren’t taken that seriously, and the crowd was very polite.

But I couldn’t help but wonder about anyone whose feelings run that deeply and passionately. Obviously, she was bitter about mainstream publishing and had probably experienced a lot of rejection. And this meant we must die.

This kind of thinking always leaves me a bit sad because there is no black and white in this industry and things often don’t make sense. A great story (and mind you, “great” is subjective) can either be sold at auction for millions, or be rejected because the “gatekeepers” don’t believe it will sell. Or sell in enough quantities to justify the production and marketing costs. So instead writers stand tall and cry:

“We don’t need you!”
“You’re irrelevant!”
“It’s a brave new world, and mainstream publishing is passé!”

Eh, not so fast. We don’t reject books because we have nothing better to do. We’re in the business to sell books – lots of them. Rejection happens for a lot of reasons that might have nothing to do with the quality of the writing. And sometimes rejection is nature’s way of separating the wheat from the chaff. But before you brand mainstream publishing as the root of all evil, let’s talk about why authors might find us relevant.


Before you make any decision about a publisher, think about your intent:

  • What kind of writer are you? Hobbyist? Serious? Beginner? Experienced?
  • Do you see your books on the store shelves (I know, everyone does), or is this a book for friends and family?
  • Do you have a lot of books in you, or are you a one-book wonder?
  • Do you have a platform?
  • Have you given any thought about how you’ll promote your book?
  • Who is your audience?
  • What is your competition?

In short, you need to do some honest self-analysis and do the proper research so you know what publishing option is best for you.


Publishing isn’t for the faint of heart or weak intestinal fortitude. How much do you know about the publishing industry? Given the hundreds of authors I speak to on a yearly basis, I’m continuously surprised at how willing people are to turn their hard work over to someone without knowing whether they’re making a good decision. Heck, I’m one of those noobs. In another lifetime, I blithely turned over a book that took me over a year to write and included extensive research. The “publisher” was one of the most popular skanks in the industry, proving that when I go, I go big.

I was the Cosmic Muffin’s biggest idiot, but I lucked out and made lemonade. Most aren’t that lucky. So when you’re considering putting your book into the hands of a company whose only standard is the size of your wallet, take a second and ask yourself whether they have the experience to market, promote, and sell the book. Do you have the experience to know the difference?

Do you know how to sell and distribute books? Store placement

As I’ve said before, this industry isn’t a matter of “if you write it, they will come.” It takes long hours of work and planning, and lots of money to promote and market. Mainstream publishing knows how to sell and distribute books. They have sales teams who have established relationships with the national accounts, indie stores, and libraries. Some of the most consistent comments I hear from self-pubbed authors are that they had no idea how hard it was to sell books. Mainstream publishers have to know how to distribute and sell books and get them into the stores because that’s what they do.

Most self-pubbed authors don’t realize bookstores won’t order their books due to the lack of a return policy – where stores can return unsold stock. I talked to a few authors who had considered paying the extra $600 – $900 for the vanity’s “returnable book package” because they believed that would get their books into the stores. Alas, this is nothing more than an insidious profit center for vanity presses. Their return policies are so restrictive that bookstores won’t have anything to do with them.


Do you know who your audience is? Most folks I talk to give the same answer: “It’s for everyone who loves to read.”  Do you have “everyone” in your Rolodex? How do you find “everyone” with your self-pubbed book? Man, even I can’t do that, and it’s something you need to think about.

Mainstream publishers consider this aspect before they ever consider offering a contract. There have been plenty of books that I loved but didn’t feel there was a big enough audience. That isn’t to say that just because I can’t quantify an audience means there isn’t one. Sometimes self-pubbed authors are much closer to their audience than I am and can make some sales. They just aren’t sales that will keep the beagle in high-end tequila.


Do you know whether your book has wings? It’s one thing to THINK your book is very marketable, but do you know for a fact? Do you know readers’ tastes? Have you done any market research to determine whether you’re on to something unique, or one of the pack?

Knowing means that you’re intimately familiar with your readers and your competition – which means you’re very well read. It also means that you know the unique qualities of your book. If you’ve written a Twilight knock off, I urge you to rethink things because Stephanie Myers already did it. Do something else that has its own unique twists. The whole Twilight/vampire romance is making agents’ eyes glaze over because publishers’ eyes are glazing over as well. This is stuff you need to know.


Do you have a platform that makes your book more marketable? Mainstream publishers look for qualities in their potential authors that will enhance sales. We want to know whom you know – but more importantly, we want to know who knows you. You may have written a compelling cancer survival book, but it’s an impacted category, so that means I need an author with a big platform – someone who can attract an audience, a readership. It’s how the cream rises to the top. If you sit at home and knit nose muffflers for cold beagles, then you don’t have a ready audience who knows you. When you compare that to some actress who wrote about the same subject matter, who do you think is the cream?


I’ve noticed that most vanity books have higher retail prices than their mainstream cousins. They’re higher because, well, the vanity press can charge their authors top dollar for the print run. Since vanity presses sell primarily to their authors at a discount, the higher retail price is a tidy profit center. This makes life more difficult for the author because they can’t afford to reduce the price so it’s in line with the marketplace. Net result: fewer overall sales.

Conversely, mainstream publishing sells to the public and needs to competitively priced in order to sell the maximum amount of units. While readers are more apt to buy books from an author who has just given a talk, regardless of retail price, one also has to consider how many more they might have sold had the book been moderately priced.

There is a growing number who are crowing about the irrelevancy of evil mainstream publishing, but I hope I’ve added some balance to this issue. I do believe that there is room for all, and I have no particular problem with any of it PROVIDED the author knows exactly what to expect. To me, there is nothing sadder than hearing, “I had no idea.”

So to rebut my zealous friend, “Dear Author, yes, you do.”

15 Responses to “Dear Publishers, do we even need you?”

  1. danholloway says:

    I agree in most cases, and I certainly have no desire to do away with all mainstream publishers. I DO think there are some people who can do it better alone though. They are most definitely NOT people whose audience is “everyone who loves reading” – like you say,how do you reach “everybody”. I often use the example of the president of the Queensland Orchid Growers’ Society writing a book about the history of Orchid Growers in Queensland – I’m pretty sure that *if they wanted to* they could find their market as well as any publisher (who would probably just ask them for their newsletter mailing list). But I don’t imagine said president being very militant about it. I CAN see a place for the DIY merchants who are proud of their DIY status – there are some places where great quality and tiny markets go hand in hand, such as the zine world, a fascinating literary subculture. Most people lie somewhere in the middle, of course, and the vast majority of those would be better off with a publisher. The thing is, most who would be as well off self-publishing just get on and do it, and spend their time quietly and effectively marketing rather than shouting about it

  2. Lissa Lander says:

    I’m sure that a similar rallying cry was heard from the music industry about 10 years ago. It’s also a pretty safe bet that newspaper editors and cable television executives are also busy trying to explain why they still matter.

  3. Rik says:

    All these are excellent points, Lynn. Self-publishing is most definitely *not* the ‘easy option’ (especially for novels); what I most dislike about self-publishing is the hope and hype surrounding it, insinuating that this is the route to fame’n’glory. Think again, my frind. Think again!

    And I say this as an avowed self-publisher.

    I think the publishing houses that will survive the ongoing technological revolutions in publishing are those that can offer the best package to their chosen authors – similar to today’s package, but maybe a little less emphasis on the sales team and a little more on the marketing team. Better editing, formatting and book production in the myriad formats may become a key selling point for authors/agents looking for publishers. Possibly a lot more micro-imprints backed/sheltered by the big houses? Interesting times.

  4. Lissa, I don’t know much about the music industry, but the few musicians I know are “self pubbed” and have had an impossible time getting their CDs in the stores because they lack distribution. On the up side, I have some fabulous music.

    Rik, thank you. You make my point for me – self pubbing is NOT the easy option. The only easy part is shelling out the money to a vanity press. The rest is achingly hard, and that’s why I talk to so many unhappy authors. They had no idea.

    As for the surviving publishers – sales are what drive the business. Without them, we’re more dependent on the authors. I’m not willing to shell out thousands of dollars in production and promo costs only to not have reps who will get our titles in front of book buyers.

    You can market and promote ’til your eyes fall out, but if those books aren’t in the stores, it’s an uphill battle. All those key elements are in place to make the company as successful as possible, and I don’t see how putting less emphasis on sales teams accomplishes this.

  5. Rik says:

    Lynn, I was thinking about when hardcopy sales over the internet (and not just via Amazon), and eBook sales, overtake bookshop sales – something that could well happen in the next 3-5 years. Lissa mentions the music industry and I think there’s lessons to be learned from what’s happened to music distribution channels over the past 10 years. There’s not many dedicated music shops left on the UK High Street today. Hence my thoughts that sales networks to physical bookshops may become less important in the next few years, and marketing to more diffuse outlets may become more important.

  6. Rik says:

    Oops. Meant to say marketing to the (non bricks’n’mortar) outlets, not direct marketing to the readers using ads, reviews, etc.

  7. katmagendie says:

    Some of the last things I want to have to think about is: distribution, marketing (other than my own promo I do, which can be time-consuming in itself!), and all the ins and outs of printing, covers, and etc.

    My publishers are a small press, but they take care of so many things I would be like the cliche’d “deer in the headlights” about; bless their precious hides!

    There are some savvy authors out there who do well with self-pubbed books, and there are some self-pubbed authors who are happy just to have their book on their bookshelf and some copies for friends and family -and there’s nothing wrong with that. For me, though, I love my traditional publishers and all they do.

  8. Rik, first off, you’re assuming that internet sales will overtake bookstores. That may be – but I still maintain that the best option for authors’ books reaching their intended audience is through mainstream publishing because they/we cast a much wider net than one author can do for herself.

    I use my friend in the music biz to highlight my point. There are very few record stores anymore, but studio contracted music is still selling like hotcakes because they have the money to shove their CDs to their listeners. My friend is an indie musician, without distribution or representation, but I swear, he puts out the sweetest music that it brings tears to my eyes. Best he’ll ever be able to do is sell a few hundred copies to friends, family, and his immediate surroundings.

    Except for a rare few, most self-pubbed authors will suffer the same fate. It’s not wishful thinking on my part because I’m a jerk(tho I can be sometimes) and want to stifle other options, but rather, it’s cold, hard fact. Those who have the most money and contacts are better able to peddle their wares.

  9. Rik says:

    I’m not disagreeing with you, Lynn, just thinking about possible futures.

    If my musings prove right, I think it will be *even harder* for a self-published novelist to make an impact and sell books: they won’t have the technical know-how to do the best job for all the required formats, and they certainly won’t have the necessary knowledge of the distribution channels and marketing contacts that can help break a book to a wider audience.

    Revolutions are rough on everybody. The best chance of surviving this one will probably be to have a savvy publisher onside.

  10. Again, Rik, we agree. No matter how it gets sliced and diced, self publishers will have a much harder time making an impact – which was the point of my post. I hear this crowing about how we (mainstream publishers) are headed the way of the dinosaurs, and I have yet to see any compelling statistics that support that opinion.

    The woman that I wrote about has probably sold a couple hundred books and is thrilled. And she should be because I daresay she worked darn hard for it. But we sold 15,000 units with our eyes closed in a couple months. As far as I can see, I think our way is working.

    A lot of writers are angry because they believe they deserve to be published. Maybe they do, but for whatever reason, the mainstream publishing world believes differently. That isn’t a sign that publishing is broken. It’s a sign that in other time has there been more people writing books. We can’t possibly attempt to publish them all. Nor should we. Just because more people are writing doesn’t mean they’re ready for prime time. If they were, then we’d snap them up.

  11. Rik says:

    I’m glad we agree. I self-publish because I believe, after a lot of research and soul-searching, that it’s the right choice for my work. But I have no illusions about self-publishing and I would never advocate it as the first choice option to anybody else.

  12. And that’s what makes you so smart. You understand exactly what you’re facing, you know your work, you know where to find your audience, and believe you can do better with DIY. Bravo to you! I hope you sell a ton.

  13. Rik says:

    It’s mostly poetry … like shovelling leaves after the first autumn blow.

  14. Lissa Lander says:

    “In 2008, Americans bought 1.4 billion books made of paper and 200 million e-books. By 2014—perhaps sooner—sales of e-books will equal those of the paper kind…Furthermore, because of e-commerce and e-books, perhaps half the nation’s bookstores will be gone in four years, vacating at least 50 million square feet of commercial real estate.”

    As for the music industry: “In 2001, the iPod arrived. Less than a decade later, the number of employees of music stores has declined from about 80,000 to 20,000. In 2002, there were about 7,500 music stores; by next year there will two thirds fewer.”

    I’m loathe to admit that these figure have come from George Will since our politics rarely align, but they seemed to explain my thoughts in such a timely manner that I thought I would share them anyway.

  15. Renee Pace says:

    I’m searching and lurking and thinking of e-pub for my YA branch of books but need to work on my market/platform. Very inciteful thoughts.

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