Commercial Publishing: Don’t Count Us Out Too Soon

I read a blog post from A City Mom that posits Publishers Weekly enjoys tearing self-published authors to shreds by writing scathing reviews in an effort to keep in their place. She writes:

So, Publishers Weekly, it’s obvious what you’re up to. So entrenched and in bed with the traditional dinosaur publishing age and fearful of all that challenges it, you refuse to find much to like in the self-publishing world. That’s okay. Enjoy yourselves. It’s becoming more and more clear that the publishing world is changing. And before too long, this author thinks, you won’t need any more poison for the end of your pens.

There is one point that I agree with;  publishing IS changing. But I’m not so sure I agree it’s changing in the direction the author believes. I think it’s achingly tacky to inject cruelty into any review because it shows a lack of professionalism. Ridicule is just plain nasty. But I don’t think that cruelty can be traced to fear of self publishers.

In terms of overall publishing, self publishers don’t/can’t compete with commercial publishers, so there is little to fear. I don’t mean that as an insult, but stating  fact. Commercial publishers have the ability to get books to a wide marketplace by the strength of their numbers and quality. Self-publishers are a team of one, whereas commercial publishers are teams of hundreds. Do the math.

If you scan the self publishing boards, you’ll see post after post discussing distribution, marketing, promotion, and creating a bigger footprint with readers…the very things trade presses already have in place. If trade publishers already have this machine up and working (successfully I might add), then how can anyone advocate our impending demise?


I only buy Hostess sin snacks because I learned over time (by buying entirely too many of them) that they put out a quality product. If they come out with a new explosive calorie bomb, I’m sure to buy it because I trust them to only crank out quality yummies. In order for trade publishers to remain solvent and viable, they need to sell a consistently excellent product, which doesn’t go unnoticed by book reviewers and story buyers.

After a while, a publisher develops a track record for putting out great books, which engenders trust. They become a known quantity due to their consistency. DIY authors have a much harder time making those same inroads.


While I strongly disagree with the manner in which PW words their reviews, they point out the norm that comes from the self-published author. The exceptions are harder to find, and proof of this is the lovely counter punch to PW is Jane Smith’s Self Publishing Review. Jane is never cruel, and her analysis is excellent. You’ll note that she finds very few books that are of publishable quality…which bears out my post about striving for excellence.


If a publishing option came along that competed with the current commercial press business plan, logic predicates that commercial publishing would have to evolve in order to remain relevant. That can be seen with the explosion of the small trade presses. They’ve always had to be happy with the crumbs that came their way because the market was saturated with the Big Guns. Over time, those small trade presses were noticed for turning out fabulous books. The result was that more marketplace attention was given to their lineups. It was, and still is, about quality. There is no better equalizer.

Were the Big Guns worried about us small fries? Probably not – and they still have little to fear from us. Now, does that mean small trade presses bellow about how publishing is changing, and Long Live the Small Press, so long Big Guns? Hell no. We coexist because we fill a gap…very effectively. Self-publishing may be popular for a whole host of reasons, but I wouldn’t say most self-pubbed authors are thriving.

What is concerning is the dissidence self-publishers have created, and I think they protesteth much by insisting commercial publishers are dinosaurs…legacy. There is no proof of our impending doom.

And may I just say that I detest this term LEGACY? It’s not that it’s dismissive and rude, but it’s plain wrong.

A legacy system is defined as an old method that continues to be used, typically because it still functions for the users’ needs, even though newer technology or more efficient methods of performing a task are now available.

Save for a minority of DIY authors who have done very well, I don’t see how the self publishing option is geared to replace a publishing system that has endured for the simple reason that it works. The lack of cohesion with in the DIY community is exactly why it remains a mixed bag of skepticism among book buyers. No one can guarantee quality, and  I do know is readers have a low tolerance for crappy books – from anyone.

So let’s talk about this definition of Legacy.


In true advertising fashion, Newer = Better…and most of the time, I’d agree. For example, I love how my new tablet replaces the need to haul my laptop on trips, but it doesn’t mean my tablet can replace my laptop. My laptop still does many tricks that my tablet can’t. Rather, the two co-exist very nicely in my batcave.

It takes a lot of time, money, talent, and guts to be a successful DIY’er. These hearty souls are competing with a firmly entrenched behemoth, Commercial Publishing, and have to think of clever ways to get their name out into ReaderLand. When you go it alone, you’re a team of ONE. When you go with commercial publishing, you have a team of HUNDREDS, whose sole job is to get your book into the marketplace.

So the idea of Newer=Better is a mixed bag, and there’s something to be said for the ESTABLISHED because it continues to work quite well.


There is the agreed-upon notion that newer is more efficient. Makes perfect sense. What’s the point of inventing something new if it takes more time, money, and is clunky? We’re all about making things easier on ourselves…and this is the crux of this whole Legacy argument.

Does Easier=Efficient?

DIY’ers may advocate that yes, their publishing option is easier and more efficient because they’ve cut out the pesky middle-man – commercial publishers.

Personally, I think it depends on what is meant by EFFICIENT. Is it more efficient to press a few buttons and bada-boOm, I be a published author? Heck yes. Is it easier? No doubt. But we should carry this thought a few steps downstream and consider the outcome. After all, easy and efficient is meaningless if your outcome is a few sold books.

DIY’ers – in order to be successful – have to work far harder. You brave souls are the editor, cover designer, layout artist, distributor, marketing director, sales director, publicity director, and financial backer. This is why there are few truly successful DIY’ers out there – this is exhausting, expensive work which, more often than not, results in a poorly written book.

Few DIY’ers have the wherewithal to work efficiently because they don’t have any experience with editing, publishing, and selling books, yet they are competing against commercial publishers who do this for a living.


When I first began seeing this term to describe commercial publishing, I quickly realized it was being used as a dig. We’re passé, dinosaurs whose time has long passed. However, if that’s the case, then wouldn’t it go to reason that commercial publishing would dwindle down in importance, and fewer writers would query these bloated Wooly Mammoths? Wouldn’t there be fewer sales of commercially published books?

I compare this to my old cell phone of yesteryear. It worked just fine, but when the new smart phones came out, I HAD to have one because it allowed me to stay in contact and conduct business even though I was shopping at Trader Joe’s. Sure, those little do-nothing cell phones are still being sold, but demand for them is extremely low. Ostensibly, commercial publishing – if we’re to apply this definition of Legacy – should be suffering the same fate.

Yet, this is far from the case. The majority of books being sold still come from commercial publishers, and it’s not because they are elitist snobs. They simply have a system that is conducive to getting a quality product in front of a large marketplace.

Contrary to the blog post above, don’t count us “dinosaurs” out too soon. Publishing is evolving, to be sure, but I can guarantee that commercial publishing won’t go down the tubes because it’s a business that invests in a product and bases their entire viability on whether it will sell. It has to be quality, or a lot of people will be out of a job.

I’m all for self publishing, but the thing holding it back is its lack of quality control. Many DIY’ers aren’t ready for prime time, while a few are very excellent. It’s a confusing place for a reader scanning the .99 store on Amazon.

More than anything, I’d like to dispel the myth that commercial publishers are threatened. Truth is, we’re not. I’m be the first person to clap with joy over someone’s self-pubbing success because they learned the business and went into going it alone with their eyes wide open. Gotta love that.

4 Responses to Commercial Publishing: Don’t Count Us Out Too Soon

  1. Dan Holloway says:

    I’d haveto agree with most of this. I think I’d say on the efficiencey front that there is a procedural efficiency about self-publishing (and many smaller presses) that many big presses would do well to learn from (and probably are). A small central hub that directly (or nearly directly) manages each stage of the publishing process makes for more time-efficient decision making and day to day management – eachstaghe is directly outsourced by one person/committee and comes back to them – and referrals can go straight back out. And several processes can run contemporaneously without any strategic overview being lost – that just isn’t possible in many large organisations. Many large organisations are embracing the importance of thinking small and publishing should be no exception.

    I guess slightly more controversial would be to say that the fewer committees a book has to go through to get approved the more idiosyncratic a press’ list will be – they will bear the stamp of their chief editor. Of course this could be a recipe for disaster but whilst an idiosyncratic list mayu be more likely to fail in a spectacular way, it may also be more likely to succeed in a spectacular way – big companies succeed by diversifying their portfolio; small ones specifically by not diversifying. The great small presses I can think of in the UK at the moment like Peirene, And Other Stories, Bluemoose, the no longer so small and not UK-based Melville House – all have instantly identifiable lists that owe a lot to the larger than life idosyncracies of their editor-in-chief. The key thing for big companies to learn, I guess, is – as with the first point – to diversify by acting like lots of small companies.

  2. Dan, you always add a lovely balance to any conversation. Thank you for weighing in on this.

  3. You underestimate readers. Aided by Amazon’s sophisticated algorithms, reviews and samples, they have no trouble at all picking out books they want to read, indie or trad. Of course, in bricks and mortar shops they have less choice – one reason why bookstores’ numbers are set to dwindle.

  4. Lexi, one thing I would never do is underestimate readers, since they are what keep us in business. My experience shows me that most readers chose a book based on promotion – they’ve heard the author speak, or heard an interview, or saw them (or their book) on blogs and social media. With all that, most of our sales are still from the bookstores.

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