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The Value of a Publishing House

Slipping into the New York Times the day after New Year’s was an op-ed by Jonathan Galassi, president of FSG, which begins with the question, “What is an ebook?” and ends (or nearly ends) with this observation: “A publisher — and I write as one — does far more than print and sell a book. It selects, nurtures, positions and promotes the writer’s work.”

In between the opening question and the conclusion is a gap roughly the size and consistency of the La Brea tar pits.

To the first point – “Are e-books a new frontier in publishing, a fresh version of the author’s work? Or are they simply the latest editions of the books produced by publishers…?” – the answer is, of course, “It depends.”

If an ebook is simply a digital reproduction of a print book, the answer leans towards being “the latest editions” – and frankly, in the case of a lot of ebooks, it’s less of a reproduction than a travesty of formatting and a sort-of approximation of what the print book was supposed to offer.

If an ebook contains new information/illustrations, is presented in a variety of formats and fonts, and possibly contains video, or an author interview, or other material…it’s probably “a fresh version of the author’s work” which has been curated by the ebook publisher in a different way than the print publisher did. (And which is what Open Road is saying they’re all about.)

But is it solely the author’s work that forms the basis of that ebook? Galassi argues, in the case of William Styron, “An e-book version of Mr. Styron’s “The Confessions of Nat Turner” will contain more than the author’s original words. It will also comprise Mr. Loomis’s editing, as well as all the labor of copy editing, designing and producing, not to mention marketing and sales, that went into making it a desirable candidate for e-book distribution. Mr. Styron’s books took the form they have, are what they are today, not only because of his remarkable genius but also, as he himself acknowledged, because of the dedicated work of those at Random House.”

All true!

But then the trouble starts. Galassi states: “An e-book distributor is not a publisher, but rather a purveyor of work that has already been created. In this way, e-books are no different from large-print or paperback or audio versions. They are simply the latest link in an unbroken editorial chain, the newest format for one of man’s greatest inventions: the constantly evolving, imperishable book — given its definitive form by a publisher.”

And here is where I strongly disagree. It’s those words “definitive form” – which presume that the hardcover first-run is the “real” book, while everything that follows is somehow derivative. As our work with StartwithXML has demonstrated, this view of the “editorial chain” is rapidly evolving into a model where there is NO “definitive form”.

It is true that an ebook distributor is not a publisher, in the same sense that a physical book distributor (Ingram, Baker & Taylor) is not a publisher. And many physical distributors are also ebook distributors.

But an ebook PUBLISHER is a publisher. And this is where I think Mr. Galassi gets it wrong. Because nowhere in this essay does he even discuss ebook publication, or regard ebooks as anything other than a digital version of a print book.

Let’s have a look at audiobooks as a parallel. Audio versions of books have to be read by someone – either a professional reader such as Jim Dale, or a famous/semi-famous actor, or a voiceover artist. That person must modulate his voice, decide what to emphasize, re-create the work aurally. A simple reproduction of the book so that you can hear it is more along the lines of what DAISY does for the visually-impaired, where you get a computerized voice reading rapidly and without inflection, spelling the words it doesn’t recognize.

Audio divisions of publishing houses – and independent audiobook publishers such as Brilliance – determine abridgement, voice quality, and a host of other factors in producing these “books”. And I would argue that the level of nurturing, curation and editorial is as meticulous as it is for that hardcover book. Audiobook publishers are not simply distributors – and to call them this is a disservice to what they provide.

As we fully explore the potential of ebooks (as Open Road is doing) we’ll find opportunities for precisely the sort of care-taking and curation that Mr. Galassi values so highly – just as we have for audiobooks. The “traditional” publishing process will not be replaced or diminished by ebooks – it will be amplified.

So yes, there will still be publishing, as Galassi himself concludes. “Even if someday, God forbid, books are no longer printed, they will still need the thought and care and dedication that Mr. Loomis and his colleagues put into producing William Styron’s work for nearly 60 years. Some things never change.”

Which kind of leaves me ultimately shrugging at this article. So what was your point?

The truth is, Galassi’s point is largely unspoken – and you have to have been in publishing a little while to glean what he’s really talking about. It’s very clear that he wants some form of credit for what traditional hardcover publishers do. In publishing, the form of credit that is most widely recognized is, of course, rights.

It’s interesting that Galassi brings up Random House in this particular example – because initially, Styron’s publisher was Bobbs-Merrill (as a correction notes at the end of the piece). In early December, of course, the CEO of Random House issued a memo asserting that Random House retained the digital rights to all its titles – shortly after Open Road announced that it would be mining publishers’ backlists for ebook material. Galassi seems to be lining up on the side of Dohle – that publishers, when they acquire a book from an author, are allowed to publish that book however they want, whenever they want.

And if those rights were not explicitly granted in contracts (because of course many contracts pre-dated any existence of ebooks), and if the courts do not uphold Random House’s position, it appears that what Galassi is not-so-implicitly saying is that publishers nevertheless deserve a portion of whatever profit is made from those digital books.

This gets even more interesting, of course – Galassi is essentially saying, “You wouldn’t even have a product if it weren’t for what we’ve done, so we should get some compensation beyond what we’ve earned from the production of this hardcover book. Those rights are implicitly granted in the contract with the author."

Which is basically an invitation to a large and long party attended by contracts and IP lawyers.

Practically speaking, however, the question then becomes, “How are you going to figure out what the hardcover publisher’s compensation should be?” Because in order to carve out that compensation, a monetary value has to be placed on each component of the publishing house: editorial, marketing, sales, product
ion, etc. And no traditional publishing house I’m aware of actually tracks these functions the way they would need to be tracked to create useful algorithms. Is Galassi saying they’re going to start?

There are other issues, of course. Not every author is a Styron – you’re not going to want to invest all that caring and tending in every single author. (And not every editor is Gordon Lish or Max Perkins, tenderly re-shaping, or in some cases gutting and renovating, what the author brings him.) When I worked in publishing 20 years ago, 80% of what my editors acquired went directly to copy-editing – no nurturing, no sitting down with the author…no reading. So I honestly have to question how much value is inherent in that 80% – obviously, the copy-editing process has value, of course, but what if the editor took a manuscript (as increasingly happens) from an agent that had already been edited, packaged, otherwise made publication-ready?

Authors have traditionally complained that their publishers aren’t doing such a great job marketing and selling their books; the explosion of self-publishing ventures and digital marketing consultancies (ahem), as well as the influx of new marketing-department hires at traditional houses, are evidence that these authors may in fact have a point. If an author can demonstrate an increase in sales after moving to a self-publishing model (as Steven Covey appears to be doing) or hiring a marketing consultant, what value is the publisher actually bringing? (I AM excited about publishing’s new digital marketing hires – many of them are very clued-in and will contribute a great deal of value – if they are allowed to do the things that need to be done.)

As for production, typesetting, paper selection – these are very important for print products, obviously, but ebooks use entirely different formatting and thus a great deal of print production is irrelevant to ebook creation.

I’d argue that we can’t take for granted that a traditional publishing house – simply by virtue of being a publishing house – adds value. The value a publishing house adds really depends on the editor, the author, the culture of the publishing house, and the book itself.

Whatever a “book” is. Wanna go there?

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  1. Great entry LJN!

    In many ways, the publisher is becoming a glorified agent, or an investor putting together a pitch book. Once they’ve cleaned up, edited, beautified the content, their job is to go out and make money off it. p-books are just one way to do that.

    It’s all about rights (and royalties :-) )!

    Comment by David Marlin — January 7, 2010 @ 9:56 am

  2. I know of no device that speaks text for an intended blind audience that “spells” words it doesn’t recognize. It would merely mispronounce them.

    Comment by Joe Clark — January 7, 2010 @ 8:24 pm

  3. >>>Audiobook publishers are not simply distributors – and to call them this is a disservice to what they provide.

    Who ever said they were? Audiobooks fall under Derivative Works or Derivative Works->Abridgments.

    Comment by Mike Cane — January 21, 2010 @ 7:19 pm

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