asks Rob Jones, a small British publisher, and provides some answers.
One's first thought is that publishers are useful because they bring us books - but then a moment later, you realise that a lot of what publishers do is outsourced (which I like to think of as the business equivalent of sending out for pizza instead of cooking dinner). Publishers don't print books; frequently they don't typeset them, or design the covers, or warehouse the stock, or ship it to stores. They may in some sense provide the world with books, but publishers don't drive lorries or mix ink. And, of course, for the most part, they don't generate the words and pictures between the covers.I had earlier tried to break down the current book publishing business model to see where the value is added and wondered if Amazon or someone else could do an Ebay and make conventional publishers history. The global book publishing industry turns over about US$ 60-70 billion a year - presenting a substantial business opportunity for a transaction player who simply provides the platform for authors and intermediaries to come and work together to deliver the authors' works to interested readers.
What they do are two things. They select which titles to print - and then they tell everyone else how great those titles are. Or to put it more succinctly, they do acquisition and marketing.
Defenders of publishing's place in the world like to talk about publishers being a quality filter: they sift for gold amongst the dross. But when you have hundreds of publishers all clamouring that every one of their thousands of titles is a nugget of pure gold, it's not clear how effectively that filter is working. The best you could say is that things might be much worse if publishers didn't at least try to protect us from sub-standard work. Or perhaps not.
And as for the clamouring part of their job, marketing to retailers gets the titles into stores and marketing to customers gets books into shopping baskets - but that's all for the publisher's benefit; what do non-publishers get out of it? From some angles it looks like very little. So, "Publishers (grunt) what are they good for? Vanishingly close to nothing" (as the song goes).
Of course publishers do one more thing: they absorb risk. That's to say, they take a chance on their titles. They put their money, effort and reputation behind a book and hope that their gamble pays off. In that sense they do make books, thus ensuring that a few horribly formatted files on a computer (or god forbid, a sheaf of typewritten pages) become an actual, professional-looking, shop-bought book.
I've had other suggestions of functions that publishers perform. For instance, they administer the process of creating books, coordinating all the various roles - which doesn't strike me as much of a hook to hang your survival on. And one well-meaning publisher told me that their most important role is to develop authors. I think that's a lovely idea and the sooner it actually happens the better, I say.
So I think we're left with publishers being the backers and risk-takers behind books. And what I see is that every year technology makes it easier to turn a Word file into a pallet full of paperbacks - or just a single copy, if you prefer. And every year devices for reading books electronically get more desirable, more practical and more affordable. I'm wondering if there'll come a day when the only reason that publishers can put forward to justify their cut of the book industry's profits is that they tell readers what to read. Then all it would take is for readers to band together into online communities and share their collected opinions of new writing and we wouldn't need publishing companies' biased views on what was good; we could be guided by our fellow readers. And on that day publishers will go the way of the dodo and the clanger, and Em and I will have suddenly have a lot more time on our hands to work on our blog entries.