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Norman Sperling
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Book Publishing is Broken

© Norman Sperling, June 1, 2012

If you read the how-to business books that publishers publish, you'll learn many proven techniques: Seek innovations, seek new markets and niches, do variations that others don't do. Be nice to people, as nice as you can be.

Publishers publish such advice, but don't follow it.

Big integrated publishing companies used to handle almost all of the myriad functions that go into a successful book, from editing to illustration, layout, typography, relations with the printer, marketing, sales, warehousing, and shipping.

Hundreds of publishing companies have been bought out by 6 faceless, unfeeling, cost-cutting conglomerates, and evade as many of these tasks as they can get away with.

Instead of proactively figuring out what ought to exist, and then making it so, they mostly react to the inflood of proposals ... and let others filter them. Publishers are supposed to select their manuscripts, but delegate the biggest part of screening to literary agents. Most big, and many medium, publishers won't deal with authors directly but ONLY deal through agents. So a writer has to find an agent.

Finding an agent who will truly work for you is like finding a bank to lend you money: they're most willing when you prove that you scarcely need them. One agent told me that I'd need my website to get a certain big number of hits per week – but when I do, I should sell more online than physical bookstores would.

Publishers are supposed to help authors with illustrations. A few still do. Others, however, keep the illustrators from talking to the authors, guaranteeing incompetent pictures, unhappy authors, and baffled readers. Keeping illustrators and authors apart is utterly counterproductive, but some publishers do it.

Publishers are supposed to arrange for manufacturing the books, but an author-friend tells me of some who are delighted to slough that off to subcontractors – even to the author (who can use this for further employment, taking another piece of the pie).

With the latest short-run and publishing-on-demand services, there is no longer any need for warehousing, nor for guessing how many to print, nor for big investments in printing. I'm already publishing certain books that way.

Publishers are supposed to market, but now they require the author to submit a marketing plan with the book proposal. What aspect of being a good author qualifies one for any marketing at all?? Publishers squeal with delight when they see a good marketing plan. The more the author plans marketing, the stronger the book! Publishers used to have real marketing specialists. But publishers market absurdly narrowly: I know a big publisher that markets its parents' guides to coaching ONLY to the *sports* shelves of general bookstores, and expressly ignores all *parenting* channels, even after I pointed out to them that more customers are to be found as "parents" than in "sports".

Publishers are supposed to sell, but abandon much of that to chain stores, and Amazon, and aggregators like Baker & Taylor. Is there any use for aggregators that software can't do?

So big publishers don't define their products, they don't seek out authors, they avoid setting type, they subcontract illustrations, and avoid dealing with the printer, or doing most of the marketing. Most big publishers seem outright scared of ePublishing and eBooks. Small presses may pay more attention to authors but whereas big publishers don't do all the necessary jobs because they're *negligent*, small presses don't do all the jobs because they don't have enough *resources*.

Since publishers do so little, what do you need them for? Self-publishing manuals list all the tasks to do. All those jobs still need to be done. Do as many of them as you can and want to yourself, and hire out the rest. If you skip any, the job's not done and the results won't be professional. An author cannot edit his own writing. Suggestions are just a tweet away. Make sure *all* the jobs are done well.

Here are some books on self-publishing. They're wisely heavy on marketing, and not up-to-date on eBooks, but they do enumerate every step you need to take.

Tom & Marilyn Ross: The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing, 4th ed. Writer's Digest books 2002.
Dan Poynter: The Self-Publishing Manual 2002, and volume 2, 2009.
Marilyn & Tom Ross: Jump Start Your Book Sales. Communication Creativity 1999.

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