Publishing houses have resounded to the sound of wailing and gnashing of teeth over the past few years, as people try to get to grips with the changes wrought by self-publishing and open access on the industry. But why?
The question is, what do publishers actually contribute to the world of books? There are many answers but mine is always, “Quality”. How many of us can read all the stories written each month that might be fun? How many teachers can test all the new textbooks thoroughly with students before buying?
The big thing that publishers have always sold is not books but time. When we buy a novel, we’re paying to significantly increase our chances of enjoying the experience. Similarly, all good teachers could assemble their own course from scratch, but few have the time to do so. Much easier to take a publisher’s course and then extend and adapt that to fit your needs.
However, this only works if you, the reader, actually trust the publisher to release books that are worth reading. And, for better or worse, buying from an established publisher gives you some guarantee that you can rely on the product.
(“The wisdom of the crowd” is often invoked to cover this gap. Just publish everything, goes the argument, and “the crowd” will sift the worthwhile from the worthless. The problem is that “the crowd” actually means readers wasting their precious leisure time reading bad books – or students suffering with inaccurate textbooks. Needless to say, I don’t think that “the crowd” will do the job!)
This puts the current storms over the direction of publishing into perspective. Publisher can bring real value to their customers by ensuring that their products (whether they’re books, apps or whatever) are Good, for whatever value ‘good’ has in their market.
The problem is that many publishers are heading for dereliction of duty – often accidentally but sometimes intentionally. Editors are being fired in favour of “digital” people, to “keep up with the competition” with no plan for retaining the skills that deliver current success. The task of checking a book before publication is sometimes entirely outsourced, to “save money” with no thought for the increased risk of publishing work that no-one in the company has actually looked at.
The big opportunity for writers here is that the tools to produce good products are more available than they ever were, including services to help them find good editors, designers etc. There are excellent outsourcing companies who work with both established publishers and self-publishing authors to create worthwhile, useful and attractive products. And also companies who’ll help market and sell them.
But the issue of quality remains. With publishing teams more and more scattered around the globe, we need tools that let us work together seamlessly, rapidly and reliably. We can’t rely any longer on printing and posting hard copies of a book – and the tools available for working on PDFs are simply inadequate. For checking digital products, you will probably find yourself reduced to a basic spreadsheet!
Which is why I stopped being an editor and built Futureproofs as a modern web-based platform to help editors and their teams to make sure that the products they work on are correct before they’re published. But it’s not about us. There are great collaborative writing tools out there, from Poetica to Google Docs. There are workflow management tools from targeted, innovative solutions like Bibliocloud to established open-source behemoths. And there are author communities from Reedsy to Bibliocrunch.
But whatever tools you use, don’t forget to concentrate on making the best book (or app, or website) you can. Because it all comes back to the readers who will use what you make, to relax, educate themselves or whatever the purpose of your content is. If the reader wanted to do the hard work themselves, they wouldn’t have bought your product. So do them the respect of making completely sure that everything’s right.
That way, you make it worth your time, too.