Some base element of human nature—call it a Darwinian hambone, a self-doubting Thomas tendon, or perhaps a fickle Y chromosome—makes each of us constantly question our professional relevance and measure the worth of our production (and value proposition) against our peers. Our collective insecurities, on top of our incessant need for attention and approval, are worthy of examination, particularly in this editor-eat-editor work environment where publishing positions are scarce and talented linguists trample their fellow wordsmiths for a crack at the first paragraph. Forget, at this point, the concept of elbowing your well-read brethren for a little grammatical space; civilized people are beyond the metered lines of courtesy; they’re grappling for poetic survival.
Apparently a great debate has surfaced about the overall relevancy of publishers. Publishers, damn our curatorial eyes, are up against a wave of opposition, and our days either are numbered because our weapons of choice are obsolete—replaced by technology efficient and ubiquitous enough to make our unique skills unnecessary, or if you believe what you’re reading at Smashwords, writers have revolted and decided that the factors and intangibles we publishers always have brought to the table simply are overrated and therefore unnecessary. Either way, it seems, publishers are cooked.
Publishers are seen as surplus, another piece of 21st century fat to be trimmed from society’s cultural budget. Living as an almost extinct publisher in this new era of Mr. Writeful, I wish self-published writers only good things. Seriously, if our best days of collaboration are behind us, let’s turn the page on the old ways of the book business.
Some writers, of course, are grateful for the support of brazen indie publishers, particularly writers whose interests lie primarily in the written word and not in the spreadsheet of a blasted business plan. Independent publishers, first and foremost, believe in the arts and their survival, so any talk that we’re concerned with profit above all (that you think we actually smelled money when we opted to accept a writer’s work) is downright nuts.
There’s simply no denying the ambition of writers who work the channels and land sweet distribution deals without the help of a publisher; these same market-savvy writers know the power of networking and they package their writing with the zeal of a slick entrepreneur. They excel at self-promotion. These writers are rock stars. They’re past the point of needing me. I’m only an obstacle at this point, another person seeking a piece of the pie. And the pie is so miniscule, why bother sharing it?
To all writers who think they are better off without publishers: More power to you. You’ve won the game. The more that we publishers venture forth to explain our role, define our responsibility, and justify our existence, the more desperate we appear. And desperate, we are not, no matter what grumbling you may hear from the insightful pundits of the book industry.
Publishers sometimes are the only stakeholders that separate writers from pawning off literature as another roadside attraction instead of artwork worthy of exhibition, selling their sweat from the trunks of their cars as if it were snake oil instead of a delicacy. Publishers understand the value of good writing; we need not prove our necessity. The more we stand upright and resolute in our mission, the more we are united in our vision, the more we fulfill a writer’s need for support and affirmation.
Through our affiliation with online groups, communities, and established councils, publishers frame a foundation upon which some writers build credibility, momentum, and purpose. Publishers, like most members of a socially enlightened movement, are bent on purpose. Many professional associations, such as the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) and the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP), are formed to advocate the sustainable growth of a specific function, role, or department within an organization.
In the case of publishers, the world as we’ve known it has changed. Our roles have merged in hybrid fashion. Mr. Writeful has risen. But rather than a funeral, let’s look at this new paradigm as a rebirth of expression. Some might call it devolution. How else should a publisher explain the sudden appearance of a tail on his human anatomy?
Image by Steven M. Carr, after original at Genetix, at Memorial University
© 2011 Dan Cafaro. All rights reserved.