What a publisher does

After reading the discussion on Google+ on Edan Lepucki’s post on why not to self-publish (read it, it’s pretty good, not as one-sided as you’d think) I began yesterday to think again about the changing role of the publisher.

What follows is a stream-of-consciousness list of tasks a publisher should be able to tackle. It requires a pretty wide-ranging set of skills.

Off the top of my head, so apologies if I miss any obvious ones or if some of these make limited sense:

  • Make sure that typos are tolerably few and far between.
  • No formatting errors. The markup should be clean.
  • No missing text.
  • Positioning. What worldview will the book inhabit? This informs all design, typesetting, copywriting, website, sales, marketing, and PR decisions later on.
  • Design. Of the cover. Thematic design. Consistency over all of the author’s books. What kind of consistency? Exterior design that ties in with marketing and positioning.
  • Typesetting and interior design. More and more important with the rollout of KF8 and epub3. Has to be consistent with exterior design and complement it.
  • Writing copy. Back cover. Descriptions. Bio. It’s a different skill from other kinds of writing.
  • Website development and design. Again, keeping consistent with interior and exterior design. All done with the commercial impact of the website in mind.
  • Support. Be ready to update the ebook, website, whatever.
  • Maintain relationships with review sites. Know which ones to approach for each book and how to approach them.
  • Be a part of the reader communities that might be interested in your books. Don’t be a shill. Take a sincere interest in the subjects your readers are interested in.
  • Follow all mentions and chatter about your books, your writers, your genre. Promote the positive and decide if the negative needs to be responded to. It’s usually best to ignore them.
  • Maintain relationships with the various outlets, retailers, distributors, book clubs, etc. Be prepared for when something goes wrong. Know what format or tactic is appropriate for which outlet.
  • Value and positioning. What formats? Hardcover? Paperback? Collector’s editions? What outlets? What sort of customer?
  • Do the stats and analytics: What is the ARPU (Annual Revenue Per User)?
  • Do the stats and analytics: What is the CAC (Customer Acquisition Cost)?
  • More stats: What’s the website conversion rate? Absolute Unique Visitors?
  • Maintain an e-mail list of some sorts. Understand how best to use it.
  • What’s the mailing list conversion rate?
  • What’s the mailing list’s ARPU?
  • What’s the reader attrition rate? How many of those who buy the author’s first book buy the second?
  • Maintain relationships with review sites. Know which ones to approach for each book and how to approach them.
  • Follow all mentions and chatter about your books, your writers, your genre.
  • Give authors guidance and advice on how to avoid the major PR gaffs.
  • Have a response plan ready for when they inevitably invent new gaffs to make.
  • Have a response plan for all major gaffs, those committed by your people, your partners, or your authors.
  • Devise a set of principles for how partners, authors, and customers should be treated, how you and your staff should behave when representing the publisher, and put together a plan for how to fix it when it turns out those principles are being broken.
  • Maintain relationships with journalists, reporters, media outlets. Help them as much as they help you. Try and make sure that whenever you contact them, you are making their lives easier, not more difficult.

Note that I didn’t mention editorial processes, book acquisition, or author advances at all. This is the baseline for all publishers, including those who do nothing but reissues, or those who, legitimately in my view, maintain that the quality of the text is a matter of the author-reader relationship, and the publisher’s role is that of a gatekeeper, not developer of the text.

The clearest value a publisher has to an author is when they offer design, sales, marketing, and public relations expertise that can take years to develop. A publisher with a strong skill set in those areas, and stable relationships to build on, should never have to worry about the ebook transition.

The burgeoning self-publishing infrastructure will benefit publishers as well. A mature market for editorial services, design services, etc., is just as useful to publishers just as it is to self-publishers.