The problem with the revolution in publishing is that many more people can become publishers, but should they?
The question that we have to ask is what can small publishers offer? We now have the technology that allows any author to produce an e-book and sell it through Amazon. With a little more technical know-how this can be extended to the rest of the electronic formats. With only slightly more know-how the author can organise print on demand and sell their own paperbacks.
So what is the publisher for?
Firstly some authors do want handholding through these technical bits so there is still a job to do there, but it is now very much a subsidiary one. Production also includes such things as editing, proof reading and providing covers. These services can be very expensive if done properly. It is a matter of some contention whether these costs should be carried by writer or publisher.
The second and most important job is selling the book. This involves such things as organising publicity, getting word out there, getting it in shops and in front of the reader.
There are two problems with this; one is that in the world as we know it, in all candour, nobody really knows the infallible route to success. (This includes Amazon and the big name publishing houses who are as in the dark as the rest of us.) Indeed, for all the endless stream of websites offering to pimp your book for you, it’s probably still true that word of mouth is the best seller. The other problem for the publisher is that in spite of what the author might hope, most publishers realise that the author has to do a lot of the work. The best the publisher can probably do is guide them so that they do the work in the areas where they get the best return on their efforts, and also perhaps open doors so the author can strut and fret their hour upon the stage to new and more influential audiences.
The downside of this is that all this costs money. You cannot publish a book for free and it’s probable that ninety percent of books most small publishers publish will lose them money.
Hence the small publisher is really somebody with a proper job that pays the rent, (and subsidises the business.) Some people do up old houses as a way of reducing themselves to exhausted penury, but running a small publishing business will probably achieve the same effect for less physical effort.
Obviously there is the hope that the small publisher will discover a writer whose sales put the company back in the black and help fund all those hopefuls who haven’t yet made it. This appears to be one of the popular ‘business models.’ I use the phrase ‘business model’ because it’s a little more flattering than the more accurate ‘delusion.’ The main problem with the model is the successful writer. No sooner do they become successful and prove they can sell books than a bigger company comes along, offers them money, and whisks them away from you. The small publisher is effectively left with the writers none of the bigger companies want.
Is there any way round this?
Specialist nonfiction might be a way forward. You’ve got a product which is easier to market, and the target audience is better known.
Another option would be to build on top of an existing enterprise. Somebody who has been successfully publishing roleplaying games could be able to sell fiction relevant to the games to the buyers of the games. Again, you’re selling to a target market who you know. Games Workshop with their associated ‘Black Library’ is perhaps one of the most successful versions of this.
There are probably other successful business models out there. But what you must remember is that whilst writing books can be anything from an art form to a type of therapy, publishing them has to be a business, because if the bills cannot be paid, the publisher cannot exist.