A response to publishers’ claims that technology will not kill publishing

November 3, 2010 at 6:18 pm Leave a comment

Two of publisher McGraw-Hill’s executives wrote an article for USA Today titled “Will technology kill book publishing? Not even close.”

The authors write that the belief that publishing houses are in their death throes is due to several misconceptions about the publishing industry.

Among others, they include:

“Myth No. 2. Authors don’t need publishers in the digital age. Anyone who has ever written a book knows this to be false. Many great authors would never have found their audience without a great publisher willing to take a risk on their talents and market their works. At every stage of the editorial process, publishers partner with their authors as creative consultants, editors and designers. Ernest Hemingway had Maxwell Perkins from Charles Scribner’s Sons, and Norman Mailer had E.L. Doctorow from Dial Press.”

While I absolutely believe that editors play a helpful, even critical role in advising authors where to clarify, expand, redact, etc., I disagree with the idea that publishers are necessary to popularize an author’s works. We have already seen this in the world of music, where aspiring musicians can post songs to their MySpace pages and develop a following. Anthropology of an American Girl was self-published by the author and later picked up by a publisher because it was so successful. Publishing houses are also less willing to take chances on new authors and support them while their fanbase grows and writing style evolves. It costs lots of money to get prime real estate (displays, end caps, face-out shelving) in bookstores to draw buyers’ attention; who do you think they’re going to spend this money on? An untested new author or the latest John Grisham?

“Myth No. 3. E-books should essentially be free books. This would be true only if paper and binding represented the bulk of publishing expenses, and that is simply not the case. In bookmaking, manufacturing costs typically account for less than 10%-15% of the total.”

Then how come a mass market paperback costs $6.99 and a hardcover can cost upwards of $30? Is that 10-15% of the total cost an average, for paperbacks, ?

“When readers buy new print books, they are paying for the ideas on the pages — not the pages themselves. At McGraw-Hill, as many as 10 editors and designers will have a hand in any given book.”

I would love to see more e-books like the iPad versions of Alice in Wonderland and Dracula–just more interactive e-books in general, especially for kids–but currently, all the design expertise most e-books need is an illustrator to create a thumbnail version of the cover.

Don’t get me wrong. I truly hope that publishing houses remain relevant in this new reading landscape, and I personally have a great affinity for the book as a physical object (and I certainly think that’s possible as certain publishers add interactivity to the printed book through QR codes, etc.). I just don’t think these particular arguments are necessarily valid.


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