The Oxford English Dictionary defines publisher as “a person or company that prepares and issues books, journals, music or other works for sale.”
In an era when e-frenzy reigns, content is king, and the speed of change is outstripping the speed of light, what does the term publisher actually mean? And how has the role of a publisher changed—or has it?
According to the OED, you’re a publisher if you upload your first novel to an e-only distributor, partner with a publishing services provider for p- and e-formats, or manage a traditional title list into the thousands.
According to some industry insiders—and outsiders—publishers are at best a necessary evil and at worst irrelevant. Those of us who are publishers are so busy trying to win the change game that we don’t often stop to think about who we are and why we exist.
How would you define a publisher’s purpose and functions? Almost eight years ago, the IBPA board of directors took on that challenge. They drafted a statement defining the role of a publisher, which first appeared in Jan Nathan’s column in the 2004 Independent, when she was our executive director.
The final statement, which differed very little from the now eight-year-old original, was published in the 2007 Independent. It follows (warning: the prefix e- and the words e-book, e-reader, repurpose, app, and content do not appear):
What Makes You a Publisher?
As publishers, we are the bearers and the repositories of information. We have responsibilities to our investors, our authors, our suppliers, our customers, our readers, and to ourselves as prudent business people. We also have a strong commitment to uphold rigorous publishing standards—those required to produce quality books—and working toward these standards is our goal.
Publishers put book projects together, from start to finish, an endeavor that includes many different responsibilities. . . .
Defining a Publisher: A Ten-Point Checklist
Acquisition.A publisher acquires property either through purchase of manuscripts or personal development of a manuscript or manuscripts. Depending on the size of the company, the publisher pays authors advances against future royalties as designated by contract, or makes specified payments in a designated period after production.
Financial.A publisher or the publisher’s publishing company is financially responsible for the production and promotion of books under the company imprint. A publisher provides or arranges funding for the company’s publishing program; develops a budget for each book acquired, looking carefully at the costs of production and the costs of promotion and publicity; makes longer-range plans for keeping the book on the active list; and allots funds for those tasks.
Planning.A publisher develops a business plan, including a budget and a timeline for each publication from acquisition through production. A publisher also develops and implements a sales, marketing, and production plan for each book.
Author/manuscript development.A publishing company works with its authors to develop a manuscript so that it will be in optimum condition for production and publication. In self-publishing, the author and publisher are synonymous. A publisher oversees, or has someone within the company oversee, the editing of each manuscript prior to publication, as well as all the exterior and interior design elements, to produce an attractive and marketable product.
Obligations to authors.A publisher issues an author contract that recognizes the author’s contribution to the enterprise and outlines the responsibilities of both the author and the publisher. Terms and expectations for royalties and other payments should be clearly stated.
Production.A publisher stays up to date on the newest printing and production technologies to ensure that a finished book will be competitive in the current marketplace. A publisher fulfills all technical elements (ISBN, cataloging, advance book announcements, and so on) in a timely fashion.
Standards.A publisher stays abreast of industry standards and adheres to them. Today, a publisher understands how and when to use the new ISBN-13 standard as well as how to deal with standards such as LCC numbers issued by the Library of Congress.
Vendor interaction.A publisher deals fairly with vendors, and aims to establish long-term, rewarding relationships within an industry. A publisher states clearly what is expected of a vendor and enters into contractual agreements with stated goals and objectives that will be adhered to by both parties.
Product development.A publisher produces a well-edited, well-designed product that can compete with similar products, and develops a marketing and promotion plan for distribution to both trade and consumer markets through wholesalers, distributors, and/or the Internet.
Administration.A publisher bears total responsibility for everything from the selection and acquisition of books to be published under the house imprint through their production, promotion, and marketing.
The More Things Change . . .
The book industry has certainly undergone (and continues to undergo) a seismic shift since the foregoing was written. The modus operandi of “preparing a book for sale” (and selling it) have changed exponentially, and the definition of the book has expanded far beyond its physical limits.
But the summary of a publisher’s basic responsibilities as outlined by those IBPA directors lo these many years ago still rings true today. As 2011 draws to a close and we look forward to what promises to be another year of great challenge and even greater opportunity, let’s reaffirm our commitment to “uphold rigorous publishing standards . . . to produce quality books” and fulfill our responsibility to our authors, our vendors, our readers, and ourselves.