Pub 101: What is the Value that a Traditional Publisher Brings to the Table?

Adrienne Kerr’s 2014 When Words Collide workshop was heavily influenced by John B Thompson’s Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the 21st Century. This book is pretty high on my to-read list now, but what Thompson and Kerr discussed were the different types of capital that a publisher can provide.

advice for writers' conferences

Economic Capital

Let’s face it – publishers are the money! Now, they’re not entirely “the money” as you’ll see below, but they provide the funds to give an author an advance, to get print books made, to have marketing and promotions done, to distribute the book, etc. The amount of costs that they put into an author and a book up front is huge. And… bear in mind, they don’t get the money back in a timely manner. It can take months or even over a year before they see return on this. Risk capital much? We perhaps need to appreciate “the money” a bit more.

Human Capital

Money is all fine and dandy, but what about what the individual people bring? An experienced publishing house has a wealth of knowledge spread about their staff. They have editors who have worked with a wide range of authors and genres, and publicists who have the network of people to promote your book. A good editor is one who builds relationships, good ones at that, with their authors. An author needs to trust an editor with everything they have – this is an emotional journey. People skills, while we all think we have them, is a rare quality, but never more apparent than in big publishing houses. Hence why they have to hire the right people (ahem – humans) to get it done.

Social Capital

This kind of builds on the human capital. Having people, the right people, is necessary, but their gravitas in networking is huge. If a publishing house loves your work and believes in it, a major publisher has the ability to get the top editor, copy editor, cover designer or you name it on your book. They can connect your work to a great review or a great foreign rights deal, and all because they work to build social relationships with their networks.

Intellectual Capital

Think of intellectual capital as the original works whose rights have been granted to a publisher. What a publisher can then do is capitalize upon said intellectual capital. Think about the e-books boom. The big five publishers now had a huge backlist of works to digitize, boosting their intellectual capital immensely.

Symbolic Capital

Why is it that many of us want to be published? We want to reach a wider audience, yes, but let’s face it. Some of us want the credibility that comes with a big five publisher. You want the Penguin, the Random House or the HarperCollins logo on your book… don’t you? Just saying that you’ve been traditionally published (whether big five or otherwise) brings a sense of quality control to your readers.

In summary, yes publishers are the money, but they are so much more than that. We really need to give them a little more credit.

Thanks again to Adrienne Kerr for the great workshop, and I encourage you to buy John B. Thompson’s book.

What value do you think a traditional publisher brings to the table? 

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