Traditional Publishing: What’s It Good For?

traditional publishing

When I first started working in publishing, no one questioned the value of a publisher.

Now they do.

When I tell nonfiction writers they need to demonstrate to the agent/editor they have a big enough platform—enough visibility—to sell books without the help of a publisher, they’ll ask, “What’s the publisher for then?”

When I tell fiction writers that their work needs to be compelling, polished, and ready for publication before they query, they’ll ask, “What’s the publisher for then?”

For first-time authors who have no readership, the answer is easy. Quality considerations aside, a publisher raises your profile and makes you look bigger than you’ve ever looked before. Someone is taking a financial risk to launch your work into the world and make your name recognizable, and the risk can be taken only for a finite number of authors, so people make quite logical assumptions about quality that are in your favor.

Of course, publishers fail at launching authors every day. But authors promoting themselves tend to fail at it more dramatically. It’s not that publishing is hard. It’s the ability to spread the word about your work’s existence at the right time to the right people that’s crazy-difficult. So far, most publishers are still better at doing that.

So far.

If you’re an author who can make influencers jump when you ask, or have a siren call that lures readers to your door, then all bets are off on what the publisher is for. You’ll have to decide.

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Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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