January 25, 2009

Publishing's a Business

Publishing's a Business
By Dorinda Ohnstad

The publishing industry is a unique business, but a business never-the-less. As a business it seeks to make a reasonable profit. In fact, the Board of Directors of each publishing house has a legal obligation to its shareholders to act in their best interest by doing all they can to make a reasonable return on the company’s investments. That means that the focus of the industry is not on the best interests of writers, but the best interests of shareholders. That doesn’t mean that writers aren’t critical to the industry’s success, because clearly they are. There exists a tenuous symbiotic relationship between the two. However, we can’t overlook the fact that profits are the ultimate motivating factor of the publishing industry (as they must be), even if that is not the key motivation of most writers. As writers we shouldn’t begrudge that fact.

Publishing houses are well aware that reader preference is the driving force behind sales. However, identifying what readers want is very different (as well as very difficult) as compared to other industries. In that respect, publishing is more akin to the art world. You can ask art collectors what they’re interested in purchasing, but it would provide little assistance to the industry. One floral picture is not the same as the other, so knowing that collectors want florals isn’t enough. In addition, even if one could define exactly what type of floral painting was desired that would still be insufficient. How would an art dealer get someone to paint that picture? As artists we can only create what we are inspired or driven to create. Our work is our own.

While the publishing industry will never be able to “design” their products to meet market needs, it will continue do its best to predict what readers will buy. However, the industry’s choices are limited to what is offered to them by writers. Each submission will be viewed through the marketability lens, but every investment will still be a calculated gamble. This makes publishing a difficult industry to be successful in, but at the same time it also makes it an exciting one. A Twilight or a Harry Potter is always lurking around the corner.

As readers I think that most of us relish the unpredictability of the publishing industry. We relish finding that new voice, the new series, new book, new author that captivates us. It’s almost euphoric. I wonder what it would be like if that weren’t the case. What if the industry could be predictable and formulaic? I don’t think I would like it; nor do I think that readers would benefit. I don’t think writers would benefit either. If writing could be reduced to a formula then new voices would be unnecessary—too risky an investment. The publishing industry would continue to work with the same proven commodities. Not good for the rest of us wanting our chance to be published.

So where does that leave us? I believe that as writers we continue to write what we’re driven to write and we write it to the best of our abilities. The publishing industry should continue to do its best to make good investments. And for those writers desiring to be published, we move forward knowing that anything is possible. Just ask Stephenie Meyer or J.K. Rowling. It’s a new year with new opportunities. Perhaps your turn will be next. I know that I’m hoping that 2009 will be my year.



At January 25, 2009 at 1:35 PM , Blogger F. M. Meredith, author said...

Fortunately, I'm with two really good publishers, Oak Tree Press and Mundania Press.

I think both of them have a different agenda than the big publishing houses. They are both willing to take risks with little-know authors with books that they enjoyed reading themselves. Of course the hope is that the book will bring in revenue for both the publisher and the author.


At January 25, 2009 at 7:18 PM , Blogger Sunny Frazier said...

Like Marilyn, I'm with Oak Tree. My publisher, Billie Johnson, gives us both lots of leadway. I give imput on my cover design and I exchange ideas about marketing my books. She is open to ideas of other writing projects I have in mind.
A small publisher may not be what people want, but there is something to be said for having control of your writing career.

At January 26, 2009 at 8:27 AM , Blogger Dorinda Ohnstad said...

Good points Marilyn and Sunny. Small presses do not generally have shareholders to please (they are usually owned by one person, a family, or a few partners), and have the flexibility to take more risks. We hear so much lately about the publishing industry and the difficulty in getting published that we tend to forget there are more options than just the big publishing houses.


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