WHAT IS A PUBLISHER?
I thought I would put this question as a post here, on the main page, because of an interesting discussion that went on in the comments of another post. I have always known there is a lot of confusion about what is a publisher, and exactly what a publisher does. So I figured I would try to make some sense of this.
This isn’t really a myth. Just more of an issue of confusion with all the new technologies coming into the mix.
So, in as clear a fashion as I can, let me try to lay this out.
From my trusty Oxford American Dictionary, they define a publisher as “A person or firm that issues copies of a book, magazine, etc. to the public.”
Yup, and that’s pretty much what all legal cases I have read concerning copyright and publication have come down on as a definition for publisher.
So, here I go with a new book, sending it to New York. What am I doing?
Answer: I am looking for a publisher to publish my book. Nothing more.
So say a wonderful editor working for a publisher wants to buy my book and calls me or my agent. What is next?
Answer: We negotiate the terms of the contract between me and the publisher and if we can agree on the terms, I sign the contract.
So, here comes an area that most writers don’t understand because most don’t know copyright. What have I sold that publisher?
Answer: Nothing. (If it is not an all rights or work-for-hire contract.)
That’s right, nothing. The publisher and I have come to an agreement on which rights they will license from me, for how long, and under what conditions. I haven’t sold them a thing. I just sort of rented them the use of my story for certain reasons under certain condition. I get it all back at some point, again determined by what it was agreed upon in the contract.
ARE THERE SUCH A THING AS SUB-PUBLISHERS?
The publisher I sold my work to will often have many, many sub-publishers, for lack of a better way of putting it. In your contract you might have sold them translation rights for a percentage and they then turn around and license that to a publisher in France. All within the limits of the contract you signed with the first publisher. And audio publishers, and ebook publishers and movie rights (which are a form of publication as well) and so on.
Again, you control exactly what they can and cannot do by the contract you sign. No one holds a gun to your head and tells you to sign a bad contract. And no agent is responsible for your stupidity in signing a bad contract that gives a publisher too much and too much control. Only you, as the copyright holder, can say what the publisher will or won’t do. And if you don’t like what they are requiring, don’t sign. It really is that simple.
Okay, to another way of publishing. What is being called “self-publishing.”
(And aside right here: I have always found this term silly in all respects. You see, when I think of sending a manuscript to a New York publisher, I am actually completely in control and therefore by the very act of sending it to New York, I am in essence, self-publishing. But that’s just me being silly with terms. Let me go on.)
Now, along comes secondary publishers focusing on ebooks such as Smashwords.
Just like with New York publishers, I follow some basic guidelines and send my work to Smashwords. They either accept it or not, depending on how well I am at formatting to their guidelines. (Not content questions, just formating questions in a file.)
What is the difference between Smashwords and New York publishers?
Let me see if I can detail out some of the differences between the two types of publishers.
There isn’t much, actually. These days you give your New York publisher an electronic file, you give Smashwords one as well.
In New York publishing, the publisher provides help with the proofing, the art work, the cover design, and they set up the printing and distribution.
In Smashwords, you have to do all the proofing and covers yourself. But their machines dictate the layout for the most part, just as New York publishers do.
There is quality control over content in New York. No quality control on content at all in Smashwords. It’s buyer beware.
New York publisher then sets up distribution or sells it direct themselves.
Smashwords does the same, either sets up the distribution or sells it themselves.
And just like New York, they use subpublishers as well, such as iPad and others. And there are contracts between Smashwords and iPad.
Who is the final publisher for an ebook through Smashwords?
If the copy sells on Smashwords, then they are, if it sells on iPad, then iPad is the final publisher.
Go back and look at the definition of the word “publisher” I wrote above.
If your New York publisher licenses your book to France, who is the final publisher? The French publisher, of course. If New York puts up a Kindle edition, who is the final publisher in the chain for that book sold on Kindle? Kindle, of course.
All these new technologies are just new forms of publishers, taking a cut, just as New York publishers have done for centuries.
As young authors, Kris and I set up a publishing house called Pulphouse. We published a lot of books and got far, far too big before we crashed. Any author now can set up their own publishing house, and many do. Kris and I have corporations, actually, now.
If you set up your own publishing house and contract for a POD version of your book, you will be the publisher on a copy that sells. And just like New York selling to France, if you put one of your books from your publishing house up on Kindle, Kindle will be the final publisher, the firm that publishes the book to a person.
Your company will be the originating publisher and have your name on it, but Kindle will be the final publisher, because they take the content, convert it, and sell it.
New York publishers take your content, convert it, and sell it.
Bookstores and distributors are not publishers, but only distributors of product, sort of like your cell phone or your Kindle machine or your iPad.
“A publisher is a person or firm that issues copies of a book, magazine, etc to the public.”
A New York publisher is no different from Smashwords in that respect. They are both publishers. Big difference is that Smashwords and other ebook publishers have no editor oversight, no filters that assure a certain level of quality of what is published.
And I have a hunch, in the future, there will be ways that the public and readers find to help that quality process some. But that’s not here yet and is a topic for a future post.
Now I have to hit the “publish” button and publish this, which, guess what, makes me a publisher.