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Things That P*ss Me Off: People Complaining About Publishers and Their Greediness

Jeevan Sivasubramaniam Posted by Jeevan Sivasubramaniam, Managing Director, Editorial, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

The general public (who are supposedly the arbiters of taste) do love to pontificate on how publishers just don't know good books when they see them and how we eschew "brainy' c....

The general public (who are supposedly the arbiters of taste) do love to pontificate on how publishers just don't know good books when they see them and how we eschew "brainy' cerebral" books for silly, simplistic ones.

Here’s the thing — who told you that publishing is an intellectual meritocracy where good writing automatically gets recognized and rewarded? It wasn’t anyone in publishing, I can assure you of that. People like to think that publishing is a cerebral industry that celebrates blah blah blah, but that’s not true. Publishing is a business just like any other, which means sales and profit margins, not good writing, keeps a publisher in business. Think about the number of well-written books you’ve read that never garnered the sort of acclaim they should have, and now think about those huge bestsellers you read but couldn’t understand what made them so successful. The former inevitably outnumber the latter at least three to one — because good writing does not mean good sales, and publishing is not a charity industry or nonprofit.

But let’s talk about quality here: Apple could make its iPhones out of titanium and sapphire crystal which would make them much higher quality, but they don’t because they won’t profit off that kind of quality unless they raise their prices significantly to cover the workmanship and materials. But who wants to pay $1,500 for an iPhone when you can buy something almost equally good for far less? In the same way, we can take the time and effort to work hard on a book that has high quality writing and serious potential and make it really shine — inside and out. Then we would need to price the book at over three times what the market would pay for such a book  to be able to cover the costs of materials and staff expenses and salaries. And who will buy that $70 paperback when all of the other paperbacks in the same genre are priced at $19.95?

Here are the facts: there are over ten times as many incredibly well-written, quality books that failed than there are crappily-written books that capitalized on a trend or a celebrity that sold successfully. Those are the odds publishers are working with. So, yes, we actually know that a lot of our books aren’t so well-written. Yep, we also know a lot of them plain out suck, but this is the system we are working with. And if authors recognize this and worked with us instead of attacking us, it would mean much better writing and higher profits all around.

If nothing else, keep this in mind: publishers give the public what they want to read. If the public wants stuff of mediocre quality and insist they want to keep paying the same prices as they did over two decades ago despite inflation, that’s what publishers will give them at the price they’ll pay Don’t blame the servants for the masters’ demands.