Redefining the Publisher: Why We Need Our Gatekeepers

What is a publisher? There are many definitions, both online and off, specific to music, books, other media, and more generally speaking. In the Oxford English Dictionary a publisher is defined as, “a person who makes something generally known; a person who declares or proclaims something publicly”, 1 a definition with usage from 1453 through 1995. This is also a definition that is particularly pertinent to this discussion. More on that shortly, for there are also more nuanced definitions. Definitions that exist in a more ephemeral sense and that understand the term “publisher” in broader terms, connected to a reputation, whether like Harlequin or Del Rey as publishers of certain types of work, or like Penguin & Random House as big presses that publish and republish countless texts, or like small presses whose publics define them in a much more immediate way. In each case, the sense of “publisher” is one that involves an awareness of what to expect as a reader and has, therefore, an awareness of some kind of quality control. The OED definition of publisher above is one that does a wonderful job reflecting the commonly held notion of the digital age, that “everyone’s a publisher” in today’s networked landscape. However, it is lacking in the nuances and connotations that, I think make the need for a publisher even more important to the publics of the current landscape than ever before, a landscape that not only inhibits but seems to reject the very idea of the publisher. Take for example, Clay Shirky, who argues that, “Publishing is not evolving” and that, “Publishing is going away….[that] There’s a button that says ‘publish,’ and when you press it, it’s done.”2

It is hard to argue against this statement, particularly in a world where it is as simple as pushing a button to publish. As publishers we are being asked to navigate this new digital landscape, a network of abundance, where a push of a button apparently makes a publisher. Yet, I will argue that in spite of the superficial truths this represents, a button push does not a publisher make, any more than owning a pen and paper, or a computer makes a writer. As James Bridle writes,

“Contrary to popular thought, everyone is not a publisher. When you hear a publisher say it, it’s even sadder. Publishing is a complex and well established collection of knowledge, competencies and processes, refined over time, practiced under forever difficult circumstances in a frankly indifferent market. Which is not to say that it’s exclusive: the bar to entry has dropped massively, obviously, in the last ten years. But it’s still hard, and hard to do well, and the rewards are still small. Writing something and putting it on the internet is not publishing.” 3 Here Bridle puts forth a definition of publishers that captures the nuances that distinguish the publisher from the button-pusher.

It is, I will argue, the job of the publisher as Bridle defines them, and as I envision them, to be an authority, to be the line of credibility that aids a reader in navigating the complexities of this abundant landscape. (And I say this even as I write in a window, within a bigger window, with a button in it that says “publish” which I will push to have make these words public.) While it is easy to argue that “good” or “quality” writing is subjective, I argue that it is not. I argue that knowing the difference between what is good, and what one personally likes is what makes a publisher a publisher. I argue that, like being a writer, not everyone is able to inhabit that difference and so, not everyone should. Now, the traditional gate-keeper model that has in some ways disappeared is, in my opinion, something to be lamented. In spite of its history and complications, at least it had clear boundaries for quality control. In a world where self-publishing is rampant, personal opinions or paid-for opinions drown out opinions based in knowledge, expertise and the ability to distinguish quality.  In “Non-Traditional Book Publishing”an article from First Monday by Jana Bradley, Bruce Fulton, Marlene Helm, and Katherine A. Pittner, the authors create a distinction which will be very useful to this discussion, namely, a distinction between quality, and value. They write,

“Making a distinction between quality and value can be helpful in thinking through the contribution of books in the hyper–abundant book environment.

By one definition, quality involves standards and norms of people who are knowledgeable about writing, literary merit, professional publishing, and the culture of good writing. People who care about quality in writing recognize it. Although opinions about quality often differ, they also are often shared.

A book has value, we suggest, when it is worthwhile, useful, important, enjoyable, or entertaining to a reader or group of readers. Books can provide value in spite of deficiencies in traditional quality. Value is a personal judgment, based on personality, time, circumstance or any number of other variables. Books may have value based on their strengths, perhaps in spite of their weaknesses. For example, a compelling plot or storyline can push readers through to the end, despite some perceived writing weaknesses.” 4

The distinction shaped by these writers is a crucial one and one that is resisted by many. It is, however a distinction that exists. Quality is measurable by those with talent, training and experience. It is also the distinction between publishers and button-pushers. Let the button pushers have value, but the publisher must, to avoid obsolescence, have quality in their corner. More importantly, the publisher must be known to have quality, otherwise, as Clay Shirky says we already are, we will become obsolete.

It is in programs like Canada Council and CBC Writes/Reads, where peer review controls output, and winners, and funding, that quality control is evident, and in the literary presses and magazines that depend upon them. Through the creation of panels or boards that are comprised of those well-versed in excellence, trained and experienced at distinguishing quality, a publisher might find an answer to the abundance problem in the digital world. Imagine, rather than jumping on the Grumpy Cat or other cat meme wagon, or depending on popular consumption, a publishing program working like Scribd, except with a literary community of qualified professionals evaluating the content rather than the readers or anyone with a Facebook account. Imagine as a reader, going into the Kobo or Kindle store and being able to find content that you can be sure is quality, that you can clearly differentiate from that created by a button-pusher.

Beginning in the literary communities, with small presses and magazines that already have some measure of control, a publisher might find a way, through the network and through time, to establish a reputation and a program that combines those in-place communities and systems with a digital platform to get content to readers, to distinguish themselves as publishers in a button-pusher world. If that reputation can be vetted and understood globally, then it will not be a far stretch to make it viable and profitable.


One Reply to “Redefining the Publisher: Why We Need Our Gatekeepers”

  1. I do agree that the value added to the work of an author by a publisher is not to be discounted. The name of a publishing house stand behind his/her work. The problem remains that, as an author gains experience and notoriety, the relationship between the author and the publisher will surely change–giving more independence and value to the author. If at first the ratio of the value contributed by the author and the publisher is 20:80, this ratio of value may eventually change to an author-value:publisher-value ratio of 80:20.
    We should probably start describing the services of a publishing team rather than the role of a publisher. When an author self-publishes without the benefits of having his/her work reviewed by editors or promoted by a marketing team, it is unlikely that his/her work will be noticed or appreciated.
    This first “flop” will be added to the self-publisher’s track record.

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