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Director’s Desk:
Who’s a Publisher?

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Our industry is becoming confused. And when it gets confused, it builds fences… many of which are becoming impenetrable.

One area of confusion centers on the following question: Who is a publisher and who is not? In today’s publishing community, many people who have written a book have paid for its production and been informed that they are its publisher. Paying for a product definitely does not make one a publisher. Owning the product’s ISBN (International Standard Book Number) definitely does make one a publisher. But there’s more to it than that.

Each day at the PMA office, we spend hours discussing projects with–and answering questions from–authors who think they are publishers. They are astounded when distributors, wholesalers, and retailers will not speak with them about making their titles available to the trade. They’re also surprised when we tell them that even if they did participate in many of the PMA marketing programs, there would be no way to track the effectiveness of the programs for their books. The reason? Most book ordering relies on the ISBN and the orders will never come to these authors because they don’t own their ISBNs. Instead, orders will go directly to the registered owner of the ISBN, who counts as the publisher.

This seems to be extremely difficult for many authors to grasp, since there are companies that produce their books and inform them by letter that the author is the publisher. We do our best to dispute this statement by giving authors a 5-, 10-, or 20-minute education on what makes a publisher and the duties of a publisher.

WhatOS=”hnology Doesn’t Do

Technology is wonderful and technology is horrible. Technology has now afforded many authors the opportunity to enter the world of book publishing cost-effectively. But, in the same breath, technology has made far too many authors think that they can skip all the necessary steps that publishers take in developing a product that can compete on the shelves. A favorite quote of mine when I speak on publishing to novice publishers and/or authors is: “Quark or PageMaker does not a designer make, nor do any of the editing programs currently available make one an editor. We still desperately need good designers and great editors to enable our titles to compete in our crowded world of publishing.”

A friend of mine had her book produced by one of the many emerging print-on-demand houses that many times take whatever you have on your disk, process it, and present you with a book–or at least a product that looks like a book. She was so proud, as anyone would be, when she came to present her new title to me. Showing me a cover that anyone in the industry would look at and think, Whoops, homegrown, she said, “Can you believe my granddaughter designed this cover?” Well, I love my grandkids as much as anyone, but I can’t even imagine ever asking one to design a book cover. My reply? “Yes, I can.”

We just finished PMA’s Trade Distribution meeting in January and spent a full day looking at 156 books. In the past, we typically accepted a third of the books that were entered. However, over the past few years, we have been seeing more products that are almost-but-not-quite books enter into this program and the percentage of titles chosen has decreased from 33% to 20-25%. The trend continued this year. Out of our 156 books, we found only 32 with potential for the general trade bookstore. (We also know, after patterning, that only a third of these 32 have a good chance of success, although it’s impossible to tell ahead of time which third.)


What Publishers Have to Do

So why do we all keep on publishing new product into an increasingly crowded industry? Often it’s because we have dreams, passion, and information that we assume that no one else has presented properly. (In some cases, we’re right. In others, we’re rehashing an old theme.) And because success can be achieved… if we are right about our book and if we have knowledge of the markets for which we are publishing, along with a good, well implemented marketing plan–in other words, if we do what a publisher has to do.

Let’s celebrate this month, Small Press Month, by clearly defining and understanding our roles in the world of independent publishing!

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