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Who’s Really a Publisher?

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Jan Nathan’s exploration of this question (PMA Newsletter, March) led me to decide to look for an answer by doing some digging into publishing’s past.


In the Beginning

Once, it was easy to get the answer to “Who’s really a publisher?” In classical times, an author or poet simply paid a scribe to make copies of a work for circulation. In more recent years, particularly during the 19th and 20th centuries, book publishers (our main interest here) were companies that paid authors for the right to publish the authors’ work.

Some authors, however, paid for their books to be published. Firms that did this sort of publishing were dubbed “vanity presses” by others in the industry because of the belief that authors were “vain” if they wanted to see their work in print so much that they were willing to pay for it. There was considerable stigma attached to books from vanity presses, which became notorious for demanding big sums of money in return for very little output. As a rule, bookstores and libraries would not buy books with those imprints.

Then, in the 1980s, personal computers, notably the Apple/Macintosh group, launched what became known as the “desktop revolution.” The accessibility of the computer, decent software, and a relatively low investment lowered the threshold for people wanting to get published; they could do it themselves.

The number of publishers increased dramatically. Sometimes a newer, smaller publishing company would collaborate with an author to produce a book in order to e”titce its cash flow and perhaps augment its catalog. Authors who did not want to start on the long learning curve to publish would advance the production money as a loan to the publisher to “prime the pump.” The author provided start-up money, the publisher provided production and marketing skills, and if the book fit the publisher’s catalog editorially, the publisher would produce it under its own imprint. Books that were not a good editorial fit were often published under a separate imprint.

Technology Topples Tradition

The development of a souped-up copying machine technology known as DocuTech introduced by Xerox created another big jiggle in the tranquil world of publishing. Essentially a laser copier on steroids, as some have described it, DocuTech made it possible to print any number of copies, and to individualize some or all. A publisher could have one copy made, or 200. The fact that the machine could receive the files for a book and be set to print out an exact number gave rise to the Print On Demand (POD) printing phenomenon. A traditional publisher could now call for a small quantity–say, 50 or 200 copies, for market testing or galleys or the like. Dan Poynter suggests that a good name for this process is Print Quantity Needed, or PQN. So, to clarify, here POD refers to the process, a type of printing; PQN refers to a type of output.

With the DocuTech machines and similar ones that have appeared, new book production companies–the digital printers–have entered the ultra-short run publishing market alongside the traditional offset printers. Offset printers are also adding PQN/POD capabilties. (Note: Such digital printing usually makes economic sense for print runs under 1,000.) In addition, with DocuTech and some machines like it that followed, Print On Demand Publishing also became available in which a book would be printed only when a reader ordered it.

Add into these developments the advent of the Internet and the World Wide Web and you have another upheaval. Online publishers (called “dotcom” publishers by some) sprang into being, most notably iUniverse.com, XLibris.com, and 1stBooks.com. For a very minor investment (compared with the costs of starting up a traditional company that produced a book), they offered all authors a way to see their work in print.

In this world, the author submits a manuscript, and the dotcom publisher “pours” it into a template (electronically, of course) to create an electronic file of the book. The new book bears the ISBN (International Standard Book Number) of the dotcom (the online publishers I mentioned have huge blocks of ISBNs). With dotcoms such as iUniverse, the book is then available to Lightning Source, Inc. (that POD/PQN arm of Ingram) to await any orders that might be placed for it. When an order comes in, the dotcom has the book printed out and sent to the purchaser.

What’s the Catch?


Here the waters get muddy. Many authors who are published through a dotcom think they are “self-publishers” when industry insiders don’t think so. In the book world, what separates the publishers from the non-publishers is the ISBN. When a person launches a publishing company, one of the first tasks is to get a publisher’s block of ISBNs from R. R. Bowker. This process identifies the “publisher of record.” In applying for the block, the publisher provides contact information–the company name, the address, the contact person, and the like.

The publisher-of-record issue is important to booksellers, particularly from the distribution angle. Distributors look at a publisher’s catalog and decide whether or not it will be worthwhile to take on the publisher’s line. If the book’s ISBN comes from a dotcom with hundreds, even thousands of titles, the distributor will not want to commit to them all on the basis of a single author’s book, especially since the distributor will deduce that the “publisher” of that book is actually just an author who has made a minimal commitment.

Further muddiness results from confusion between the POD process and POD sales terms. Many publishers use a POD printing process (the one Dan Poynter calls Print Quantity Needed) for short runs for a variety of perfectly good reasons and without repercussions because they sell the book from those runs under conventional terms. But bookstores, particularly the chains, generally will not stock books from publishers identified as dotcoms because booksellers read “dotcom” to mean not just a POD-related process but POD sales terms–high unit cost, small discount, and non-returnable copies. (The stores may special-order dotcom titles for customers, though.)
So a “Publisher” Is…

When I asked Marcella Smith, the Director of Small Press & Vendor Relations at Barnes & Noble who B&N considers a publisher, she said: “If the author paid for the production of the title and the marketing expense, the title is self-published. To our way of thinking, the author should buy his/her own ISBN. The sale of ISBNs by a publisher to an author corrupts the integrity of the initial purchase of the ISBN block from the ISBN agency, as the publisher is taking no fiscal or proprietary responsibility for the title.”

Answering the same question, Dan Poynter, “Mr. Self-Publishing” himself, said: “The definition of a publisher is ‘the one who puts up the money.’ That money is used to produce the book. It is normally paid to a printer. If the author pays a company to edit, typeset, and print a book; and if the company’s name, ISBNs, and barcode are on the book, this is closer to traditional vanity publishing.”

In short, the consensus seems to be that someone who has set up a publishing company and established an identity as a publisher is in fact a publisher, as Jan pointed out, but an author who is simply paying for publication without learning and executing publishing skills is just walking away with a published book.

Pat Bell is the owner of Cat’s-paw Press, and the author of “Roughing It Elegantly: A Practical Guide to Canoe Camping” and “The Prepublishing Handbook–What you should know before you publish your first book.” A PMA board member, she’s long been active in the local affiliates.



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