“I Want to Be a Book Publisher”

by | Dec 21, 2010

I was talking with a self-publisher today about everything he had learned over the months spent getting his book ready to go to press.

It had been a long haul putting the book together, and the author had worked with several editors before asking me to help him put the project together.

“Well,” he said, “I’ve got my publishing company all set up. Maybe I’ll make it into a real publishing company. Publish books for other authors who are just starting out.” I could see this was an idea with some charm to it.

I was a little surprised at this, since the book hadn’t even gone on the market yet. There is nothing quite like the experience of taking delivery on 1,000 or 2,000 hardcovers and wondering if you’ll ever see the money that went into them again.

That’s when you know whether you want to be a book publisher, and whether you have a gift for it.

“How will you do that?” I asked. “Are you going to publish only books in your niche?”

“Look, I’ve learned how books get put together, how they get edited, designed, typeset and how to get printing quotes and arrange for fulfillment and all the rest. If you don’t have to learn all that, there’s some value there, isn’t there? That’s what publishers do, after all.” He seemed satisfied with this.

Storms on the Horizon

But I sensed something was missing.

“Not really,” I said. “Publishers have a market. There’s some group of people they are tuned into and know well. What they do is go out and find the books that their market wants to buy. Publishers are media companies. They risk their own money on properties they think their market will buy in enough quantity that they’ll make a profit.

“If they publish business books, it’s the business community. If it’s cookbooks, they are selling to home cooks. It’s their connection to the market that’s critical, that makes the company. Editing, book design, the other nuts and bolts are secondary to their business, really.”

He was looking quizzical by now.

“On the other hand,” I went on, “if you charge authors for arranging their publication, getting their ISBNs, having their books edited, designed, and put into distribution, you are no longer a media company. Now you’re an author-services company, or a subsidy publisher.

Your market is made up of aspiring authors and self-publishers. Your profitability will have nothing to do with your ability to find and cultivate writers who appeal to your market, because you will publish anyone who can pay the freight. You no longer have to sell books at all to be profitable. You only have to sell services to authors.

“These are two completely different kinds of companies. Which one did you mean, when you said you wanted to be a publisher?” We looked at each other and smiled.

“I guess I’ll have to think about that one, Joel,” he said, and we went on with our business.

Image licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License, original work copyright by wrestlingentropy, https://www.flickr.com/photos/wrestlingentropy/2561751351/

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Tracy

    This is very helpful content, thank you.

  2. scott

    hey joel, I liked the article a lot because I am trying to figure out how I find someone who would look at the educational book I want to publish? Do you have any suggestions?

  3. Clay

    Interesting post. In the 90s, we self-published six books for parents. In the 00s, our “platform” resulted in five mainstream publishing contracts. Now, in the 10s, we’re self-publishing more books, and asking the question: Should we try royalty publishing? So, if I offer a royalty contract, all necessary publishing services, and the reputation of my brand to an author’s book that fits our market, but I do not spend a lot on promotion since we don’t have to, what kind of “publisher” am I? What are the lines of distinction between self-publishing, help-publishing, co-publishing, subsidy-publishing, and royalty-publishing? I wonder if the digitization and democratization of publishing is changing the once-uncomplicated paradigm of royalty vs. subsidy into something more complex. Or not. I’m confused. I think you should explore this more, Joel.

  4. J. Tillman

    Mr. Friedlander, I agree 100% with your analysis of the publishing business.

    Here is my take on exactly what is publishing. If a company produces books and makes money by selling those books, then it is a publisher. Publishers revenue flow comes from book buyers.

    If a company makes money by charging authors, then it is not a publisher; it is in a different category, even if it (incidentally) sells books. There are honorable companies in that second category. And some not-so-honorable. But if one of those companies is calling itself a publisher, then the integrity of that company is already in question.

  5. Neil Levin

    Great post Joel. I love books and believe wholeheartedly in the creative process but at the end of the day publishing is a business. Books are consumer products and without markets they will just be another unsuccessful consumer product. Publishers need to focus on the other components of a profitable, on-going enterprise such as marketing, distribution, cover design, pricing, customer service, etc if they want to be more than just a 100 copy creative exercise.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks Neil, you know the territory, but we need to keep educating people to help them make good decisions. Thanks for stopping by.



  1. Tweets that mention “I Want to Be a Book Publisher” — The Book Designer -- Topsy.com - [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Pip Green/Pippa Jay. Pip Green/Pippa Jay said: RT @jfbookman: "I Want to…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.