The Publisher's Role and its Challenges

Monday, April 27, 2015


Nota bene: The Federation works with many publishers through its Awards to Scholarly Publications Program (ASPP). We admire the work they do, though we also know that it is not well understood. So in honour of World Book and Copyright Day, we have commission this translation of an excellent article that explores the many facets of the publishing profession. This project was possible because the original French article was published in Open Access in the Presses de l'Université de Montréal's Parcours numériques series. The Federation is a long-time supporter of Open Access, though this is perhaps the first time it has taken advantage of its benefits!


The Publisher's Role and its Challenges
Patrick Poirier
Pascal Genêt
Version supplemented on: March 16, 2014

What is the traditional role of the publisher? In the Internet age, is it still essential? Has easy access to publishing and self-publishing made a central body unnecessary? This chapter will address these questions by outlining the publisher's role as intermediary. A publisher is the bridge between author and reader that helps make content readable. This function has grown all the more important in the Web era, where readers can be lost in a sea of content without the publisher's guiding hand.

A Vital Function

We certainly do not need to go back to the first Gutenberg printing shops to understand the issues and challenges facing today's publishing industry. On the other hand, it is worth remembering that from Gutenberg to Diderot, and then from the French Revolution to the industrial revolution, the history of publishing has been, perhaps above all else, the rich and turbulent history not just of ideas and thought but of their dissemination as well.

Confronted with the challenges and promise of today's digital revolution, we can clearly see that publishing (or more precisely, the history of publishing) is less the story of its evolution than of the many "revolutions" – political and technical – that have profoundly marked its development from the outset. It is no surprise, for example, that Diderot's famous 1763 Lettre sur le commerce de la librairie (Letter on the Book Trade) [ref1], which defended a modern view of publishing, came out of the political turmoil preceding the American and French revolutions. Closely tied to the history of ideas, the evolution of publishing (and even the very job of publisher) has historically reflected a certain democratic ideal that it continues to hold today – and whose preservation looks set to be a key issue in the years to come.

At a time when certain large publishing groups find it all but impossible to publish a book for anything other than profit, we should be concerned about an increasingly apparent form of "control over the free flow of thought in democratic societies […]. Public debate and open discussion, an integral part of the democratic ideal, are coming into conflict with the urgent and growing need for profit" [1], said publisher André Schiffrin some years ago. Today more than ever before, publishers (who are not just cultural and intellectual ambassadors, but key intermediaries between author and reader) must be alert to the risk of giving way to "publishing without publishers" or "the business of books". The worrying spectacle of today's publishing industry (where, sadly, overproduction is but one of many issues) reminds us at the very least that the financial capital of an individual or communications group cannot in itself legitimize or endorse a text, manuscript or document.

The Man of Letters and the Entrepreneur

However, this does not mean the responsibilities of a man of letters bar all pursuit of profit. The French word "éditeur", which means both editor and publisher, reflects the reality of a profession that from the very start has comprised two distinct roles and functions: editorial and entrepreneurial. The editor discovers, approves and oversees the publication of works, acquiring in the process a certain professional status and symbolic value in the literary field. The editor helps develop manuscripts, guides and assists the author, "polishes text, determines which documents to include, designs artwork, and makes technical decisions (format, paper, cover, printing method, etc.)" [2]. The publisher, on the other hand, manages and oversees the production and dissemination of literary works [3] [video1].

A merchant or businessman can become a publisher only when he assumes the double responsibility (material and moral) of producing and disseminating a literary work. To a certain extent this "counter-signature", both financial (economic) and ideological, can turn a manuscript into a book and a writer into an author. In other words, a publisher can reconcile the entrepreneur with the man of letters (or the merchant with the "serviteur de la pensée française" or "servant of French thought", to borrow a phrase from André Grasset). As Pierre Bourdieu observed, "These double characters, through whom the logic of the economy goes to the very heart of 'production for producers', must reconcile opposing inclinations and skills: economic skills, which in some respects are utterly foreign to producers and creators; and intellectual leanings like those of content producers, whose work they can exploit only if they appreciate its value and can make it known" [4].

Building a Catalogue: Text Selection

The double role (economic and symbolic) of publishers, whose cultural legitimacy is built on the discovery and endorsement of authors, requires unique skills and is a strong reflection of personality. Seen from the outside, the book industry can have a "quasi-mystical aura" [5] that perpetuates the "mythological" figure of the publisher, for whom "discovery is to conquest what invention is to production: the manifestation of authority through which he receives credit for the discovery as well as property rights"[6]. However, a publisher is simply a "book industry professional with specific knowledge, skills and expertise" [7]. In this sense, the term "éditeur" ("editor" or "publisher") refers to tasks and functions that support the publisher's symbolic role. This means that in mid- to large-sized publishing firms, these roles and tasks may be delegated to or divided among various team members. The "selection" of a text, which in a sense is the publisher's chief task, is no exception to this rule.

By choosing an author or text, or publishing a book, publishers help endorse an author while making a name for themselves among peers and in the literary world. They create a unique brand for themselves while becoming key mediators between a literary work and the market, in the hope of satisfying the public's desires, expectations and tastes.

In this sense, a publisher's catalogue (all the authors and books overseen by his publishing house) reflects this antagonistic coexistence between economic and cultural values as well as the publisher's own intellectual path, personality and interests (artistic, technical, economic, literary, etc.). Whether the editor alone sorts through texts and documents, or delegates some or all of this task to outside readers or a reading committee (in the case of larger publishing houses), these interests, aesthetic or ideological choices, and certain editorial policies or guidelines play a determining role in the selection process. The final decision is made by the publisher, an editorial committee, or a collection editor based on certain criteria and characteristics.

Text Development and Editing

Whether work is submitted or commissioned, once the text is selected (i.e. the decision to publish is made) the editor, the collection editor or a literary editor must help the author develop and prepare a final draft and provide support, advice and encouragement (i.e. work hand in hand to help finish the text). The publisher (in conjunction with finance officers, for larger publishing houses) then decides how many copies to print, and has the author sign a contract setting out the rights and responsibilities of both parties.

This is followed by a series of steps concerned less with the work of the editor than with that of "book artists". These steps involve revision and correction (important tasks nearly always assigned to outside proofreaders), translation (also assigned to professionals when necessary), or coordination between these professionals, the editor and the author (often assigned to the editorial secretary).

Book Production

Sometimes alone (as with cottage industry publishing), and sometimes as head of operations, the publisher also produces books (i.e. designs, sets up and implements the manufacturing process). This editorial function, both technical and artistic, involves creating a physical design and can begin once the text is completed and corrected. Given the complexity of the process and the many tasks it involves, it is rare today, even in cottage-type operations, for one publisher alone to oversee each step in the manufacturing process. This stage often requires a graphic design artist to prepare the layout and proofs. In conjunction with the editor or an art director, or based on the design and physical features of a given collection, the graphic artist determines font size and type, oversees the copying and insertion of illustrations where applicable (usually on the cover), determines and calibrates design and layout, estimates the number of pages, etc. The first proof is then sent out for corrections, at which point it is common for the editor to return a copy to the author for revisions. At the same time, the editor or production manager submits the proof to a printer for a cost estimate once the choice of paper, method of printing, and type of cover and/or binding are determined.

Like the selecting of texts, a book's physical production (manufacture) also takes aesthetic choices and criteria into account. And just as a publishing firm's catalogue of titles and authors indicates its editorial line, its ideological or political leanings and the reliability of its content, an editor or publishing firm's name is an assurance of a work's physical and graphical quality. While not overstating the importance of a book's aesthetic value, its physical appearance (print quality, choice of paper and packaging, etc.) and graphic signature (stylishness, design research, general appearance, etc.) are part of the firm's brand image and trademark. Far from minor, these factors can be a great asset. And while financial concerns are of clear importance in this case, many smaller publishing firms still produce quality books through hard work, care and skill.

Book Distribution

By putting his name or that of his firm at the bottom of a book, the publisher plays an active role in public life and engages in an act of communication that transcends the book's production. The publisher (or head of marketing and promotions) not only mediates with bookstores and the public to market a work he has helped format and produce. By distributing the book, he also promotes literary values, an aesthetic vision, an artistic movement or a school of thought. In short, he plays a social role by helping develop and maintain his society's intellectual, literary and cultural life. What is more, "this mediation makes the text part of a business venture, and includes it in a social communication process that gives it meaning" [8].

While a number of small publishing firms perform book distribution tasks (promotional activities, news releases, meetings and relations with bookstores, literary critics, etc.), most publishers would rather delegate these tasks, in whole or in part, to the care of specialized firms (storage of copies, management of orders, invoicing and accounting, etc.) than have smaller distribution networks. But while the book's optimal distribution is important (with the digital revolution creating new opportunities in this area), it is by taking part in and closely monitoring these activities that a publisher can ensure maximum public exposure. To the publisher's traditional participation in domestic and international book fairs, and the author's presence in traditional media (literary criticism in print media, cultural magazines and journals, literary programs on radio and television, etc.), we can add today's ever growing need to disseminate books via Internet and social media.

The publisher has always been an intermediary between reader and author, or between public and writer (creator). Though this activity (publishing in general) must find new forms and new ways of operating in today's digital world (a major issue for all publishers), it is still a mediation which, as in the past, requires the publisher to develop a "space" and a "venue" where authors and readers can "meet" to explore ideas it has approved or endorsed.

Issues and Challenges

In Quebec and elsewhere, the world of publishing – especially literary publishing – is going through one of the largest upheavals in its history. Not only have market ideology and certain cultural policies transformed the landscape in recent years, but publishing firms and bookstores (once a vital link in the distribution chain) now face challenges posed by the digital "revolution".

For the publishing industry, this revolution has led to unexpected (and even undreamt of) opportunities. It supports publishers in their traditional and key role as mediators in the creation and distribution of books, whatever their form. Today as in the past, for traditional books and their paperless counterparts, there remains a need for a middleman between author and reader. In the digital age, this is truer than ever. "In the face of so much uncertainty, and the rising tide of texts of all kinds saturating the net, it is certain that in future publishers will be looked to more than ever as a standard or benchmark. With millions of texts and blogs competing online for attention, tomorrow's readers will need credentials, seals of approval and assurances of quality. Publishers can provide this" [9] [video2].

Historically, we should note that the publisher first "appeared" in society "when a public space for literature was created" [10]. From the development of this limited public space to the emergence of today's global forum (World Wide Web), the need for a middleman between author and reader has remained the same. And if we are to believe the predictions of Olivier Bessard-Banquy, it will be all the more true in years to come. Readers who aren't content to accept the noise of popular "opinion", or the standard hearsay that passes for "discourse" on the Web, would do well to seek out intermediaries who can not only show them other perspectives but do it more effectively and clearly. Faced with the plethora of titles filling bookstore shelves and pouring out into cyberspace, what do we choose?

While the publisher has long been thought of as the writer's "symbolic banker", this financial metaphor says volumes about a symbolic capital that is the publisher's chief responsibility and a valued assurance in the virtual world. It is by engaging in more than a book's physical production (as important as it is for printed books, and as dematerialized as it is for e-books) that one assumes the role and functions of publisher. It is not the promises of the digital revolution that raise concerns in this regard, but the spectre of "publishing without publishers" or "the business of books". As Gustavo Sorá sadly noted, "In the past, publishers had to be recognized by the intellectual community. Today they have to be recognized by the market" [11].

Bertrand Legendre says that "cottage-type practices and industrial strategies come together in this sector, which is well acquainted with the logic of concentration and the trend of financialization" [12]. The swiftly rising number of titles, and of merger-acquisitions between publishing firms or groups, bears eloquent and daily witness to the triumph of "publishing without publishers", or "the business of books", to borrow a phrase from André Schiffrin, where "quantity is more important than quality" [13]. Faced with the real risk of publishing firms merging into conglomerates whose operations go well beyond book publishing, the subordination of more and more editorial policies to business imperatives, and the abandonment of core policies to the pursuit of swift and massive profits, we can see how a large part of the book industry seems to have consigned to history the leading role of publisher, this endorsement and assurance that books, especially in today's digital revolution, may be in greater need of than ever. While the digital revolution is effecting real change in the traditional book industry (especially for production and distribution), economic mergers in the publishing industry and the systemizing of "extreme marketing" have called into question "the public role of publishing and its editorial know-how as a space and venue for disseminating knowledge and understanding" [14].

"Amid the catalogue of promises by corporate raiders who say there are new projects to tackle, skills to acquire and distinctions to achieve, there is cause for publishers (good intermediaries) to hesitate and think twice," says Hubert Nyssen. "And thus many publishing firms, diverted from their vocation by promises and mirages, give in and agree to join financial groups, or even trade their accomplishments for an income that will ensure their founders' financial security. And since this devouring, which has its own logic – the logic of money – is accompanied by dominance over distribution networks and the media world's vast resources, those who resist are condemned to solitude and silence. And along with them the authors, before whom the publishing industry's doors will close forever" [15].

The book industry is in the midst of new challenges, even tensions, imposed by the emergence of new technologies (especially the advent of digital technology, which has redefined production and distribution methods and cultural practices in general). The changes are many: dematerializing of media and formats, unlimited access to content in time and space, information management and updating for easier reference, emergence of new business models and distribution networks, etc. Today's digital world points to a future where, while developing a virtual space (pages, sites, digital platforms, etc.) that preserves all publishing functions, people will question the need for what are now called "publishing houses" or even advocate shutting them down. Addressing these changes and this crisis will require the publishing industry's traditional skills and expertise – first and foremost those of the publisher himself. To enter the publishing industry, says Nyssen, "is to enter a crisis. And that may be good, since crisis can breed great purpose and resolve" [16].

Genêt Pascal, Poirier Patrick (2014). "La fonction éditoriale et ses défis (The Publishing Business and its Challenges)", published by Les Presses de l'Université de Montréal in Pratiques de l'édition numérique (Digital Publishing Practices), "Parcours Numériques" collection, Montreal, p. 15-29, ISBN: 978-2-7606-3202-8 (, RIS, BibTeX.

This work is made available under a Creative Commons Licence – Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International. Thank you for crediting the author and the source.

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