The Value Of A Publishing House

This post, from Laura Dawson, originally appeared on her blog on 1/6/10. 

Slipping into the New York Times the day after New Year’s was an op-ed by Jonathan Galassi, president of FSG, which begins with the question, “What is an ebook?” and ends (or nearly ends) with this observation: “A publisher — and I write as one — does far more than print and sell a book. It selects, nurtures, positions and promotes the writer’s work.”

In between the opening question and the conclusion is a gap roughly the size and consistency of the La Brea tar pits.

To the first point – “Are e-books a new frontier in publishing, a fresh version of the author’s work? Or are they simply the latest editions of the books produced by publishers…?” – the answer is, of course, “It depends.”

If an ebook is simply a digital reproduction of a print book, the answer leans towards being “the latest editions” – and frankly, in the case of a lot of ebooks, it’s less of a reproduction than a travesty of formatting and a sort-of approximation of what the print book was supposed to offer.

If an ebook contains new information/illustrations, is presented in a variety of formats and fonts, and possibly contains video, or an author interview, or other material…it’s probably “a fresh version of the author’s work” which has been curated by the ebook publisher in a different way than the print publisher did. (And which is what Open Road is saying they’re all about.)

But is it solely the author’s work that forms the basis of that ebook? Galassi argues, in the case of William Styron, “An e-book version of Mr. Styron’s “The Confessions of Nat Turner” will contain more than the author’s original words. It will also comprise Mr. Loomis’s editing, as well as all the labor of copy editing, designing and producing, not to mention marketing and sales, that went into making it a desirable candidate for e-book distribution. Mr. Styron’s books took the form they have, are what they are today, not only because of his remarkable genius but also, as he himself acknowledged, because of the dedicated work of those at Random House.”

All true!

But then the trouble starts. Galassi states: “An e-book distributor is not a publisher, but rather a purveyor of work that has already been created. In this way, e-books are no different from large-print or paperback or audio versions. They are simply the latest link in an unbroken editorial chain, the newest format for one of man’s greatest inventions: the constantly evolving, imperishable book — given its definitive form by a publisher.”

And here is where I strongly disagree. It’s those words “definitive form” – which presume that the hardcover first-run is the “real” book, while everything that follows is somehow derivative. As our work with StartwithXML has demonstrated, this view of the “editorial chain” is rapidly evolving into a model where there is NO “definitive form”.

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