The Successful Publisher

I’ve been thinking about the previous post, and it seems to me the same advice holds for anyone looking to get into publishing — whether as a self-published author, or as a publisher of other people’s works on any scale. If you don’t define success yourself, the miserable soulless scorekeepers are going to define it by how much money you’re making, or whether or not you’re still in business.

The recent dissolution of HarperStudio is not simply a case in point, it’s a case that demonstrates the utterly bankrupt way the miserable soulless scorekeepers go about their business. What happened at HarperStudio, as far as I can tell, is that the guy who ran the place — Bob Miller — decided to go do something else. In a corporate context that’s the equivalent of leaving your wallet on the street, because there are always other factions in a corporation that want to play with the money in your budget. But is that the same thing as failing?
Seriously: how many people inside HarperCollins were rooting for HarperStudio, and how many were hoping it would fail? If you worked for the mothership, did you really want someone proving that a stripped-down version of what you were doing could actually work? Or did you want it to blow up, with or without your own finger on the trigger? I have no idea if Bob Miller was a hampered visionary or bumbling idiot, but that’s really the point. Does anyone know what was happening behind the scenes? Does anyone know what the money flow was like, and how HarperStudio’s subsidiary status with HarperCollins affected its ability to be successful?
What if Bob Miller had not decided to leave HarperStudio? What if he was still there, doing his job, but the company was badly in the red? Would that be a success story? Better yet, what if he was still doing his job, but he was embezzling money from the company and cheating authors at the same time? From the outside it would look like he was still in business, and thus not a failure — at least until he got caught. Is HarperStudio a failure because it tried to play fair? Are vanity presses that prey on naive customers demonstrating a better business model? (I’ll leave you to guess what the miserable soulless scorekeepers think.)
And what about the absurdity in all this? Anyone who thinks that HarperStudio failed in an objective sense has to reconcile that view with a larger context in which publishing is a wounded, dying animal that has little chance of continuing in its current form. If you really want to say that HarperStudio failed, isn’t the entire industry failing by that score? How many other companies are being held together by their leadership, while the bottom line bleeds out through an artery shredded by the internet? Isn’t there general agreement even now that the big publishers are playing for time in their dealings with Apple and Amazon, and their imposition of the agency model? Is there anyone who can point to a model that’s going to be an unbridled success a year from now? Five years? Ten? Are you shaking your head?
Publishers at every level need to define why they’re doing what they’re doing. Leaving that task to the miserable soulless scorekeepers will always result in the inevitable charge that you’re a failure, because that’s the point of keeping score. If you care about books or writers or publishing, defining that passion will prevent others from defining it for you. You won’t ever be able to get them to admit it, of course, but that’s not the goal. The goal is saving your sanity, if not your soul.

This is a reprint from Mark Barrett‘s Ditchwalk.