April 7, 2023

In Defense of Traditional Publishing

Traditional Publishing

I live in a small, unincorporated town outside of Chattanooga, TN. We’re close enough to the city to have all the amenities we need, but wander three minutes from our house and you’ll find sprawling acres, rolling hills, and cows grazing. Especially for a girl from Los Angeles, this is The Country. 

Our town is also home to one of the largest industrial producers of snack food and baked goods in the U.S.: McKee Foods. If you’ve ever eaten a Little Debbie Nutty Bar or a Sunbelt Bakery Granola Bar, then you’ve had a small taste of Tennessee. McKee Foods is one of the largest employers and land owners in our area. You can’t go far here without running into something owned or operated by McKee. (Fun fact: our neighbor is good friends with the Little Debbie herself!)

Because of their large scale of operations, McKee Foods has a small number of brands, like Little Debbie and Sunbelt, that specialize in the production of certain baked goods. They mass-produce these items and ship them all over the world to grace grocery store aisles and hospital vending machines. As you can imagine, McKee has the production of these goods down to a science: precise recipes, finely tuned machines, and a wide network of people to keep everything running. McKee serves a worldwide market of moms and kids who want reliable and cheap baked goods.

But down the street from the McKee Foods factory, tucked in between a Papa John’s and a nail spa in a little strip mall is The Bakery in Ooltewah. Owned and operated by a Puerto Rican baker, they offer a wide variety of delectable treats handmade from scratch every single day. Every pastry is a little different; some sweet rolls are bigger than others, some have a little more frosting. All, of course, are delicious. You can’t buy their baked goods at an Albertsons in California or a Whole Foods in New York. You can’t even buy them at the Publix down the road in Tennessee! You have to go directly to The Bakery to get what you’re looking for. As you can imagine, they have a small but loyal and passionate audience of people who want a more customized and specialized, maybe a healthier, experience.

Guess where I’m going with all of this?

You can think of traditional publishing like McKee Foods, and self-publishers more like The Bakery. They’re designed to serve different audiences and they have different purposes. This analogy only goes so far, so let’s not overthink it, but it’s a useful illustration to make the point: Traditional publishers and self-publishers simply operate on different levels, for different reasons.

Is one model better than the other? Yes; they’re each better depending on what you’re trying to accomplish. Your goals as an author should guide you toward the best model for you. 

But the value of traditional publishing has, no doubt, been called into question in recent years. With the rise of our cultural value in small businesses and the individual entrepreneur, the ease with which people are able to self-publish, and the tightened gate-keeping of traditional publishers, many people are asking:

What the heck are traditional publishers good for, anyway?

Last week, I was interviewed about this on a self-publishing podcast, and my friend Molly and I have been having a back-and-forth conversation about the same topic. Plus, the rejections for my own book (with my co-writer and podcast co-host Liz Morrow) have been pouring in. So, this question has been on my mind. 

I truly believe that neither model is better for authors than the other; they’re simply different, so “better” is going to depend on your goals. With that in mind, let me try to give a little defense of traditional publishers.

How did traditional publishing become a “thing” in the first place?

The value of the traditional publishing model has been a foregone conclusion since the mid-19th century, when several technological innovations coincided to make it possible for once small-scale printers, like George Routledge or Scottish brothers Daniel and Alexander Macmillan, to rapidly accelerate their operations and begin mass-producing books with better binding, better quality paper, and more uniform pages and typesetting. Books were suddenly affordable and we saw a boom of new publishers, authors, and even the first literary agent toward the end of the 1800s.

Higher sales creates a precedent for future books; now they have a higher standard they need to meet in order for business to continue growing. The acquisitions editor was born to help meet those demands and ensure that publishers were taking on the best books to continue growing the business. In the U.S., where the publishing industry was so new and there were so many immigrants, republishing beloved foreign authors was also a massive part of a publisher’s business. Agents and editors played a vital role in helping assess, translate, and otherwise repurpose foreign works for the new American market.

All of this (and much more—some further reading listed below!) has led to today’s “traditional” publishing climate, which is characterized by a handful of key features:

  • Acquisitions editors and editorial teams who operate as vetters, deciding who and what should be published
  • Literary agents who advocate for prospective authors, driving up the cost of advances, making large-scale publishing a much more costly endeavor
  • Large-scale print runs (often in the tens of thousands of books produced)
  • Worldwide distribution and sales networks
  • In-house teams of professionals to guide the book production process
  • The transfer of the copyright for the book (not the ideas—an important distinction!) to the publisher for management

The short of it is that traditional publishing operates on a massive scale, and the systems and “rules” they have in place are designed to help perpetuate that scale. 

With any business model, I think the question to keep asking is:

How does it benefit the end user? (How does traditional publishing benefit the reader?)

As authors, I realize that traditional publishing doesn’t always serve our needs and desires, and that’s frustrating.

But it’s not supposed to.

Traditional publishing ensures quality control.

Debates about censorship and freedom of speech aside, traditional publishing ensures that readers regularly enjoy a consistently high-quality reading experience with information they can trust. The vetting from an editorial team helps to stop the spread of disinformation, plagiarism, and inaccurate information. And the finely tuned production process ensures that books are sturdy, long-lasting, and physically easy to read.

Traditional publishing raises literacy rates.

I think we can all agree that a literate society is a good thing. The rise of traditional publishing has played a vital role in also raising our national literacy rates in the last couple hundred years. Having more books physically in existence means more people are reading, and that’s an incredible gift to humanity. Furthermore, traditional publishers often partner with schools and educational institutions to make sure that high quality books are made available for students.

Traditional publishing enables the longevity of books.

Not only does traditional publishing increase the number of physical books available; it means they’re available for longer periods of time, too. If a self-publisher or individual author can no longer support the sale of a book, it will simply disappear from existence, except in the resale market—if you can find it. Traditional publishers have the means to ensure that books stay in circulation for much longer periods of time.

Traditional publishing provides greater variety in books.

Traditional publishers offer a broader range of books because they employ larger teams of people who can provide expertise in multiple areas. This means that readers can more easily find reading material to suit their interests and pursuits. I was wandering in Barnes & Noble the other day, simply taking in the broad diversity of the books available. Bookstores, and publishing houses, are a fascinating microcosm of humanity.

Traditional publishing exposes the general public to new ideas.

Traditional publishers also have the means to take risks on new authors and new ideas, and to mass-distribute those ideas to readers. To me, this is one of the greatest benefits of the industry, and the primary reason I’m so passionate about what I do. Nearly everyone I know has read a book that changed their life—I certainly have. And I bet you, 9/10 times, that book was traditionally published because an editor took a chance on it.

Traditional publishing also ensures that ideas are given time to incubate.

One of authors’ greatest complaints about the traditional publishing space is how long it takes to produce a book. Often, books are published two to three years after they were written. How could that possibly be a good thing for anyone?!

There are downsides to the long timeline, but that long timeline is part of what helps ideas incubate and form. I know so many books that have benefited from a longer development time, as they’ve gotten better and better with each successive iteration. Again, it’s likely that the books you love most went through multiple drafts and lots of hard-hitting questions to pressure test the ideas and the writing.

Books are almost always better for the extra time that is put into the development process.

Traditional publishing protects copyrights.

This is indisputably a good thing for authors, but it’s also a good thing for readers. Copyright protection encourages greater creativity and innovation and incentivizes creators to produce more new works. It also helps to prevent piracy and the illegal distribution of books, which actually works in the long run to limit access by making it impossible for publishers to afford to produce those books.

I’m sure there are more reasons you could argue for the existence of traditional publishing. All of the ones I’ve listed are the reasons that I, personally, have felt a high moral calling to serve readers through traditional publishing.

But I’m well aware that traditional publishing is not perfect, and we are right to continually question its existence to make sure that it’s still truly serving readers’ needs. 

So next week, I’ll provide a counter-defense of self-publishing (from the reader’s perspective) to make sure that I’m representing both perspectives!

Further Reading on the History of Publishing:

Photo by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash