What Good Is A Book Publisher?

"In this new marketplace in which all sales depend on the author's efforts and general retail sales are flat, doesn't it just make more sense to self-publish?"

Berrett-Koehler President and Publisher Steve Piersanti responds:

One of The 10 Awful Truths About Book Publishing that I have written about highlights how most book marketing today is done by authors, not by publishers. That statement has led some observers to question what value publishers offer and whether authors would be better off self-publishing their books, given that the authors, more than their publishers, will drive sales. The case for self-publishing is further strengthened by today’s ability of authors to reach the marketplace through, the new social media, and the authors' own websites.

In fact, I concur that self-publishing is the best avenue for many books, and I often encourage authors to go this route -- particularly when they are able to sell many copies of their books through their own channels.

However, a good commercial publisher still brings tremendous value to the book publishing equation in multiple ways:

1. Gatekeeper and Curator: In today’s insanely crowded marketplace with an overwhelming number of publications competing for our attention, publishers select and focus attention on books of particular value and quality, thereby helping those books stand out. The validation, visibility, and brand provided by publishers add great value to those books.

2. Editorial Development: Berrett-Koehler raises the editorial quality of each book in several ways, including extensive up-front coaching of authors to improve the focus, organization, and content; detailed reviews of the manuscript by potential customers to make the book more useful to its intended audience; and professional line-by-line copyediting. Such editorial development is often pivotal to a book’s success.

3. Design: Self-published books often stand out in a negative way because their covers and interiors appear underdesigned (or overdesigned). Some self-published books lack the professional and appropriate appearance that good publishers bring to books.

4. Production:
Although authors can now produce books on their own computers, publishers can save authors a lot of work while bringing higher quality to layout, proofreading, indexing, packaging, and other aspects of production.

5. Distribution: Publishers can usually make books available through many more channels (trade and college bookstores, multiple online booksellers, wholesalers, and other venues not open to self-publishing companies) than authors can on their own.

6. International Sales: Berrett-Koehler’s books are sold around the world through distributors in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and New Zealand, and Canada.

7. Networks of Customers:
Berrett-Koehler brings books to the attention of our networks of individual customers, institutional customers, bulk sales customers, association book services, catalog sellers, other special sales accounts, and countless other groups. We have been building up these networks for eighteen years, and they add lots of value in helping books to succeed.

8. Publicity and Promotion: Although the publicity and promotion efforts of authors may actually exceed those of their publishers, publishers still reach many prospective buyers that authors cannot reach on their own. This is particularly true for a publisher like Berrett-Koehler that has a multichannel marketing system that combines online, direct mail, bookstore, publicity, social media, e-newsletter, website, special sales, conference sales, and other channels of marketing for each new book.

9. Foreign Translation Rights, Audio Rights, Digital Rights, and Other Subsidiary Rights Sales: This is an area of great focus and success for Berrett-Koehler (with over two thousand subsidiary rights agreements signed thus far) and helps books to reach many more audiences than the publication of just the English-language print edition. Authors also receive extra revenue, a higher profile, and greater satisfaction when their books are published in a variety of languages.

10. Coaching: Perhaps the greatest value provided by publishers is less tangible than the previous items on this list. Just as coaching regarding a book’s content and organization can be pivotal to its success, so too can a publisher’s coaching on the title, price, design, format, timing, market focus, marketing campaign, and even tie-in to the author’s business strategies make a big difference in whether a book succeeds.

In the end, working with good publishers is a partnership. For books to succeed, authors and publishers must collaborate in many ways. For example, the publishers set the table through their marketing channels, but whether the books actually move in those channels often depends on the marketing that the authors carry out.

Berrett-Koehler has been extraordinarily fortunate in that so many of our authors have worked with us –- and continue to work with us -– in this partnering way. We have tried to spell out some aspects of this partnership in the Bill of Rights and Responsibilities for BK Authors.

We also appreciate the many BK customers who partner with BK and with our authors in spreading the word about our publications, serving as manuscript reviewers, and contributing in countless other ways.


Does "selling" through social networks even work any more?

"Now that every business in the world has a twitter account, a facebook page, a myspace page, a blog, and so on, does "selling" through social networks even work any more?"

Thanks for your question. I must say, it’s one that I get quite a bit. My usual answer? “I don’t know.”

I’m joking.

Sort of.

One of the things I like best about Berrett-Koehler is our dedication to the mission, Creating A World that Works for All. My job, as Digital Community Builder, is to advance that mission through the use of social media and its emerging technologies. As such, I mark our success on social networks like those you mentioned not by sales, but by the numbers of people we’ve reached, introduced to our titles, and connected to one another.

And this works. We now have over 500 Facebook fans, nearly 600 Twitter followers, and countless visitors to our author blogs, all of whom are spreading the word about BK and our books.

It’s not about the sales, it’s about creating authentic and honest conversations and communities. Do that and the sales follow (as they have for us).


Bonnie Kaufman, Digital Community Builder


"What Obscure Languages Have BK Books Been Translated Into?"

"It has been exciting over the years to watch the list of foreign languages into which BK books have been translated grow. To date our books have been translated into 42 different languages.

The most common languages that BK books are translated into: Chinese, Spanish, Korean and Portuguese

Second most common: Japanese and Indonesian

Third most common: Italian, Dutch, Turkish, Russian, Thai, and many others.

However, in answer to your question, here are just some of the more uncommon languages that were recently added to BK's foreign rights portfolio: Icelandic, Marathi, Sinhala, Oriya, Urdu, Catalan (close to my [Maria Jesus'] heart, since it is the regional language spoken on my native island, Mallorca), Ukrainian, and my favorite: Macedonian (for Brian Tracy’s Eat That Frog! which holds the BK record for a book translated into the most languages). In fact, just yesterday I got a query about Brian's book from a Latvian publisher. Since we already have Lithuanian and Estonian translations for Eat That Frog!, but not Latvian, we will be glad to complete the Baltic trio!

Woah! We just got an offer for Mongolian rights for Confessions of an Economic Hit Man!"

-- Maria Jesus Aguilo and Catherine Lengronne (Foreign Rights)

“Why is it such a common story for an author to dislike his or her publisher?”

Some time ago a journalist flew at his expense from the East to San Francisco to meet with me because, he said, when he had interviewed a Berrett-Koehler author for a magazine article, she was the first author out of scores he had interviewed who actually liked her publisher. Over the years I have heard from hundreds of authors – particularly refuges from the major publishers in New York – about their dissatisfaction with their publishers. Their complaints have several common themes:

Publishers do little to market books. This is a universal complaint. Authors typically say that their publishers did almost nothing besides printing and warehousing their books. Some authors half-seriously put forward a conspiracy theory that their publishers are intentionally trying to keep their books hidden.

Publishers’ attention to books lasts only a very short time.
As one bestselling author recently told me, speaking of two major publishers, “my publishers’ attention to my books lasted just two or three weeks after the publication date, and then the publishers very quickly disappeared. My agent has told me not to expect anything more.”

Publishers are terrible communicators. As another author explained, “You are dropped like a hot potato the minute your book is published. You are in an industrial process. You have no one to call, no follow-up, no feeling of continuity. You feel completely abandoned.”

Authors feel treated like nuisances. “I don’t feel like I’m being listened to,” one author said. “My input is ignored. Or I’m dismissed because the publisher says ‘we know better.’” Another bestselling author told me that he was treated “as if I was a thief.” Many authors say that they can’t even get anyone to return their phone calls.

Authors’ books are orphaned when their principal contact persons leave the publishers. Often an author’s only point of contact with the publisher is the author’s editor, but editors are always changing, which leaves authors with no advocate for their books or even contact persons. This author’s experience is common: “Our editor was experienced and good but we lost her when she was canned in company cost-cutting; she was replaced by a young person who knew nothing.”

Analysis. What is going on here? Are publishers incompetent and uncaring? I don’t believe that that is the case. Instead, I believe that most publishers are doing their best to cope with the overwhelming pressures and resource constraints that they face. Please click on The 10 Awful Truths About Book Publishing for a quick overview of these pressures and constraints. The bottom line is that publishers have very small budgets and overwhelmed staff to launch a large number of new products each year in an enormously crowded and competitive marketplace.

What can be done? Berrett-Koehler is under the same marketplace pressures and constraints that other publishers are dealing with. However, we take a different approach to dealing with these challenges: we seek to treat authors as equal partners instead of as nuisances. Our approach is outlined in our Bill of Rights and Responsibilities for BK Authors. Some of the ways that we seek to do so are described in these articles:

Fast Company article
Motto article
Chief Responsibility Officer magazine article

We welcome your feedback on how we can better partner with authors to make their publications successful and their publishing experience “one of the highlights of my professional life,” as one of our authors put it.