Does traditional publishing really confer legitimacy?

UK self-published bestselling author Kerry Wilkinson, already cited in TeleRead for his Kindle Direct Publishing-driven success, has come out against – at least partly – the platform that built his reputation. Posting in The Bookseller‘s FutureBook blog, under the heading “Self-publishing changed my life, but my publisher grew my sales,” he argues in the context of the “debate about traditional publishing versus self-publishing,” and Hugh Howey’s numbers on self-publishing and indie versus traditional publishing sales on Amazon, that the argument “isn’t just sales – it’s legitimacy.”

He continues: “It’s the type of validity that means someone walks into a supermarket, sees a book with my name on it, and thinks, ‘Oh, I’ve seen that cover/title/author somewhere’. It’s also the type of recognition that means people can find your book on Amazon there and then and download it. I’ve had new readers email me who’ve done just that. Like it or not, many, many readers still don’t consider ebook success as legitimate success.”

Yes, that sounds like good recognition. And yes, traditional publishing companies like Wilkinson’s publisher Pan Macmillan can achieve that in a way that self-published authors cannot through marketing campaigns, the kind of billboard and supermarket placements that Wilkinson talks about elsewhere in the article, etc. But does that equal legitimacy?

Recognition is surely one thing, and legitimacy another. If you’re a self-published author selling work to readers on its merits, and especially if you’re a bestseller in your area, then why is your success not legitimate? Arguably, it might even be more legitimate than that of the traditionally published author who has benefited from the publisher’s marketing spend, convenient placement in an imprint or a joint promotion, etc. etc. I can imagine that a lone and unread self-published author with just half a dozen copies sold might feel no honest right to the title of writer, but I don’t see why Wilkinson should have that problem.

This confusion between market presence and legitimacy concerns me because it smacks of old-style authorial deference to the publisher as gatekeeper and custodian of literary success – and literary reputation. Even then, the number of traditional publishers who missed out on or ignored writers highly regarded later is legion. But formerly, if you wanted any kind of legitimacy at all in your lifetime as a writer, you had pretty much nowhere else to go. Now you do have an alternative: Wilkinson has already proved it.

This is not to say for a moment that traditional publishing can’t benefit an author, or has no value. But as Wilkinson himself says, “the issue surely isn’t self-publishing versus traditional publishing, it’s good publishing versus bad.” Yes, and there is more than one kind of bad in the publishing sector nowadays, more than ever before.

And the argument that traditional publishing confers legitimacy – something that traditional publishers can presumably provide without any added effort on their part – is an incentive for those publishers not to raise their game, not to progress and develop, not to engage with the disrupted written media world, not to treat authors better, not to make a better value case for themselves. And in the eyes of many authors, it’s some publishers who have the legitimacy problem. When The Bookseller itself refuses advertising from a division of the world’s biggest book publishing group, you know that the entire industry has, as Y.S. Chi, chairman of Elsevier and president of the International Publishers Association, so bathetically put it, an “image problem” – and more. An industry that gets a boost from perceptions of legitimacy ought perhaps to start thinking about how to deserve them.

2 Comments on Does traditional publishing really confer legitimacy?

  1. It seems to me this isn’t about ‘traditional publishing brings legitimacy’, but rather that traditional publishing brings an enhanced distribution network to a lucky few (my local supermarket stocks little more than the top ten paperbacks). It’s quite possible that we’ll soon see some entrepreneurial print-on-demand service hiring a good sales team that can offer a similar service to sell the ‘top ten’ indie titles to supermarkets and bookstores.

  2. If you flip the question “Does traditional publishing confer legitimacy?” on its back, it becomes “Are self-published authors really just posers?” Obviously, the latter question is insulting and stupid, which makes the former question exactly the same. Two things separate most independent authors from their traditionally published counterparts: The publisher’s connections in the media world that promotes books, and the publisher’s direct line to mass distribution of print. The latter continues to be eroded by ebooks, while the former is still the hard nut to crack for indies. When someone finds a way to help all indie authors break that barrier, legacy publishing is history.

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