I wrote the note below in response to someone saying (for the 5,000th wrong time in this Amazon thing 2014 edit: Macmillan Amazonfail Feb 2010) that publishers are no longer necessary because of internet distribution of ebooks. It takes a lot of money to produce a book in terms of editing, copyediting, PR, and even gatekeeping (yes there’s value to gatekeeping, it helps readers find books they have much better odds of enjoying). Now, the particular comment I was responding to was a slightly more sophisticated version of the “you don’t need publishers” argument in that it at least acknowledges that those things need to happen and suggested outsourcing. But that’s still not a terribly workable model because it ignores the economics of the situation. So let me address that:
Under the current model one of two things happens: 1) I write the book, my publisher buys (the rights), fronts all the other costs, and I get paid so that I can eat while I’m writing the next book, then—assuming I earn out—more money comes in on a regular basis starting between 6 months and several years after publication, allowing me to continue to eat. 2) My publisher buys the book on proposal and I get paid in advance to write it, then they front all the other costs and the rest follows.
If I want to become my own publisher I have to front all those costs myself and have to wait till the book earns out (maybe) to recoup those costs (again maybe) up to several years after I’ve fronted them. But, since I don’t have a spare 3-20k* sitting around that I can bet on a possible return potentially several years down the line, what actually happens is I stop writing and find a new job and there are no more Kelly McCullough books. So, yes, ____ was pretty much all wrong.
And that’s without accounting for things that my publisher does that don’t go directly into the making and selling of the book, like my publisher’s legal department—which I hope never to become any more familiar with than I am now. In a perfect world none of my books will ever get involved in a legal dispute of any kind, but if someone decides to sue me for any reason whatsoever in regards to my writing, the fact that I have a major publisher on my side significantly reduces the chance that a frivolous (or otherwise) lawsuit bankrupts me.
*Updated to add: I should probably also note that 3-20k is what a publisher pays for copyediting etc. and that the price they get based on their volume and reliability is much better than the price I would be likely to get for those same services (assuming I want a similarly professional job).