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What Is the Role of a Publisher?

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Publishing companies range from corporations that fill bookstores with best-sellers to boutique firms that put out a few prestigious volumes a year. The role of publishers is simple: to get writers' books and other materials into the hands of readers. There is, however, a huge range in the services and methods that publishing companies use to get the job done.


The role of traditional publishing companies is to choose books with promise, put them into finished form and market them to the public.

Publishing History: The Beginning

For most of history, publishing wasn't a thing. First, humans had to develop writing. Even after that, there were centuries in which literacy was limited to priests and scribes. Without a body of people to read books, commercial publishing companies can't exist.

Even after literacy grew more common, most books were created by hand one at a time. They were more like objects of art than the mass-produced books of the modern world. In the 15th century, however, Johannes Gutenberg invented a printing method using movable type, ink and paper, and everything changed.

The Gutenberg press made printing books in larger numbers easier than ever before and without the errors that hand copying often generated. It was also easier to print official documents or political pamphlets criticizing the authorities. Alarmed at printing's potential for stirring up trouble, governments and religious authority spent several centuries trying to restrict the freedom of the press.

Modern Publishing History

By the 19th century, publishing companies had largely won the fight to publish what they wanted within limits. The functions of the publisher were changing too. Instead of handling everything from printing to sales in house, publishers began outsourcing. Printing companies made the books, and stores handled the selling to consumers.

Publishing technology changed steadily over the centuries, but the 20th century development of the computer and the internet changed it even more:

  • It's possible for a writer to form his own publishing house, package his own books and market them online either as e-books or in hard copy.

  • The rise of Amazon has hammered brick-and-mortar bookstores. That changes the way people shop for books and the prices they'll accept. For instance, anyone shopping on Amazon for a book will see a list of used copies, usually at lower prices.

  • E-books make it possible to read without carrying a book around with you. All you need is your phone.

  • Audiobooks allow people to "read" while taking a car trip.

  • It's much easier to copy a manuscript that exists digitally than when they existed only in hard copy. Pirate and bootleg copies are a serious issue, eating into the earnings for authors and publishers.

Types of Publishing

Some people think of publishing in relation to book or e-book publishing, but there are other examples of publishers. The other big category is periodical publishing, or putting out magazines and newspapers at regular intervals. Like book publishing, this is an incredibly diverse category including periodicals of science, literature, current news and celebrity gossip.

There are different types of publishing in the world of books too: traditional, subsidy or vanity press, self-publishers and author services that help authors bring books to market. The difference between them is blurrier in the digital age than it used to be. The functions of the publisher vary between the categories.

About Traditional Publishers

Traditional publishers are what many readers expect publishing companies to be like. Some "trad" publishers produce a wide variety of books in different categories, while others specialize in specific genres, nonfiction topics or reprints of older, out-of-copyright novels. Authors or agents submit manuscripts to the publisher, and the publisher signs a deal for the books that look promising.

The functions of the publisher or its subcontractors include the editing, design, layout, marketing and distribution of the author's book. The publisher receives the revenue for the books, and the author receives a royalty on each sale. Writers may receive an advance against the royalties, but that's not as common as it used to be.

Small-Press Publishers

Small-press publishers are traditional publishers working on a smaller scale. Stephen King's books get print runs in the thousands, whereas a small press may print a few hundred or may print on demand in response to someone ordering a copy. Some small presses are e-book only.

The functions of the publisher are much the same, but some publishers offer fewer services. For example, they may require that the author come up with a marketing plan as part of the book submission.

The good thing about small presses is that they have much less overhead than a major publishing company. They can make a profit on books with much fewer sales than big trad publishers require. Small presses often have better contract terms, and they're more creative about marketing and promoting books.

Subsidy and Vanity Publishing

With traditional publishing companies, money flows to the author, meaning the writer pays nothing for the functions of the publisher. With subsidy or vanity presses, the author's money flows to the publisher. These companies will often accept any manuscript because they make money off the author, not from sales.

In return for authors' fees, these publishing companies may do nothing beyond format the e-book and put it up for sale. Other subsidy presses offer design, editing and marketing for an added price and provide hard copies of the book. As subsidy/vanity presses don't depend on book sales for their income, they do little to market and distribute books.

Subsidy press fees can run into five figures. Authors rarely recoup their costs, and vanity press contracts are often exclusive: Once you place a book with them, you can't take it elsewhere. Some publishers are outright scam artists who take the money and give authors nothing.

About Self-Publishing

Even before the dawn of the computer age, some writers were passionate enough about their books to pay for their own printing and to handle their own marketing. A few even had success with it. In the 21st century, it's much easier to self-publish, though the sheer rush of authors releasing their own books makes turning a profit tougher.

Along with the ease of distribution and the cheap costs of putting out e-books, authors benefit from publishing services. While some of these are little better than vanity presses, others handle the formatting for digital books in return for a cut of the profits on each sale. Marketing, printing hard copies and finding cover art often remain the author's responsibility.

Self-publishing sales range from smash hits such as "Fifty Shades of Grey" to obscure books that sell a dozen copies. However, the upfront costs are usually low, so there's less of a financial risk. Where trad publishers may pull a book from the market if it doesn't sell, authors can keep their own books available. Some catch on and sell well years later.

Choosing Between Types of Publishers

Subsidy/vanity presses are usually a bad deal for authors, but it might work for people who want to publish a book but aren't worried about selling it. For example, if someone wants to publish her autobiography or a family history to share with relatives, then vanity-press publishing might suit her. It's still expensive, though, especially if you want more than a few copies.

For authors looking to build a writing career, trad publishing or self-publishing is a better choice. Some authors start by submitting their book to major publishers, then try small presses and then self-publish if they can't find anyone else. Others prefer the flexibility and greater control that self-publishing brings or believe they can market their books better than a trad firm.


Over the course of his career, Fraser Sherman has reported on local governments, written about how to start a business and profiled professionals in a variety of career fields.. He lives in Durham NC with his awesome wife and two wonderful dogs. His website is

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