kindle-2-carrieBack at the start of this year, Jonathan Galassi wrote an awesome editorial for the New York Times about the value that a publishing house actually provides for a book and an author—those ineffable quality enhancers that make a book cost more than its printing, paper, and binding. Editing. Marketing. Publicity. Design. Attention to detail. Vision.

Galassi’s piece is the perfect counter to those who suggest publishers are going the way of the T-rex, that authors need only throw their manuscripts onto the Kindle. Seventy percent royalty rates! these people crow. Take that, Legacy Publishers! My audience will not be bound by the old paradigms! And then they—I don’t know, twirl the ends of their moustaches while they count their doubloons.

But is Amazon’s self-publication plan truly the first death knell for traditional publishers? One writer friend who has worn an THE END IS COMING sandwich board for the past thirty years sees it as— Well, here’s what he wrote:

The big six are irrelevant long-term, even medium-term. Why would I sell my book to them so they could place it in some projected Apple e-book store? Amazon is offering a 70% royalty. Can the Big 6 plus Apple offer that? No. Because the downward price pressure will squeeze out any superfluous element in the supply chain. And that’s the publishers.

But I’ve borne witness to the fruits of self-publication, and I can testify to you all that it is no threat to books from publishers. It’s the opposite in fact, and some kind of spectacular ugly. An anecdote [that Will Entrekin astutely points out below isn't entirely salient]:

Long ago, when I was desperately poor and pretty much willing to whore my talents out to anyone, I worked for the idiotically named iUniverse, a print-on-demand vanity press. Among its investors were the Author’s Guild and B&N, so it had the appearance of legitimacy; some titles even got distribution to B&N stores. But it was a vanity press, and even the appearance of legitimacy could not disguise the fact that 99.9% of its list was nearly unreadable dreck.

But the people who ran the outfit wanted to create a filter, something to offer the illusion to potential authors (and readers!) that there were some quality controls in place. This is, I’d argue, the issue and where traditional publishers come in: Quality control, and giving an imprimatur of some base quality to a book.

That’s where I came in.

To help potential readers sort through the hundreds of yahoos who published their books through iUniverse, there was something called Editor’s Choice. Or Editor’s Seal. Or Editor’s Paycheck. I don’t recall what the program was called, as I never saw a manuscript or finished book after my review of 100 pages.

I was paid some amount of money—seems super miniscule in memory, but maybe it was fifty dollars? seventy-five dollars?—to read 100 pages and fill out a form providing possible revision direction, and “approving” the manuscript. A couple lines of tepid praise along the lines of “The reader is aware of the author’s painstaking labor every step of the way.” Or whatever. You get the idea.

Only the most egregiously incomprehensible books were rejected, and those were almost more work to reject, because the iUniverse reps would come back to you and say, Are you sure? Are you absolutely sure you’re not just being snobby? Because they were more interested in taking that author’s money than they were in putting out quality books. Just about everyone who paid the extra fee for the Editor’s Stain of Disdain got approved, because that’s what the customer paid for, and these were vanity publications, make no doubt.

The customer in any self-publishing venture is always going to be the author, not the reader. But publishers are there for the rea— Well, no, publishers are there for themselves, clearly, but also for readers. Editors don’t work their jobs to get rich, they do it because they love making good books. And that is not only what makes the books we buy things of quality, it’s also what drives up the cost and eats into author’s potential royalties.

Of course, I could be wrong. (It happens often, I’m told.) Has anyone downloaded any Amazon original titles? Were the books worthwhile? Or did you long to get back those lost hours of your life?