What use is a publisher?

In last night’s wide-ranging MA Publishing Masterclass, founder of Strathmore Publishing Nicholas Jones posed a corker of a query: what use is a publisher?

Nicholas pointed out that the idea of publishers as we know them today is relatively modern, having only developed once technology (in this case Gutenberg’s printing press and later moveable type) democratised the dissemination of information. This was a theme he constantly came back to, sharing his memories of the 1995 Apple 6100 Power Mac, the first machine that was capable of running packages like Quark, which instantly cut the cost of typesetting a page from around £10 to less than £1. So as technology marches on, do publishers still have a role to play and if so what is the nature of that role?

In a deeply researched analysis, Nicholas reflected on Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 work, Understanding Media, which emphasises that any dissemination medium is the message itself. He also cited Adrian Moore’s 1972 view that publishers must be instigators and innovators in their own right (not simply parasitizing the work of others…), a point which still rings true almost 40 years later.

Nicholas, then, clearly thinks publishers can and should add value, packaging information in forms (whether they be printed, online or in other digital formats) which enable it to reach people who want or need it, at the right price and at the lowest cost to the producer. In what Nicholas ambiguously described as the ‘free’ world (take your pick about whether that refers to the proliferation of free content or the technology-enabled ability of ‘anyone’ to publish material), what – precisely – should publishers offer though? Nicholas’s view:

  • Findable content
  • Immediate content
  • Personal service (a la Amazon’s ‘if you like this, you might like this…’)
  • Involvement in the publishing process (for instance via services such as Unbound)
  • Quality and authenticity
  • Something ‘non-virtual’ (personally, I might disagree with this point)
  • Useable content
  • Supported content (like a good index, a good support website can influence purchasers)

Do you agree? What use is a publisher? What role could – or should – publishers play in the future? We’d love to hear your views…


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