So you want to be a publisher

Since this is a family show, I've replaced my standard body of profane expression with slightly more watered-down variations.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

I'm a member of the Internet Press Guild, a group of very seasoned technology journalists. We discuss a lot about the business of media and writing in our little private enclave. There's often a lot of career discussion, especially since most of us got our start writing way before "Internet" or "blogging" were words anyone used.

Today, one of our very seasoned writers asked about making that transition from author to publisher. Now, I've been a publisher of one sort or another since the 1980s and until my recent forays into government policy, the only job title I ever put on forms was "publisher".

The point is, I have some experience with this subject. If you combine the fact that I'm a programmer with the fact that I'm a publisher, you begin to understand why I have such a flowery command of profanity.

In any case, I answered my colleague's question with a short form variation of my classic speech, "So you want to be a publisher." Since this is DIY-IT, I thought you guys might like to share in the joy. Since this is a family show, I've replaced my standard body of profane expression with slightly more watered-down variations.

Okay, a couple of thoughts on publishing. I’ve been on the publishing side of the fence since the 1980s, so I’ve done this for a while.

First, I disagreed with another of our members, who told my colleague that since he'd made some mistakes in his first attempt as a publisher, he should just stay a writer.

Just because you may have made some mistakes, that doesn’t mean publishing isn’t for you. Your first article was probably fer-crap as well. You always have to do the first one, with all its warts, before you do more that are better. In my experience, publishing has also made me a better writer, not in how I construct sentences, but in how I deal with editors, sales people, and the entire value chain that is what we now call “content”.

Second, contracts are good, but they’ve never proven really useful. It’s far too expensive (from a time point of view, even more than a money point of view) to go sue some author over a contributed article deadline or some other nit. Instead it’s all about managing the relationship, expectations, and negotiation. If you can’t talk someone into something (or out of something), no amount of legal paperwork will help you out.

Third, no one author or article in a compendium (or a magazine) is important. I want you to do a writing exercise. Go take an article you’ve written, one you like quite a lot. Now, delete the third paragraph. Just do it. Now, can you rework that article to make it flow, even though that one paragraph was removed? Of course you can. The same creative crafting flow works with books and publishing. If Author A dropped out, recraft the book so it works. That’s a pretty easy part, even if it means finding another author.

Fourth, if changes in the book over the creation lifetime mean your title doesn’t work, change your title. It requires some level of creativity, but, jeeze, after producing 400 pages, changing 8 words should be easy.

Fifth, ebooks are good, but print is better. Now, my experience with books is that if I want to make cash from them, I use an agent and take an advance. I rarely make real money publishing books. But if I treat the book as a PR tool, oh-holy-holy-cow do they work!

So, if you think you can become a publisher after a layoff (I did that once), you might get a few months rent. But if you use being a publisher as a stepping stone to other work (like publishing software or selling expertise), it can be incredibly valuable. Oh, and unless you have a print edition, you’re not a book publisher. Sorry, no one will believe it, and there will be no PR gain.

Sixth, If you’re working on a project and you haven’t gotten sick of it, you haven’t passed through the phase of grief publishing that’s comes before the determination phase. My general publishing phases:

  1. Oh, what a cool idea!
  2. Excitement
  3. Wheeling and dealing
  4. Waiting
  5. Reminding
  6. Waiting
  7. Rage
  8. Denial
  9. Waiting
  10. Receiving content
  11. Editing and horror
  12. Making the calls without letting on just how much you want to strangle the author
  13. Waiting
  14. Repeating 3-13 three more times
  15. Being completely, utterly sick of all this crap
  16. Stuff coming in that might work
  17. Creative juices flow putting it all together
  18. Rage over something stupid
  19. Being sick of it all again
  20. Shipping

You might notice that this list also pretty much works whether you're shipping books or software or a physical product. Pushing it out the door is the key. Unless you ship, you're not a publisher. Unless you ship, you're just a dreamer.

Seventh, unless you have the overwhelming urge to strangle someone at least once or twice in a project, you’re not a publisher. If you can’t handle having that urge, you probably should stick with writing.

A few final thoughts

Publishing is like herding cats, except the cats are often more compliant. The process of publishing is a lot like sailing, hours and hours of boredom, punctuated by a few moments of sheer, exhilarating terror.

If you like the rush, try publishing. If you live for the rush, you probably are already publishing. If conflict, disagreement, making sales calls, and cajoling, wheedling, threatening, and bribing makes you uncomfortable, stick with being an author.

Oh, and if you constantly say “Frak you, I know better” in your head when someone naysays you, you’re either a publisher or an entrepreneur, or both. You’re probably also wrong. But that’s a lesson for a different day.

Oh, and while we’re at it, if someone doesn’t hate you, look down on you, or think you’re a bozo who doesn’t know what he’s doing, you’re also not a publisher (or an editor -- or a ZDNet blogger -- for that matter). Remember, you can ship products and make friends. Just not with some of the people you worked with while shipping products.

It ain’t real unless there’s a body count (figuratively speaking of course).

So there you go. Make mistakes. Piss people off. Publish something.

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