Jonathan Galassi on the Value of Publishing Houses

Last Sunday Jonathan Galassi, president of book publisher Farrah, Straus & Giroux, wrote an editorial for the New York Times about the value that book publishers provide. It’s predictably defensive about publisher’s right to profit from the work of writers and to retain new rights like those for e-books.  Mr. Galassi cites the expenses incurred in bringing a book to market: editing, design, marketing, publicity, sales and so forth.  And he takes it even a step further, writing:

A publisher — and I write as one — does far more than print and sell a book. It selects, nurtures, positions and promotes the writer’s work.

Putting aside for the moment that many writers do not feel very nurtured by the modern publishing industry, I think Mr. Galassi is really missing the point.  I’ve worked as an editor, a marketer and a publicist, so I totally agree with Mr. Galassi that such work has value.  But the days when publishers acted as the cultural gatekeepers is coming to an end and quickly.

As I wrote before, I think the future of publishing puts writer’s in the driver’s seat.  I think it will work a bit like the movie business.  The writer, probably working with and agent, will get financing for a project and will assemble a team of people to bring that book into the world.  Publishers might play a role in marketing and distribution — the way studios do for movies — but possibly not.  I think they will have to think much more radically about their role — and the way books are funded and who gets what piece of the profits — if they are going to survive.

Unfortunately, Mr. Galassi seems to have supreme confidence that writers and consumers need publishers.  He ends his essay thusly:

Even if someday, God forbid, books are no longer printed, they will still need the thought and care and dedication that [Random House] put into producing William Styron’s work for nearly 60 years. Some things never change.

Jonathan Galassi is a smart guy and he’s been at the top of the publishing industry for a very long time.  But the changes that are coming to book publishing are much bigger than this essay suggests.  Publishers need to adapt or die.