The excellent Pari Noskin Taichert wrote a post yesterday, posing the question, Do Publishers Matter? The people best able to answer this question are the ones who've had more than one publisher, and I would say yes, absolutely.
Pari has touched on some of the reasons why publishers matter more and more to authors, and the significance is actually stemming from the actions of writer organizations and conventions. Most organizations have a list of approved publishers, and anyone being published by another publisher not on the list isn't always eligible for membership. On the one hand, a superficial response is, "At least I'm saving $600 a year on membership dues" (which isn't far off, if you join every organization out there) but it does matter to many authors. Increasingly, writer organizations are doing more and more to promote authors (interestingly enough, as some maintain publishers are doing less and less, but that's a debate for another day) and if you're unable to participate as a member you miss out on that promotion.
Authors from unapproved publishers will also find themselves unable to participate on panels at many of the mystery conventions. The most extreme version of this is Harrogate Crime Festival, where participation on panels is by invitation only. In the wake of the success of Left Coast Crime 2006, held in the UK, organizers formed Crimefest, which does have the more common open panel option that allows registering authors to be on panels. (Word has it that in the wake of the success of their recent convention, organizers have decided to make Crimefest an annual event, proving that a wider range of authors on panels did not curtail the success of their first convention.)
Conventions and organizations are peripheral reasons. More importantly, we're all aware of the distribution issues that are increasingly important for authors to consider. I did research on every publisher my manuscript was sent to last year at this time, when I was in the shopping phase for What Burns Within. I wanted to see if the publishers were consistently able to place books on bookstore shelves, and that's not as clear and obvious as one might think, particularly when you're checking store shelves in Canada.
The issue of distribution is probably the single biggest reason publishers matter. They have the ability to get your book into stores, and with internet sales only accounting for 10-15% of total book sales, the importance of having your book in stores can't be stressed enough. Think you'll get books in on consignment and that all will be okay? Consider the challenges involved in visiting and stocking stores yourself, how much time you're taking away from writing, and the fact that you won't recoup your investment in gas and time through sales.
In my own experience, I've had a book come out from a completely unknown publisher, and one come out from a reputable, established NY Publisher - the same publisher of the popular Hard Case Crime books, in fact. These are the two extremes. Although I never paid to have my first book published what I ultimately learned was that the people who'd started the company didn't have enough experience with publishing, knowledge of the industry or resources to do much more than get a book listed with online sales sites, something even self-published authors can do on their own. I have avoided delving into all the specifics of my own issues with them publicly, but I will stress the importance of communicating with authors from these upstart publishers wherever possible - and listening to them. In my experience, you'll write a book that will go largely unnoticed, will not have the ability to reach many readers, and you'll carry the burden of your promotion, as well as babysitting the publisher over the terms of the contract, which reminds me that I have an unpleasant e-mail to write this week.
My experience with Dorchester is night and day different. For one thing, although I had a very short turnaround time for publication from the offer of a contract (the offer came end of last July, and the book shipped April 29, SC had the feel of being rushed out, while WBW didn't have that same feel. I could expand at length on the difference in editing, in cover design, as well as distribution, but the primary thing I'd like to mention is the difference in promotion. With SC, only once did I walk into a bookstore and see my book on shelves.
With WBW, I've had the treat of seeing it on display tables at the Calgary airport, of having friends send in photos of the book on the wall displays in airports in the US, and seeing it on the New In Paperback displays with my own eyes in Barnes and Noble. Dorchester's marketing goddess has achieved more for the book than I ever could have on my own, and right now, my career plan is all about building a readership, and they've enabled me to get out there where readers can find me.
There's another thing that Pari touched on in her post, about the self-published people able to get their work out faster. They might see that as a plus, but I think people should really reconsider that. I don't see it as a plus. It takes time to nurture a work, and it's important that you take the time to make sure everything is done properly. That includes the lead-in time to get review copies out and drum up buzz about the book so that people are anticipating it. People won't pick up books they haven't heard of and can't find in stores unless something brings them to it, but we all know that shelf life in stores is limited. You want those sales happening in the first few months after release, so waiting for buzz to follow release may mean the book isn't on shelves when people go to look for it.
Rushing books risks getting bad art, compromises the editing process, and curtails the ability to do a thorough pre-release marketing plan. You should never rush something as important as your book.
I'd like to note that, while I wouldn't recommend some publishers, that doesn't necessarily make the policy of writer organizations a good one. One of my concerns with some of the stipulations is that some organizations require the publisher to have released a certain number of books prior to being approved as a recognized publisher. What this means is that it's more challenging for legitimate new publishers to qualify, and as some of us have speculated on the push to produce more and more knock-offs of successful books and to limit the scope of what gets published it is more important than ever that small presses rise up to fill the gaps and diversify the content of what's published. The criteria that some organizations use is unrealistic and too broad to eliminate true vanity presses while allowing the leeway for new publishers to be recognized.
The reasons publishers matter come from within (promotion, distribution) and from without (organizations, conventions). More could be said, but the only thing I'd like to address is what it means to me as a reader. As I began to receive more and more review copies, I eventually learned there were some publishers who produced work I didn't want to read. A variety of reasons contributed to this, including the purchase of final copies that had typesetting problems and a level of mistakes that was frustrating. I'll admit I've never, ever, returned a purchased book to the store, even if there's been a problem with it. This may be the result of growing up in a small town and always buying books during visits to the city, and not being readily able to return books, but I definitely don't want to order something off of amazon (which I sometimes did while living in Canada because the publisher didn't have distribution in Canada) and have to return it.
I've also learned that some publishers do a better job with editing, and I know certain editors who produce work that I prefer. Jon Wood springs to mind as a favourite from the UK, and the more I know about the industry, the more these things matter to me as a reader. That may not be true for all readers, but generally what happens is that if there are major problems in a book the readers associate them with the author. I remember a conversation about a friend's book, which had some typesetting problems in it, and comments from others about how they could never remember the publisher's name, but they connected it to the author.
And that's another reason, again, why it should matter to authors. Mistakes happen, technology isn't foolproof, but what we all want is for our books to come out and look great and be well received. The smoothest road to a positive experience as an author and a career is dealing with publishers who are professionals on every level. That doesn't mean you don't go with a small press. It just means you do your homework and make sure the publisher you're considering signing with is able to do the best for your work.