Warning: Industry wonkery ahead.

I don’t do this often, so I hope you’ll allow me a bit of a rant.

I am not a Seth Godin fan. It’s not personal. It’s probably got less to do with whether Godin knows what he’s talking about and more to do with that we are in very different parts of the publishing world. I resent the way he and others present my part as though it were monolithic and simple. This resentment returns almost every time I follow a link to a Godin post. All the same, I found this post, which has been retweeted nearly 500 times thus far, particularly irritating.

The post is called “The Right Price the First Time.”

Godin writes:

When selling a book to a major publisher, it’s common for the publisher to offer an advance against royalties. In fact, the advance is the most significant tool that publishers use to get a coveted author to pick one house over another–royalties and most everything else are fixed.

As is so often the case with his posts, what he say is true for some parts of the publishing industry and for some books some of the time. But that’s not what bugs me so much. This is:

Godin posits that publishers, by bidding up books substantially at auction, are training “agents and authors to be disloyal, to shop around and to create an artificial game to raise the price [of their authors’ books].” Okay, this doesn’t sound so bad. Yet:

image … [C]onsider the real estate developer who calls up an electrician to re-wire a building. She uses this electrician often, and the estimate comes back at $18,000. The developer shops around and finds a similarly talented electrician for $14,000. Loyalty is great, but that’s a huge difference. She switches to the higher value choice. Indignant, the original electrician says, “why didn’t you tell me! I could have beaten that price.”

The answer, of course, is, “well, why didn’t you quote me that price in the first place?”

First, the advance is NOT the “price” the publisher pays for the book. I know Godin knows this, but it’s important in this context to say that outright. The advance is the inarguably important first piece of a complicated business relationship, but it isn’t the price. Sure, in a minority of cases, the “advance” functions as a price to acquire copyright, because the advance is so high as to make royalties and earn-out irrelevant. But no industry should understand itself only in terms of its outliers, right?

This brings me to the electrician analogy, which is not only faulty, but I think it’s emblematic of a perception problem for publishers. We are not providers of fixed, interchangeable services. Two “similarly talented”—to borrow Godin’s phrase—publishers might very well have two vastly dissimilar visions for the same book at every stage of the process. No author in this era should approach a publisher the way she would approach Godin’s electrician*. If this electrician does his job right, the check for his “price” is the end of the story and end of the relationship. On the other hand, if a publisher does his job right, the advance should eventually (hopefully quickly) become irrelevant, and the author becomes a long-term business (and probably creative) partner with the publisher. The advance is the beginning.

A much more useful(and thus less elegant) analogy can be found, I think, in the telecom and cable industries, where the tension is between so-called smart pipes and dumb pipes.  According to Wikipedia, “the term dumb pipe refers to an operator’s network being used simply to transfer bytes between the customer’s device and the Internet.  The use of the term ‘dumb’ refers to the inability of the operator to add value for its customers beyond just simple bandwidth and network speed.”  A smart pipe, obviously, is the one that adds value.

In Godin’s analogy, publishers are dumb pipes. We use our “networks” (marketing, sales, and production) to transfer books from authors to readers. As a dumb pipe, the publisher is valued primarily for its cost effectiveness. It’s not expected to add much if anything above the fixed services.

We could delve deeply into this, but the bottom line is people—customers and authors alike—are not loyal to dumb pipes (are you loyal to your cable company?), because they don’t see them as partners. They don’t perceive any common interests.

Publishers have not historically been dumb pipes. (If they were, there would be no highly paid editors.)

You don’t have to take my word for it, though. The much discussed Jonathan Galassi ebook editorial in the New York Times several months ago is really more about old-fashioned publishers as smart pipes than it is about ebooks.

“It was an old-fashioned book publisher who decided that William Styron’s work was worth reading in the first place. Hiram Haydn signed him up and edited his debut novel, Lie Down in Darkness, which Random House published in 1951. As Mr. Styron himself later said, both Mr. Haydn and his subsequent Random House editor, Robert Loomis, had a ‘genius for catching me out in my weakest or most slipshod moments, but never tried to impose their ideas on mine. It’s the moral support that’s been so valuable.’

“In the course of his career, Mr. Styron published nine other books with Random House, each of which received the scrupulous line-by-line attention of one of the great editors of the time. Each was also copy-edited through several stages of proof that were passed back and forth among the copy editor, Mr. Styron and Mr. Loomis.”

This is, in many ways, publishing at its very best: taking the long view, paying attention to quality, mobilizing the skills of a whole company in support of an author the company believes in and has a vision for. And doing all of this several times over the course of decades in a mutually beneficial partnership. This is not a real estate developer returning time and again to an electrician (but only after checking on other bids). This is a long-term creative and business partnership.

For the vast majority of books (the ones not sold at auction for advances so high that they cease to be advances), publishers are still not dumb pipes. I know it’s easy to drum up stories that are the opposite of Galassi’s Styron anecdote—stories of authors passed among editors and ultimately neglected by the houses that once adored them. (A smart pipe can still be stupid and can make mistakes.) And there are cases where an author is so big as to not need a smart pipe—where there’s clearly one way to do the book, and the decision is purely economic. But we publishers should not allow what we do to be so easily and so broadly misrepresented. I think the future of publishing is tightly wrapped up in how we perceive publishing in the present. So I’ll take smart pipe over Godin’s low-ball electrician, thank you very much.

*I say Godin’s electrician, because I have a feeling he’s giving short shrift to their trade as well as mine.

Photos courtesy of and © hadsie and florriebassingbourn.