Publish

The Publisher as Curator

When people defend traditional publishers they argue that publishing houses employ editors who “curate” their particular lists. Thus ensuring quality. (That “quality” is a term broadly defined goes without saying, given the number of bad books published each year.)

Being a publishing curator – a fancier term for being an editor who decides whether to accept a manuscript for publication – isn’t the same as being a curator who works at a museum and searches for yet another masterpiece to hang on the walls. You know, the actual definition of curator. Editors don’t curate. They buy. They edit. They make business (and sometimes artistic) decisions.

Publishers are important for many, many, many authors. Many fine editors work at the big six publishers, and these editors have helped shape the works of countless authors. Sometimes publishers even manage to do something to break through the wall of noise and create a buzz around a new book.

But they don’t curate. They edit. They acquire. What an acquiring editor does isn’t curate. Unless to curate means to accept a manuscript that the editor thinks: A) will fit in with the list of books that the publisher wants to present to the world and B), that the editor thinks will sell. Both are well within what an editor should do. But this isn’t curating. This is making a business decision.

After all, publishers publish many books, many well written, many badly written, that go on to sell well (or not). It’s the rare museum curator who finds and convinces a museum to buy a work of art because it “feels right” for the market. Many people go to a particular museum because they respond to the art that a curator has chosen. No one buys a book because it’s been published by a particular publisher. Readers don’t care. Authors and editors (and agents) care, because among them a publishing house’s name signifies something. But readers care about what’s on the page (or on the screen), not what’s on the spine or the name of the imprint.

So, what does this all mean for an entrepreneurial author (as all authors really should be), who’s building a platform for his or her work? It means that your decision to try to get published at a traditional publisher or to decide to self-publish should be based on what you want to get from either. You shouldn’t have to rely on the word of an editor who calls himself or herself a “curator” to determine whether what you’ve written is good.

If someone is trying to convince you that you need to publish one way or another, don’t be fooled into thinking it’s because publishers have a lock on quality.

Your audience is already telling you what’s worthwhile.

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