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Can "Full-Service" Publishers Service Self-Publishing Writers?

full-serviceMike Shatzkin has another interesting post in his blog discussing how traditional publishers are starting to unbundle some of their traditional services. He starts by citing HarperCollins CEO Brian Murray complaining about the common use of the term “legacy publishers” to describe the Big Six and their ilk, himself preferring the term “full-service.” (I usually roll with “traditional” for my preference.)

Shatzkin tends to agree with him that “full-service” is a good term, given that publishers have long focused on providing all the services involved with moving a manuscript from author-written form to books on shelf or e-shelf and then into the hands of consumers—including finding the manuscript, nurturing the project, printing it, sending it out into the world, and publicizing it. His blog post is all about how publishers are starting to contract out some of these services to others or even let the authors provide them themselves.

But for my part, I wonder: is “full-service” really a good term? Or is it just more publisher propaganda?

After all, calling any publishing operation “full-service” implies that you actually are getting a full range of services from it. But I’ve seen more complaints than I can count from authors who claimed they were getting short shrift when it came to the publicity and marketing side of things. Most recently, a survey of 300 authors found a considerable majority were unsatisfied with the degree of marketing and communication support they were getting from their publishers. It seems a lot of publishers reserve their “full service” in marketing and publicity to their bestselling authors, and their midlisters have to shift for themselves.

Of course. to spend too much time harping on that term is to miss the actual point Shatzkin is making—that these traditional publishers might be able to offer services, such as editorial support, to self-publishing writers for a fee.

Should publishers have editorial services for rent? Should they try to scale and use technology to handle editiorial (sic) functions — certainly proofreading and copy-editing but ultimately, perhaps, developmental editing — as a commodity to assure themselves a competitive advantage on cost base the way they do now for distribution? Should publishers try to scale digital marketing? Should they have teams that can map out and execute publishing programs for major brands?

Shatzkin again cites Murray, who thinks that the “synthesis of market intelligence and skills” traditional publishers have to offer are what make the difference—not just having your story well edited or (allegedly) well-marketed but having all these things done together by the same firm. And it is this, not just individual services, that publishers need to find a way to deliver to individual writers.

Apparently the idea is that traditional publishers can be the ultimate “self” publishing shops because they already know all there is to know about traditional publishing so they should be best equipped to offer those same sorts of services for money to people who want to do it themselves. (Though, to be fair, he does discuss this in the context of traditional publishers buying or developing their own sorts of services aimed at such writers rather than just resting on their laurels.)

This is, Shatzkin posits, the reason Amazon has done so well as a self-publishing firm itself—it synergizes the value of all the other services it offers into its self-publishing arm. Traditional (or “full-service”) publishers, he suggests, need to figure out how to do the same thing.

That’s all well and good, but it occurs to me that if traditional publishers really were in such a good position to benefit self-publishing writers, they should have figured out a way to do so before now. And it also seems there could be a potential for harmful confusion in self-publishing services offered by major publishers.

Writers could be misled into thinking they could pay to have their book “really” published by these publishers in the same way as the books they publish traditionally. But that’s never going to be the case. If one of these publishers wants to publish something you wrote, they will pay you for it. That’s a bright line that we shouldn’t ever blur.

Photo by acidpix.

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Eric Welch September 5, 2012 um 10:56 am

When a strong industry insider and supporter like Shatzkin starts arguing for a "rebranding" you know the industry is in trouble and doesn’t know what to do. It’s even worse when he continually quotes his father’s perspective from forty years ago. And "full service"? Sounds like a massage parlor ad.

Liam Campbell September 5, 2012 um 11:06 am

"If one of these publishers wants to publish something you wrote, they will pay you for it. That’s a bright line that we shouldn’t ever blur."

Chris – agree.

Eric – in this case, only if there is a happy ending.

I don’t understand why any good, savvy author capable of investing time into marketing, building a platform and engaging on social media would even think about using a legacy publisher now without them making a realistic and significant commitment to them.

Moriah Jovan September 5, 2012 um 2:19 pm

"Full-service" to me sounds like a gas station. Or AuthorHouse.

Jon Jermey September 5, 2012 um 4:54 pm

After my experience with a major publisher who failed to send out review copies, failed to send press releases to relevant journals, failed to market the book in any meaningful way, couldn’t add up royalties and did their best to impose a savage and restrictive 'standard' contract, I’m inclined to interpret 'full service' as 'thoroughly done over'.

Karl September 5, 2012 um 8:23 pm

"Full service publishers"? "Traditional publishers"? "Legacy publishers"?

How about "stone knives and bear skins publishers"?

Nate Hoffelder September 6, 2012 um 1:46 am


fjtorres September 6, 2012 um 12:14 pm

They’ve improved their toolkit lately? 8)

Rebecca Sunshine September 6, 2012 um 3:45 am

I agree that Amazon has done a superb job in providing "full service" – like features. However, a vast amount of content and audiences are still being ignored. I think "full service" these days (and not 40 years ago) needs to be a platform that aggregates all digital formats. And if this publishing platform "house" wants to contract out other services to help with collaborative issues and marketing services then all is wonderful. The "full service" simply means holding a customer’s hand through the process. And this hand-holding needs to be done now more than ever. There are heaps of people who don’t even know what ebooks are…

Angela Booth September 6, 2012 um 3:51 am

"Full service"? (Inelegant snort.)

Traditional publishers have great editors, usually, and even that’s a lucky dip. Anything else — covers, sales, marketing — they know they’re kidding. Authors are realizing that they’re kidding too.

What traditional publishers do is play on authors' insecurities: "look at everything we do for you. You can’t manage on your own. We know more than you do…" Yadda, yadda.

"Full service" is baloney too, when you look at royalty statements. They cling onto every cent as long as they can, and you can’t get to the bottom of how many books were sold.

Now that authors are figuring out that they can do it themselves, publishers are going to "unbundle" their services.

I can see it now. You’ll be able to hire an editor, who works for a "real" publisher. Does that mean that they’ll read faster, and edit faster? How many clients will the editors take on?

I love publishers, I really do — and I’m not being sarcastic. But it all sounds like desperation, as if they can’t figure out where to go next, or where their next Porsche is coming from.

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