What is a Publisher?

By Bob Sacks on April 08, 2013

Most of us who read this magazine are in the word business. We are so sophisticated at this business that our expertise in wordsmanship has actual monetary value. People are willing to pay in one way or another for the clever and useful words we produce. I would add to that that we, and perhaps musicians, are one of the few industries that don't actually produce a physical product. Don't mistake a magazine, a book or a recording for the final product; those are only the atomic carriers of the thinking that we as wordsmiths produce. Those products are painlessly transferring the thinking from one human brain into another, seamlessly, without a scalpel or other intrusive implements.

With that in mind, here are a few rhetorical questions for you word workers. You may or may not have an answer to these questions, but it seems to me that, as we are reinventing major portions of our industry, some old-world definitions need to be reviewed for authenticity and some important questions are worth asking of the professionals in our field.

How do you define publishing? Wait—let me adjust that question just a little. In today's world of unlimited access to multiple distribution channels, in an era where everyone is a broadcaster, what exactly is a publisher?

There was a time not too long ago in this magazine when we discussed in great detail what a magazine is. It seems appropriate to take the conversation one step higher and figure out if the once-unique producers of these products require a new identifier in the crowded space of international word distribution.

As most of us read the trade magazines and newspapers of our industry, we know there are numerous organizations now being called publishers that have no print products whatsoever. They don’t even have what we would identify as bona fide publications. They are, at best, informational websites. Does that mean that any company that deals with words as a global resource can and should be called a publisher? I get that anyone who requests, assigns, approves, adjusts and copy edits a bevy of words is an editor, but is anyone who distributes words a publisher?

Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Salon, Gawker, Gizmodo, Tech Crunch, Yahoo, Google and many thousands of others—are they publishers? I have to suggest that at least Google, which creates nothing original and repurposes a multitude of reading material, is at best a re-publisher, usually known as an aggregator.  Does the act of aggregation bestow the coveted mantle of publisher?

Reader’s Digest was once a printed aggregator of non-original repurposed authorship. If Reader’s Digest in an analog world was an accepted and successful publisher, should we throw Google some leniency here and, as a digital aggregator, also bestow on them the vaunted title of publisher?  

What I’m interested in is this: is there any place where we draw the line with the term publisher? Does anyone who distributes words on any substrate get to be called a publisher? Radio stations don’t call themselves publishers. Is that because their words are audio only? TV stations don’t call themselves publishers. Is that because they only distribute visuals and sounds?  

Let’s try to apply a traditional definition of what a publisher was in the past and see if it works in today’s radically different world. In the past a publisher was in some sense a broker or a middleman between the writer of original work and the public. A publisher had the infrastructure and the bank account to distribute an author’s work, without the writer having to finance and build his own network. Authors didn’t usually have the pocketbook and wherewithal to get their words to the public for a profit. The publisher did the dirty work of converting the writer’s material from manuscript to press to physical distribution, and handling the ongoing collection of funds that goes with that process. The author received an agreed recompense for their hard work and thinking.

I guess the question distills down to the substrate. If only the substrate is different in the present from past business relationships, than perhaps almost anyone with any way to distribute words to the public is indeed a publisher. I would be curious to hear your thoughts on this subject.

By Bob Sacks| April 08, 2013
Categories:  Opinion

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Bob Sacks

Bob Sacks

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