A Better Approach to Publishing

As a society, we are well on the way to having a corporate monopoly of the mind.

Half the books in North America are sold by a single retailer,
while three big publishers provide most of the books that are sold.

Capitalist Publishing

In the current system of publishing, the major players are large capitalist corporations. A for-profit corporation is a legal person, distinct from its management and employees, that has a fiduciary duty to make a profit for its shareholders—so a corporate publisher’s highest value is the profitability of a book, not its literary quality. In addition, the demand for books is shrinking, so many publishing companies have been purchased by global conglomerates that treat books as just another commodity, thus fostering a commercial mentality among acquisition editors. At the same time, publishers are cutting back on the prepublication services to authors that ensure literary quality. These institutional changes do not bode well for most authors, even though industrial publishing still provides handsome royalties to a handful of superstars.

Yet the production of books is easier than ever. Thanks to innovations such as page-layout software, print-on-demand services, and the internet, one can create a book on a laptop computer and sell it online without the help of a major publisher. But as with many other sectors of the economy, the primary producer (in this case, the author) does not reap the benefits of increased efficiency. Amazon has seized the potential of the internet to the detriment of bookstores, while the massive proliferation of titles has made the marketing process much harder. Where the reader in the industrial age could rely on the booklists of established publishing houses and the discernment of the local bookstore owner, readers nowadays must sift through millions of titles online.

These reduced costs have not been passed along to authors as an increase in royalties. To the contrary, publishers still give authors the same percentage of profits that they did in the industrial age: typically 8% of profits, of which 15% goes to the author’s agent. As Amazon takes an ever-larger share of the profits of the publishing industry, the authors’ share can only go down.         

Cooperative Publishing

The alternative to the capitalist corporation is the author cooperative. In publishing, there are many tasks that authors do not want to do themselves (or are better done by others), such as copy-editing, marketing, and sales. In short, authors need a publishing house—but they do not need a capitalist one. To a corporate publisher, a title that sells enough copies to defray the cost of production and to repay the advance of royalties to its author is necessarily a “failure” because it failed to make a profit for the company. In an author cooperative, in contrast, there is no corporate owner who must be paid a profit over and above what the author earns, so any book that pays its own way while providing compensation to its author is an unqualified success.

In a cooperative, authors have seats on the governing board of the company so they can guide publishing decisions, and they must help with routine tasks (bookkeeping, proofreading, and so on) to ensure hands-on participation. The company retains enough revenue to cover production and marketing costs and to fund future title development, but profits go to the authors, not to the company. In short, the author cooperative makes money for authors, not for financiers.

Borderland North Publishing was founded as an author cooperative. In 2016, three authors joined forces to develop a common publishing infrastructure that can develop, produce, promote, and sell their books. We hope to expand by adding more authors and titles as revenues permit.

The author cooperative takes advantage of the technologies and marketing expertise of global capitalism, but it uses them to foster a more humane social organization, the continuity of literary values, and the financial security of authors and artists.