Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, writes in the January 3 edition of the New York Times about what exactly it is that a publisher does for an author. He makes a number of interesting points, chief among them being that a publisher can have a great deal of time and expertise invested in a text, once you consider all the editing and production and publicity.
Which is an entirely legitimate point when it comes to those texts in which a publisher actually has invested a great deal of time and money.
Now, the ponies in Farrar, Straus and Giroux's stable range from Flannery O'Connor to J. G. Ballard, and it's true that a publisher brings a lot more to the table than is readily apparent. But—and this is the concern that arguably has more authors pissed off at publishers than just about any other—is the perception that, except in the case of big names, publishers are putting a lot less time and money into editing and publicity than they used to, yet they expect the same share of the rewards as before.
Publishers say right up front that they really are only interested in authors who have a demonstrated ability to sell books without any help from the publisher, and it seems that more and more books are being pushed through the pipeline without much more than a spellcheck.
So, what does a publisher offer an author? For one thing, a sense that a book is worth reading because it has been worked on and hashed over and put together by people with a deep love and knowledge of the publishing business. In a word: legitimacy.
There's a reason why ebooks that aren't electronic versions of works that have previously been issued in print have a stigma attached to them. Anyone with an Internet connection can now be an "author," however unadvisedly. But until publishers start offering authors a larger royalty on formats that cost the least, they're going to have a hard time hanging onto authors who actually do make money. And as long as they claim the right to issue old works in new formats, invented yet or not, and especially if they get to decide how much if anything they're going to pay in royalties, we've got a problem.
I don't mind swinging a hammer, but there's no point in paying someone to build you a house if you have to do all the work yourself.