“A good publisher is invisible.”
Alison Baverstock—publisher, author, and lecturer—spoke these words during the first week of class last semester. She threw me for a loop, along with the other fifty-some students in the Kingston Publishing MA. After all, we were there for a specific purpose, to learn how to become publishers. It wasn’t encouraging to hear that the key to being successful in my dream job is to remain invisible. I don’t want to be like Mia in The Princess Diaries film—lying alone in the rain, contemplating my insignificance (“I’m invisible…and I’m wet.”).
But I’ve remembered Alison’s words for a reason, and not because I’m afraid of being sat on or forgotten in my irrelevance. Scary as it might seem, the invisibility of a good publisher rings true. I’ve seen this first-hand. How many times have I enjoyed a book’s pristine design and flawless type? How many times have I comfortably read its content, enjoying the words that flow through my mind as easily as off my tongue? I have a publisher—or several—to thank for those small pleasures, even if I take them for granted sometimes.
And yet, I can also think of instances when I have been distracted by certain mistakes in my readings. Even the smallest flaw can—to borrow a theatre term—break the fourth wall between the reader and story. A misspelling here, a clunky sentence there, maybe even a gaping plot hole are all shocks that remind me that there are forces other than the author at work in producing this book—and someone fell short in seeing it through to perfection. In this case, the quality of the finished product can make the consumer forget the work that goes into producing it in the first place, whereas its imperfections reveal the chinks in the publishing process.
Unfortunately, it seems like this form of visibility for publishers is increasing with Kindle and E-reader sales. I’ve only owned my Kindle for a couple months, but I have noticed more errors in the downloaded material than in the physical books. In fact, there hasn’t been a single e-book with the flawless quality I’ve come to expect from good publishing. And if a Google search is any indication, I am not the only Kindle customer who has noticed the lacking quality in e-books; one article even claims that this negligence in editing makes Kindle books look like “cheap copies of the originals.” If digital publishing is truly the future of the industry, then shouldn’t publishers put that much more care into mastering the form and perfecting the content? Otherwise, they risk being visibly called out for failing to fulfil their responsibilities in improving the work.
If these observations are accurate, being a visible publisher more often than not means possible infamy or incompetence, to an extent. Working in relative anonymity is part of a publisher’s job, so if I want people outside the industry to recognize my name or work, becoming a publisher wouldn’t be the best option. But fame has never been my goal, anyway. And invisibility does not signify insignificance.
I’ll just have to take comfort in the fact that if I discover the next J.K. Rowling, my name will be written right beneath hers. In invisible ink.