I wrote this a few weeks ago as a comment on Eric Hellman’s blog (which by the way is an excellent read). But when I happened to re-read it today, I realised that the thoughts that comment are significant enough that they probably merit their own post. Here is it.
Eric wrote in his article:
Although one attendee worried to me about pervasive complacency in the trade publishing industry, Gonzalez’s view is that publishing is an activity fundamentally essential to our culture, and that one way or another, publishers are finding ways to survive and thrive as their focus shifts from a print oriented supply chain to a digital ecosystem.
We all agree that publishING is not going away; the question is whether it follows that publishERS are therefore going to be with us forever. I think it’s too easy to assume that the conclusion follows inevitably from the premise, but that’s really just being seduced by a pun. The existence of blogs such as this one is evidence that “publication” of a kind can and does now happen without publishers.
In truth, conventional publishers have had a very complex business model that conflates several very different services offered to authors (editing, design, printing, distribution, marketing) and to readers (primarily selection). It’s not yet clear which of these services are still indispensable, and which have been superseded by Internet services; nor is it clear whether the ones that do remain necessary are going to remain the domain of a single kind of business called a “publisher”, or whether they’ll get broken up: I can imagine that, with print-on-demand handling the physical copy issue, and online marketing becoming more practical with each passing year, authors who require editing and design might increasingly find it more cost-effective to pay specialists directly to do these jobs for them, and avoid the inequitable income split that comes with a traditional publishing agreement.
I have a couple of friends who have each published several books. One of them self-publishes, to very good effect — it helps that he was a designer in his previous day-job, and can therefore do his own design work. The other has always used a publisher and swears blind that he will never self-publish because it’s too much work. (This despite his being permanently broke — he could really use a bigger cut of his cover price.) I’m not sure what to make of these observations beyond the obvious fact that what works for some people won’t work for others.
A final thought: I can envisage the emergence of “micro-publishers” — individuals or very small groups who have contacts with editors, designers, printers, etc., and can subcontract to these services on an authors behalf. Micro-publishers should be able to move more quickly and lightly than conventional do-everything publishers, and to charge authors a correspondingly smaller percentage. Will publishing become a cottage industry?
And do such micro-publishers already exist? Does anyone know of any?