Whither publishers?

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 It’s not yet clear which of these services are still indispensable, and which have been superseded by Internet services; nor is it clear whether the ones that do remain necessary are going to remain the domain of a single kind of business called a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?


6 responses to “Whither publishers?

  1. A friend of mine is starting up as a micro-publisher. After self publishing his own book, he is trying to make a business on helping others, that wouldn’t have the mood for self-publishing.

  2. I actually think the only thing a publisher is necessary for these days is advertising and actually getting your books seen. Programs like LyX allow one to typeset and design a book to professional standard with almost no effort at all, and none of the self-published books I’ve read have suffered at all in the design department. A few, including my first one, could have done with some editorial work (as you pointed out yourself after reading it – that’s why I got a couple of other people to look over my second before publishing it), but all that really takes is a friend or two willing to read over what you’ve written and critique it.

    So other than promotion and paying an advance, I can’t really see any reason to bother with traditional publishers at all – especially as people are increasingly moving to e-readers, where store shelf space isn’t an issue…

  3. Charles Stross posted a very insightful series of articles called “Common Misconceptions About Publishing” on his blog. It’s a very interesting read and he explains in depths why he thinks that publishers won’t go away in the foreseeable future.

  4. The primary activity that publishers, labels, etc, are able to offer is marketing. For a lot of small technical publishing, the authors are probably more connected to their audience already that a publisher can manage. I see things getting on a more equitable footing (i.e. publishers cuts being a lot more related to the value they can actually add).

    Advances are the other big one – banks and traditional venture capital won’t invest in books/music/etc. But I think a strict separation between the two would be good (the person that will lend you money to create work is not necessarily the best to promote and market it, but the current model is based around it being the same person who does both).

  5. Ensignexpendable

    There are a large number of micro publishers in the table top RPG space. Some are more successful than others, and many are digital only (or print as you go). As this gets more popular the marketing appears to become harder. Sites like http://rpg.drivethrustuff.com/ have become pits of thousands of products so just having your product on there isn’t enough any more, they have to work harder and be more creative (that’s not a bad thing). There are distributers like http://www.indiepressrevolution.com which help to bring the cream to the top. And as the micropublishing industry matures I think we’ll see it being the primary source for RPG books.

    Whether this can be generalised to all niche publishing I don’t know but I’m sure there are other areas which could (and maybe already are) do(ing) the same thing.

  6. Pingback: Whither publishers?, part 2 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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