A recent article by Eoin Purcell examined the damage done to the publishing industry by the Agency pricing scheme. His take on it was that publishers had lost the battle and the war to maintain their position in the publishing industry, and that it was about time for existing publishers to make way for the new breed of publishers, or find a way to re-invent themselves to take advantage of the new digital era.
Eoin’s impression is that the publishing industry must evolve, or perish and be replaced. But I wonder about that: Do we need a replacement for the publishing industry’s existing players? Do we need a publishing industry at all?
Let’s examine the idea of the “industry” part of the equation: An industry is generally defined in two ways, either as an aggregate of activities related to a particular field or product, or as the sum of organizations working in cooperation to produce and disseminate a product. For the purposes of this discussion, we will consider the latter definition of the publishing industry, that is, the companies that work in concert to produce books to sell.
Publishers would fit within the latter definition as part of the equation of companies; most call them the middlemen between authors and readers, though a closer examination of their role reveals them to be the middlemen between the authors’ agents, and the distribution point (the bookstore).
A clear-cut process has been in place for decades, orchestrating the process by which agents bring books to publishers, and publishers work with those books to package them for optimum sales potential in bookstores, chains and other markets. The publishers are largely responsible for creating and developing this process, creating predictable relationships with agents at one end, and controlling the supply of books to retail outlets at the other end. They have also been primarily responsible for marketing their products via pre-arranged outlets and cooperative services. And until recently, this process has worked successfully for publishers, even when it was not so successful for the agents at one end or the retail outlets at the other.
Enter the future, in two pieces: First, the computer, which gave individuals the tools and power to create that they never had before; and second, the internet, which connected individuals to goods and services, and other people, around the world. With the computer came tools to make writing easier and faster—suddenly, someone who could spare the time could write a novel, use computer-assisted tools to improve, proof and edit the novel, create covers, and save it in formats that others could use to call up and read the book. Thanks to that breakthrough, the number of writers grew.
The second piece of the future, the internet, opened new communications avenues for individuals. Sharing was the new activity of the close of the twentieth century, and the internet made sharing easier than it had ever been. Potential authors could now share their stories with others, and gain free critiques and suggestions of the type that editors provided to their paying clients. Authors could also share software (not always legally) and suggestions as to how best to create and finalize their books.
The internet then created digital commerce, internet-based avenues to sell products, and most importantly, the tools to bring those capabilities to the individual. No longer was it necessary to build a giant corporation dedicated to selling and distributing a product; it could now be sold out of a basement using a computer, a connection to the web and a service like PayPal to handle money transactions.
Put the pieces together, and you have author-entrepreneurs—like myself—capable of creating a novel independently of (or selectively working with) outside assistance, as well as creating a venue to sell that product, access the tools needed to monetize and control selling of the product, and to market that product regionally, nationally or even globally.
Such author-entrepreneurs have, in no time, reached levels that the existing publishing industry had made virtually impossible for outsiders to reach beforehand: They are visible to the public; and they are making sales in major outlets. Both of these points were aided by the change in the end of the publishing chain, the decay of the bookstore system. The economy has been driving the bookstore and bookstore chains out of business, and as they were the publishers’ primary and absolutely-controlled sales outlet, publishers have been forced to put more of their eggs into baskets of which they have little or no control, such as space in retail stores and chains.
Some of the biggest retail spaces are online, such as Amazon; and in this area, publishers have found themselves without the advantage of control. Even paid advertisement doesn’t accomplish online what it does in other outlets. And right next to their products are books sold by independent authors, some of whose work is directly comparable in quality to that of the publishers. Many authors are happy with their position selling directly through online outlets, and see no reason to seek publishers, through their agents, in order to sell their books. It would seem that the publishers, their agents, and their failing retail outlets have become redundant in the modern market.
Given the facts, it is by no means out of the question to answer: No, we do not need agents, publishers or dedicated retail outlets; or, at least, we do not need the publishing model that we have enjoyed for the past few decades. In fact, we could get along just fine without it, as independent authors have discovered and demonstrated.
But this answer begs another question, perhaps even more important than the first: Would we be better off without the publishing industry? Perhaps, if the current industry cannot sustain itself, if it is not needed, then we’d be better off without its impact on (or interference with) the new digital industry under current development. On the other hand, the old publishing industry has learned a lot about what kind of writing has the most impact on markets and individuals, what kind of language is best suited for what markets, and how to take advantage of trends and position products… in other words, how best to sell books. That knowledge is not worthless.
So, instead of merely wishing the old publishing model to implode, and take all of its resources with it, we should be encouraging the old publishing industry to bang its 20th century swords into 21st century plowshares, and to find its place in the new digital market. If they can offer to independent authors services that will improve their product quality, they will have proven their value. If they can increase that product’s sales enough to live comfortably off of a percentage of the profits, they will have proven their worth.
It won’t be publishing, in the old sense; but it will have similarities to the old values of publishing, primarily the core values of aiding authors and improving their products.