Just as many entrepreneurs no longer need venture capitalists to launch their companies, authors no longer need publishers to publish.
Mark Coker, Do Authors Still Need Publishers?
Picture this: In the future, as the risks of publishing shift from the publisher to the author, publishers will be able to invest in technologies that allow them to bypass authors completely, developing sophisticated algorithms to scrape their content from the Internet, repurpose and repackage it for non-discriminating readers, and charge advertisers fistfuls of money for their wandering eyeballs!
It sounds even better if you say it out loud in Dr. Evil’s voice. Or Chris Anderson’s. Or Arianna Huffington’s.
Resistance is futile!
If Coker’s second linkbait advertorial for the Huffington Post didn’t add anything new to the conversation, it did at least spawn a new hashtag on Twitter, #publishersmatter, and generate some interesting discussion around the value publishers do, and don’t, offer authors nowadays.
Despite all the hype about the democratization of the Internet and the fact that anyone can now be a “publisher” — in the absolute loosest definition of the word; more verb than noun — the fact of the matter is that the act of publishing and the fundamentals involved aren’t changing, only the players are.
Real publishers, regardless of size, finance writers, facilitate distribution, make markets and, ideally, curate for a specific community. In newer models, they may partner with authors (e.g.: Harper Studio) or communities (e.g.: Cursor) instead of “financing” them via exorbitant advances that rarely earn out, but the other aspects remain critical to the role of being a publisher.
Direct access to distribution doesn’t mean equal access. Publishers will change but remain relevant, even if eBooks eventually equal 100% of the market.
In a smart response to Coker’s post, Kate Eltham, CEO of Queensland Writers Centre, addressed the reality of the situation in “What Do Authors Need?“:
Barriers to entry to publishing have reached almost zero, sure. But being able to publish isn’t the same as being able to profitably publish. Production is easy. Distribution is not. Even digital distribution, while frictionless, is not easy to convert to sales without the ability to engage a readership who’ll fork over money for your product.
That independent-minded authors who are willing and able to simultaneously act as small businesses now have all the necessary tools to be a legitimate publisher isn’t a debatable point. It’s also not a terribly new or interesting one. Most small presses that were established long before the Internet existed sprang from the same independent, DIY mindset (e.g.: Soft Skull) and are now successful niche publishers, offering opportunities to non-commercial authors who write outside of the narrow confines of the NY Times Bestsellers Lists.
The current discussions about the viability of publishers and publishing are primarily being driven by digital ideologues with self-serving agendas. I’d much rather shift gears and focus on the issue of where publishers’ and authors’ interests overlap, and more importantly, where the READER fits into the overall equation.
And for my independent-minded author friends, it’s worth noting that you’re now publishers, too, so that discussion includes you as well.