Erosion • 25 January 2010 • The SnowBlog
There is something about the way that technological progress affects the world of publishing that I keep coming back to. It starts with what various pundits (and, I suppose, Karl Marx originally) called the 'means of production'. Every year it gets easier to be not only the author of a book, but its publisher - at least in the limited sense of being able to arrange the production of a pallet of professionally-printed paperbacks from the comfort of your own laptop.
But maybe that's OK because, as we all know, publishers perform other important roles besides FTPing files to the printers and saying 'go!'. For a start, they act as gate-keepers to the retailers - and the retailers in turn act as gate-keepers to the readers. Books generally have to pass through both sets of gates to stand a chance of building a readership. But that publishing gate-keeper role is not about consensus. Publishers each have their own idea about what's printworthy. I've lost track of how many blockbusting millionaire authors were turned down by the first fifteen publishers they approached. And that gatekeeping role is much less relevant once an author has a little success under their belt. Write a successful book and finding a publisher for your follow-up is usually a breeze compared with the first time around. Being established opens doors.
Another thing we're all agreed on is that e-books aren't going to displace paper books completely - or anywhere close to it - any time soon. But there's also plenty of evidence that e-books will soon (or already do) make up a worthwhile fraction of book sales.
And that's important because while DIY authors could in principle print their own paper books, not many are likely to do it. I mean, what do you do with them once they're printed unless you also have an established position in the book supply chain? Who's going to sell them for you? Not Waterstones.
But that won't necessarily apply with e-books. Why wouldn't Amazon list your self-published novel? If it never sells, it never sells, but they haven't got to dust a shelf full of copies sat in their warehouse. It's just data on a hard-drive somewhere. They could even charge you what I will now christen a 'bit-dusting fee' for the privilege of keeping your 1MB e-novel on their servers. And even if Amazon refuse to list you directly, there are bound to be plenty of e-publishers who will electronically 'publish' you - which is to say, they'll upload your novel under their imprint on Amazon (no gatekeeping involved there).
And should people actually read your effectively-self-published novel on their Kindles, etc, in any significant numbers, it'll be a doddle to get a 'real' paperback deal with a traditional publisher because now you're market-tested and reader-approved.
So on the one hand, the physical processes of traditional publishing gets easier every year. A copy of Photoshop, a copy of InDesign and a little know-how can turn any Microsoft Word manuscript into a set of print-ready PDFs. And if you can't do it yourself, someone else will help you, if you cross their palm with silver. Self-publishing on paper gets easier and cheaper ever single year. Which means that controlling the publishing 'means of production' becomes less of a raison d'etre for publishers every year too.
And on the other hand, the quality-control aspect of the publisher's role is likely to get some competition from e-books because a whole new channel is springing up where traditional publishers/gatekeepers won't necessarily get a say.
So will e-books become a common way to do an 'end-run' around the traditional gatekeepers of publishing? Will that mean that e-books become the format for the most exciting, groundbreaking writing? Certainly it could be priced in a way that makes it cheaper - and therefore more feasible - to take a chance on an unknown author in a way that paper books, with their built in costs, couldn't duplicate.
But most interesting of all to me will be to see how publishers react to the gradual erosion of their place in the world. Not that it will cease to exist, but as the waters rise, it might well become rather crowded. And with technology bringing down the barriers keeping people out, the number of publishing houses could easily swell far beyond what the market can sustain (which is also likely to erode the gatekeeping role - because it makes it easier to find some publisher somewhere who likes your book).
How many people feel confident that publishing will look broadly similar in ten years' time? And those of you who are publishers, do you still expect to be publishers in 2020?