How to Eliminate the Publishing Industry
1. The physical production and distribution of books.
2. Assisting authors in writing books.
3. Filtering books, selecting from the very large number that potential authors wish to write a small number to actually be published.
The first function has been and is being eliminated by the web. An author can, by webbing his work, make it available to a very large audience at a cost close to zero. He can make it available to readers who prefer hardcopy at a modest cost via Lulu.com or one of its competitors.
The second function is important but does not require publishers. I got more editorial assistance on Hidden Order from my agent than from my editor, and there is no obvious reason why the useful part of what editors do could not be done by small firms providing editorial assistance to authors. Currently the job of copy editing seems to be mostly done by freelances anyway, although they are paid by the publisher rather than the author.
There remains the third function. To judge, at least, by horrified accounts of the contents of editorial slush piles, enormously more books are written than are worth reading. While publishers do an imperfect job of searching out the needle of literature in the haystack of slush—imperfect in both directions—they do a much better job than a reader faced with millions of webbed texts could do for himself. In order to eliminate publishers, we need an alternative filter, ideally a better one.
As it happens, there is a firm already in the business of finding small needles of worthwhile material in large haystacks of text. It is called Google. Google's core business consists of figuring out what pages users will want to read out of the much larger number of pages that might conceivably have something to do with their query. It performs, and performs very well, a different version of the same task performed by publishers as filters.
I therefor propose that Google ought to undertake the project of replacing publishers. To do so it needs to create mechanisms by which readers can find, not pages of information, but books—the particular books those readers will want to read, buried in an enormously larger number of webbed books that those readers will not want to read. I leave the details of the project to Google's very talented employees.