Thursday, November 30, 2006

How to Eliminate the Publishing Industry

Publishers serve three important functions:

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.

14 Comments:

At 6:47 AM, December 01, 2006, Anonymous Patrick said...

I leave the details of the project to Google's very talented employees.

When I visit my family for the holidays, my mother asks me to take out the garbage and shovel the sidewalk. David asks his son to eliminate the publishing industry. Perhaps I should be demanding that my 2-year old daughter begin writing sonnets.

Kidding aside, I think that publishers provide another function: They give the author a face for his consumer. It’s a psychological function, but I think an important one. An author never really knows who is reading his work, but he definitely knows who bought it: his publisher. The author also knows, baring a surprise in popularity, the total value of his work at the point of sale. Additionally, with the sale of the first work the author has a rough gage of the value of his next. It is my impression that readers aren’t viewed by authors as consumers so much as fans – but publishers are definitely viewed as customers.

I’m not suggesting that authors can’t assume all of the risks associated with selling individual copies – as you clearly demonstrate, that’s largely a technological issue. I’m just suggesting that getting a lump sum up front and not having to worry about the publishing details is something I imagine some authors would be willing to pay for.

 
At 8:26 AM, December 01, 2006, Blogger David Friedman said...

"Perhaps I should be demanding that my 2-year old daughter begin writing sonnets."

I don't think demanding is appropriate, but you could drop hints. You might suggest she starts with Shakespearean sonnets and leave the hard stuff--Petrarchans--until she is older.

 
At 9:43 AM, December 01, 2006, Anonymous Tom Courtney said...

I don't think demanding is appropriate, but you could drop hints. You might suggest she starts with Shakespearean sonnets and leave the hard stuff--Petrarchans--until she is older.

I think that is a sensible suggestion, as my loose understanding is that the best way to write a Petrarchan sonnet is to first learn Italian, so as to have a proper medium for the resulting poem.

 
At 10:03 AM, December 01, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Other functions done by the publishing company include: design of the book; and, advertising/promotion of the book. Neither of these are trivial. Just look at MySpace to see the average person's concept of acceptable design. Promoting one's own book is near impossible without the connections of a major publisher who will place ads in major papers on your behalf, get you on a book opening/signing/interview tour, etc.

Publishers aren't going anywhere, even if people are now able to circumvent them.

 
At 11:49 AM, December 01, 2006, Anonymous Matt Brubeck said...

Might I suggest that my employer, Amazon.com, has more interest and experience in helping you find books that you want to read?

Also, I hope you've read The Long Tail, which expands on what you've written here:
http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.10/tail.html
http://www.thelongtail.com/

 
At 4:37 PM, December 01, 2006, Blogger fling93 said...

Other functions done by the publishing company include: design of the book; and, advertising/promotion of the book.

Functions that could also be done by smaller firms specializing in these things. Google (and Gladwell's "mavens" or Anderson's "tastemakers") would ideally makes the latter irrelevant, as promotion involves paying to get more attention than you would otherwise have gotten. Your ideal tastemaker or filter or search engine would judge quality alone.

 
At 6:22 PM, December 01, 2006, Anonymous Bill Stepp said...

Regarding the third function, Arnold Plant pointed out in his 1934 Economica article on "The Economic Aspect of Copyright in Books" that copyright induces publishers to bring out fewer books really wanted by the public and more bad books that would be filtered out in the editorial process and not published in the absence of copyright. Abolishing King Copyright and his retainers would shrink the number of titles published.

 
At 1:13 PM, December 02, 2006, Blogger Leo said...

Would J. K. Rowling sell as much if she started self-publishing?

 
At 4:44 AM, December 03, 2006, Blogger Crosbie Fitch said...

You missed:

4) Sell books, or obtain funding for the production thereof.

Which traditionally, uses the monopolistic privileges granted by copyright.

However, given this monopoly can no longer be enforced, obviously a different revenue model is required.

With a little more care than Stephen King mustered in a similar approach
The Plant, may I wholeheartedly endorse the use of the Internet in enabling readers to directly fund their favourite authors.

 
At 9:05 AM, December 04, 2006, Blogger mark said...

Rowling was only discovered by sheer luck - her publisher fished in the slush pile to get something to occupy time with at an appointment. No publisher recognized her talent when Harry Potter was formally submitted - they thought it was crap.

 
At 12:44 AM, December 21, 2006, Blogger Freudian Slip said...

Ha,google has their hands in everything these days. I can't imagine them turning it down!
Matt

 
At 12:47 AM, December 21, 2006, Blogger Freudian Slip said...

Ha,google has their hands in everything these days. I can't imagine them turning it down!
Matt

 
At 5:30 AM, June 18, 2009, Blogger nobody said...

Please whatever gods that be, not google!

Those are the very people who have taken DejaNews (which admittedly had financial problems) and by turning it into "google groups" have nigh destroyed usenet!

The idea is a good one, but the details are many. They can be worked out. Better for someone else to work them out than to let google screw it up straight away imo.

Not that I think google entirely bad, but dang!

 
At 10:45 AM, November 11, 2009, Blogger TheVidra said...

"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."

A problem with this statement is precisely that it will make people focus more on books suited to them and it will polarize thinking patterns. Some of the best books I have read were picked at random, on a whim. Had I had the choice to read one of my favorite authors (or genres) I would have missed out on the experience. The question of eliminating worthless works and choosing the gems in the pile (even in relative terms) is not so easy...

 

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