Do We Need Publishers?

There is a fascinating piece in today’s NYT on Amazon’s movement into publishing. Money quote:

Amazon will publish 122 books this fall in an array of genres, in both physical and e-book form. It is a striking acceleration of the retailer’s fledging publishing program that will place Amazon squarely in competition with the New York houses that are also its most prominent suppliers.

According to one editor quoted in the piece: “Publishers are terrified and don’t know what to do.”  And perhaps they should be. In words of one Amazon exec: “The only really necessary people in the publishing process now are the writer and reader,” he said. “Everyone who stands between those two has both risk and opportunity.”

There is something wonderful about bypassing the publishing houses, particularly if it dramatically reduces the time between the completion of work and its delivery. For those of us who have published books, the lag time (often a year or more) is frustrating. Moreover, I read many of my books on Kindle or the iPad, and I am constantly struck by the high prices charged for e-books. The marginal cost of each additional book must be close to zero and there is no secondary market, unlike hard copies. Presumably, cutting the publishing houses out of the game could dramatically reduce costs for readers thereby expanding the market and/or increase the royalties for authors.

At the same time, I worry a bit about quality. Most of our academic journals have rejection rates between 90 and 98 percent. The limited space for articles forces editors to be rather ruthless. The same might be said of traditional publishing houses. At least in academic markets, the editor can add a limited number of books to a given series per year. Some (many?) bad books and articles slip through, but I imagine that the number would escalate dramatically in a world free of the traditional gatekeepers.

Is the elimination of the old-style publishing houses inevitable? On balance, will it be a positive occurrence?

5 thoughts on “Do We Need Publishers?

  1. “Some (many?) bad books and articles slip through, but I imagine that the number would escalate dramatically in a world free of the traditional gatekeepers.”

    “Bad” is in the eye of the beholder. In a free world why should someone else decide what’s best for ME?

    1. Perhaps. But I was referring to academic publishing with the line in question. Some peer review process seems necessary to weed out research that does not meet established standards.

  2. Uh-huh.

    The traditional publisher may not be necessary in the future, apart from where brand signals are important (as, for example, the academic market). In such cases, I would expect consumer demand to sustain the existence of some publishing houses.

    But this is not about the death of traditional publication: it’s about Amazon setting itself up as the superdominant electronic publishing house. Their Kindle format is still tied down, so people cannot truly self-publish: they must use Amazon’s platform to do it. The exec’s words reek of hypocritical cant: the truth is that Amazon is doing its level best to make sure that the only people necessary are the writer, the reader — and Amazon.

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