On Publishing

I've been thinking about publishing and the publishing industry of late. I'm sure some of it is related to my wanting of a kindle and my resulting thoughts on consolidation, and maybe some small measure of it has to do with the fact that sometimes it easier to think about publishing and the future of publishing than it is to think about ones own creative projects. So be it.

First, "what is there to think about?" you ask? Well, lots of things: I've written about wanting a kindle, and some thoughts about consolidation, and finally some thoughts on digital publishing More recently I've been thinking more about the "work" of publishing and content creation, apart from the changing business models and technological context.

Publishers (of any kind, and their editorial departments), by contemporary convention are responsible for reading through the slush and figuring what's good and what not. Ideally publishers are the stewards of taste, and the people who figure out whats "good" and what people want to read. On some fundamental level, publishers are curators. The second main function of publishers are as the provider and organizer around services. Publishers contract with copy editors, with design and layout people, they get the cover art, they do promotional work, and the million other things it takes to turn a manuscript into a book.

As the traditional publishing model has... deteriorated, I think a lot of people have been interested in figuring out "what happens next?" myself as much as anyone. Having said that, the way in which the traditional publishing model has deteriorated has shaped how we think about what comes next. This makes sense of course, but I want to challenge myself to think about things more broadly (and you, dear friends as well, but I'm sure you've already figured this one out.)

I mean, it's not like the old media died in a day. The blogging phenomena started, and writers/etc. were able to promote their work directly in ways that they hadn't managed to before. Margins on book sales went down, which has cut into promotional budgets (as much as anything). Also, thanks to developments in technology the size of most first runs is much smaller than it used to be. This is probably a good thing, but it also means that the capital investment on new authors and books is much less than it used to be. ...and the end result of this is that we're prone to seeing publishing companies as "Authors Services" companies.

As a model for "what comes next," services for authors is a huge part of what we need from the publishing companies. Centralizing and connecting authors with people who can provide big-picture editing, with people who do copy editing and proof reading, with people who do the cover art and layout of the book itself, and with people who can do the promotional work, getting the book plugged into the distribution channels. These are real needs, that aren't going to evaporate any time soon.

But what about the editorial and curatorial roles of publishers? What about the branding associated with publishing houses? I think there's probably some future for critical discourse in blogs and in digital forums, which will provide some of these functions, but that's not the full answer, and I'm not sure what the full answer is.

As I wrote, earlier, I think figuring out some sort of subscription system to support content creation and distribution. I think having the economic superstructure in place, or at least worked out conceptually is really important before we start working on new technologies, like ebook readers, and digital content distribution channels.

It's an interesting time to be around, that's for sure.

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