Publishy Publishingness by Publishers
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I've been thinking a lot about reactions my earlier post asking what people would do if they wanted to found a new, cheap publishing house tomorrow. So here's what I've learned: the word "Publisher" is a Rorschach inkblot.
Like a lot about 20C businesses, the model we had of what publishers do and how they do it was so unvarying for so long that it was easy to confuse 'stable accident' with 'deep truth'. A publisher may be a bank that owns an ad agency and a trucking company, but they had that form for a long time, and they got really good at it.
And the internet, of course, threatens that, both in its raw form -- as new capabilities go, infinite perfect low-cost copying is a humdinger -- and because it is an arms bazaar for waves of insurgents.
Like all organizations, publishers solve a list of problems, and anyone thinking about new models of publishing is thinking about that list. Take the problem "However will we print and distribute 10,000 copies of this book?" There are, I think, three attitudes you can take towards this problem.
#1: Business as usual.
BAU says, of any given feature of the business, "This is such a well-worked out solution, there's no point in trying to re-invent it." In the case I just listed, it says "Printing, warehousing and shipping are commodities. Leave them alone."
#2: Not my problem.
NMP says that legacy businesses are busy solving a problem they don't even need to have anymore, and businesses only persist in this because all the employees are stupids. In the case listed, a Not My Problem strategy would solve the problem of advance printing by not printing in advance. Only ship ebooks (duh) and if one of the BOOKS SMELL NICE I READ THEM IN THE TUB people happens along, charge them print-on-demand prices and mail it to their house.
#3: Radical re-invention.
RRI says that this problem, whatever it is, is the thing one must re-think in order to make meaningful change. In the case of printing, the move made by McSweeneys (cheap Icelandic printing, on the printer's schedule) didn't replace advance printing, but did make it much more viable.
Separate from any given new model of publishing (of which there were several interesting ones in the comments, which I want to react to later) if this "List of problems/three possible moves" model is even a little bit correct, we can expect publishing get a whole lot more diverse.
Just on the numbers, even if publishers solve only the three problems I listed originally (bank, ad agency, trucking company) and even if there are only three possible reactions to each problem, that makes 27 models for publishing, only one of which is Business As Usual in all categories.
In practice, as many people pointed out, publishers also take on lots of other problems, from cover design to cajoling sensitive neurotics, and given that Option #3 -- radical reinvention of a particular approach to a problem -- can contain multiple solutions, there are dozens and dozens of possible alternate models, depending on what you stick with, what you ignore, what you re-invent, and how.
Five years from now, a for-profit firm that concentrates on bringing back out-of-copyright non-fiction in handsome hardback editions will have almost nothing in common with an artists co-operative for writing paranormal romance for the Kindle, even though both will reasonably be able to claim to be publishers.
Let me end with one concrete example that interests me. Maria Popova, she of Brain Pickings, recommends books to people, and if they click through and buy them from her site, she gets the affiliate traffic. Is she a publisher?
Asked from the frame of The Way It's Done Now, no, obviously not. But other frames are possible; we didn't make a clear distinction between a printer, publisher, and seller of books until the 19th century. Benjamin Franklin, patron saint of American newspapers among other things, was not called a publisher but a printer. We may be in another period where seemingly concrete roles become fluid again.
Looking at the core idea of the word publisher -- someone who makes books public -- and you can make a case for Popova, by noting that the hard step today in making a book available to the public is no longer printing and shipping, but awareness. (ObDoctorow: "I'm an author. My problem is not piracy. My problem is obscurity.")
Then look at the argument that what Popova does is more like a bookstore. The bookstores we have don't often run international marketing campaigns for the books they sell. They leave that to...the publishers. She publicizes books in ways we associate more with Harcourt than Barnes and Noble.
Now I'm not arguing that Popova is a publisher in some sort of direct comparison with Scholastic. What I'm arguing instead is that asking "What does the world look like if Popova is a publisher?" is much more fruitful than trying to sort future models into baskets woven out of the past.