Piracy is Progressive Taxation, and Other Thoughts on the Evolution of Online Distribution
Subject:   Whither go the publishers?
Date:   2002-12-12 08:41:59
From:   grepsedawk
I don't think you're thinking far enough ahead Tim.

Publishers are in danger in a future where individual people and their skills can be matched to individual people and their needs.

Take a look at the traditional book process. Acquiring Editor gets and author who works with a developmental editor who passes the book to a copy-editor and artist who pass the book to a printer who gives it to a distributor who sells it to the retail store who sells it to a consumer.

That's a lot of people to have to support on the sale of a book. Imagine that there are no publishers, no warehouses, and possibly no printers. There is just a website that links people together and Amazon with a lot of print on demand press thingies.

Here is how that can play out. An author wants to write a book. He knows it has a limited audience, but he wants to do it anyway. He goes to the skills trader website and finds that there are several editors who want to edit books like his. He finds one with the appropriate time, skills, fess, and reputation, and he teams up with him. They produce a book that they need to have copy-edited. The author goes back to the website and hires a freelance copy-editor. Then they apply a template that they purchased from an interiors person and give the finished PDFs to Amazon. Through Amazon, and some good search technology, the author's book can now have the widest distribution possible to its limited audience.

You argue that publishers like O'Reilly have reputations that help to sell books. I argue that Author/Editor comibinations will be new brand names. Movies are already like this, you watch because of the story and the star. Books are also, does any child care who publishes Harry Potter books? Likewise music. I'm not going to stop buying Sting music because he now works with Sony. It's still Sting.

The change will go further than you think. P2P will not only enable niche products to get maximum distribution, it will also enable skill sets to be matched to skill needs without Labels or Publishers getting in the way and taking a cut.

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  • Tim O'Reilly photo Whither go the publishers?
    2002-12-12 09:11:56  Tim O'Reilly | O'Reilly AuthorO'Reilly Blogger [View]

    I don't disagree -- remember, I'm one of those author/editor combinations myself -- and I grew into a publisher. David Pogue is following the same path right now. An author becomes successful, and they try to extend their leverage. Not all do, but the possibility is there. Tom Clancy has a game publishing company, a film production company, and so on.

    Not every artist wants to go this route, but many do. But in a rich media ecology, you have the opportunity to choose which pieces of the problem you want to own. David Pogue wants to own his editorial and production, but doesn't want to go all the way to building his own sales force, so he works with O'Reilly as a packager. In my early years, I made deals with other publishers to distribute my books internationally. Now I do it myself.

    The self-published author you describe above *is* a publisher. There have always been lots of one-book publishers. The new medium hasn't changed that. Nor has it changed the fact that, having had one successful book, a self-publisher seeks another, and another, and another...and after a while, doesn't write them all him or herself.

    The web is a perfect petri dish for watching all this in action. Yahoo! was once two guys at Stanford, not all that different from a whole bunch of other early websites. Now they are a major hub in the web content distribution chain. Whether you call them a publisher or a distributor is somewhat irrelevant. The point is that distribution hierarchies don't remain flat. Once they get large, nodes of specialization emerge. One of those nodes we call a publisher.
    • Whither go the publishers?
      2002-12-15 17:59:30  tlilley [View]

      Consider also that there will remain a role for "publishers" as aggregators of all of that nasty production beyond the actual writing.

      As a writer, I may not care to post my potential idea to a service brokerage in order to find competent editors, illustrators, designers, print-on-demand houses, distributors, online vendors, and so forth.

      I might just want to punt and sign on with O'Reilly because "I know their work; it's good."

      Now, granted, big changes come with all of this ability to make ad-hoc interconnections without the traditional trusswork. What it means to be a "publisher" changes in mechanics, but I don't think it appreciably changes in spirit.

      To expand on what I said in another post, the role of the publisher is to connect creators (with other creators and then connect those creators) with customers.

      The biggest changes are to the scales at which activities become practical to undertake "solo". I can see a day when William E. Gates' (not the Microsoft one) self-published[1] magazine "Midnight Engineering" isn't such a novelty.

      [1] By "self-published" I mean he ran the web press solo. The web press that he moved across the country with his dad, a forklift, and a flatbed tractor-trailer. That's the sort of nuttiness I admire :)
    • Whither go the publishers?
      2002-12-12 10:03:17  grepsedawk [View]

      I like your point that people will have the opportunity to choose which pieces of the problem they want to own.I think that is very true and not everyone will feel comfortable going to solo route.

      I didn't get your 5th point the first time. You are saying "A publisher by any other name is still the person or technology that makes a work available" O'Reilly itself may be in danger of someday becoming irrelevant, but publishing itself will still exist.

      I agree with that. What I find sad is that many of the existing industries are using legal manuevering to extend their existance beyond it's useful life.

      The Mickey Mouse Copyright Extension
      Microsoft's Software Choice
      The RIAA and it's DMCA stuff