Smashwords founder Mark Coker was interviewed by Audie Cornish on NPR this week about whether publishers are becoming irrelevant in the age of epublishing. It’s a subject I’ve been wondering about too.
Traditional publishers are suddenly facing the curse of “living in interesting times”. As I was preparing the front matter for my Silent Symmetry ebook I realized that I had nothing to put where the name of the publisher usually goes. I mean, it kind of goes with the territory of self-publishing, right? So I wondered, should I put by name? “Published by John B. Dutton” almost seems silly, although literally true. And it got me to wondering, from a reader’s perspective, what is the point of a publisher?
If we’re talking about a novel by an unknown author or even a brand new book by a famous one, you could say that the publisher is a guarantee of quality. For sure, if you see Random House or Penguin on a printed book, you know that there won’t be any spelling mistakes in it, the ink won’t come off on your hands and the pages won’t fall out. But of course rating the quality of the literature itself is always going to be a somewhat personal affair. One reader might find a bestseller by a new author wonderful, the next find it boring. So this quality guarantee doesn’t seem to apply to the content of the novel, only the container (the printed book). In fact, I’d say that the biggest name in publishing today probably isn’t a publisher at all; it’s Oprah. Her book club brand acts as a trusted seal of approval for millions of readers who are hungry to discover great books.
Until recently, the vast majority of people never encountered books that didn’t have a publisher, just as they never watched movies that weren’t preceded by the name of a distributor/studio or listened to pop music recorded without a record label. However no one entered a cinema thinking, “I bet this film will be good – it was financed by Paramount,” or flipped over an album cover and exclaimed, “Wow – it’s an EMI record!” These brands simply represented the industrial “content machine” constantly churning out material that was at minimum professionally produced, whether or not it was great or awful from a creative standpoint. This was just the way things were because production required video and/or audio recording equipment, manufacturing was done in factories, and physical distribution needed a fleet of vehicles. There was bound to be a movie studio or record label; that was literally the only way to connect creative works with an audience.
The difference with the world of publishing was that the technology needed to produce the initial work was cheap: a clunky thing that sometimes suffered from mechanical failure called a typewriter (eventually superseded by a clunky thing that crashed all the time called a word processor). Manufacturing still required a big, expensive printing press, while distributing thousands of books nationwide could only be done with industrial-scale logistics and financing.
In the digital realm these hurdles have vanished for writers and musicians. Manufacturing is irrelevant in the age of the download. Distribution is non-physical and merely involves pushing a button to upload digital content. Suddenly readers and listeners are able to consume books and songs unaccompanied by the name and logo of a publisher or record company. Written works that lack a publisher’s stamp of approval are being consumed in enormous quantities. How can a reader decide whether a self-published ebook by an unknown author is any good in that case? Well, pretty much the old-fashioned ways: take a peek inside, read some reviews, ask people who’ve already read it for their opinion. The outcome will be the same: some you win, some you lose.
So suddenly for consumers the name of a “publishing house” on an ebook is as irrelevant as a record label is when they download an mp3. This doesn’t mean that epublishers have no reason to exist. An epublisher should do what traditional publishers do: edit a manuscript, commission a cover and help market the book. Some ebooks with complex formatting might require technical assistance from an epublisher. Yet the fact is that if an author hires people or firms to perform these services, the publisher has been eliminated from the equation.
Will readers of ebooks care? Will pseudo-publishers like Smashwords (which is more like a distributor) fill the void and stand for a certain degree of technical professionalism? Will anyone notice the gap on a book where the publisher’s name used to be? Watch that space…