Fantastic Article: Publishing in the Twenty-First Century

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Fantastic Article: Publishing in the Twenty-First Century

A great article to add to your weekend reading pile: An interview in Poets & Writers, in which Gabriel Cohen talks to John B. Thompson about this book (titled Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century) and his views of the publishing industry today.

The article touches on everything from technology to chain stores to the roles of the key players in the industry, but my favorite part was probably the one in which Thompson discusses the technological fallacy, or the assertion that technology—not people—is the driving source of change in the publishing industry. Here’s what Thompson had to say about it:

“What they miss is that publishing is a complex field of actors and players and agents who are human beings actively involved in content—and that readers are human beings who have their own tastes and preferences. Technology isn’t just an independent variable that drives through all that come hell or high water. It’s part of a complex social process.”

I also loved his thoughts on whether authors “publishing” their books online will somehow bring about the downfall of the jobs of publishers, agents, and editors:

“There’s a very big difference between “publishing” in the sense of making something publicly available, on the one hand, and publishing in the sense of getting readers to notice it, read it, buy it, discuss it, and so on. Any author can post anything online, but that doesn’t mean that anyone is going to pay attention to it. That’s where the role of publishers remains absolutely vital—they play a fundamental role in bringing content to the attention of others, of publicizing it, of marketing it.”

You can read the full article here. And feel free to share your thoughts. Anything about the article you loved? Anything you disagreed with? Anything in particular that scares you about the fate of the future of book publishing?

Happy reading, and have a great weekend.

  1. He talked to 280 people in the publishing industry and discovered that the publishing industry is vital.

    Talk to 280 people in the toast-on-a-stick industry and you’ll learn how vital that industry is.

    Go look at an Amazon page for a Random House book. Now look at the Amazon page for a well-done self-pubbed book. There’s no difference. They sit on the “shelf” in an identical way. And they’ve likely had exactly the same promotion and publicity budget: zero dollars.

    Amazon loses money on a $9.99 e-book? They won’t when authors are self-publishing with Amazon and splitting 70/30. Then they’ll be making money on a $4.99 e-book while conventional publishers are trying to sell $20 hardcovers of a book that’s already been online for six months..

    Look at the digital system and ask yourself which one, single element cannot be subtracted from the process of writing an e-book. That’s right: the writer. Every other element — agent, editor, designer, publisher — can be minimized or subtracted entirely.

    There are ways for publishers to stay alive and even prosper but grasping at straws isn’t the way.


  2. Michael:

    Wow, it sounds like you have some bitterness toward the publishing industry, and perhaps with good reason.

    You make some good points in your comment above, but I don’t think your statement about comparing a self-published book to a Random House book is quite accurate. There are many differences between self-published books (even if they are self-published well), and books published by more traditional publishers, both large and small.

    Of course the largest difference between a self-published and traditionally published book is that for a traditionally published book, the author is paid by the publisher for his/her work. Not only that, but it has the benefit of support from the publisher–not only in terms of publicity and marketing dollars (of which there is, admittedly, little to go around these days), but also in terms of cover design and jacket copy, not to mention careful attention to both content and copyediting. These are all benefits offered by traditional publishers that self-publishing houses charge extra for–if these options are provided at all. It seems a shame for a writer to have to pay extra to assure that his book does not have typos!

    Additionally, if you compare a self-pubbed book on Amazon to a book published with a traditional house, you’re more likely to see reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, and a host of other organizations on the Amazon page of the traditionally published. Seeking out review attention is also something traditional publishers do–to the tremendous benefit of the writer. Again, something you’re not going to see for many self-published books, and again, a benefit that traditional publishers offer–free of charge.

    True, books cannot exist without writers. But I’m also a firm believer that writers benefit greatly from having the support and input of editors–to help them guide and shape their content, and make it the best it can be.

    Can the publishing process be streamlined? Most definitely. And is self-publishing a viable and potentially successful option for writers with certain wants and needs? Absolutely.

    But can a well-produced, well-written, well-published book be created without the help of experience editors, designers, and even agents? I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with you on that one. Even though the initial writing process is a solitary one, great books aren’t created in a vacuum, and the role of traditional publishers is vital to a fantastic and successful finished book.

    Thanks for the debate, and be well!


  3. Then they’ll be making money on a $4.99 e-book while conventional publishers are trying to sell $20 hardcovers of a book that’s already been online for six months..Then they’ll be making money on a $4.99 e-book while conventional publishers are trying to sell $20 hardcovers of a book that’s already been online for six months..


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