Are Publishers Even Necessary?

In the ongoing feud between the major publishing houses and Amazon, Yglesias has no sympathy for the publishers:

Wisdom on this subject begins with the observation that the book publishing industry is not a cuddly craft affair. It’s dominated by a Big Four of publishers, who are themselves subsidiaries of much larger conglomerates. Simon & Schuster is owned by CBS, HarperCollins is owned by NewsCorp, Penguin and RandomHouse are jointly owned by Pearson and Bertelsmann, and Hachette is part of an enormous French company called Lagadère.

These are not tiny, helpless enterprises. Were their owners interested in the future of books and publishing, they could invest the money necessary to make their own e-reading apps and e-book store and render Amazon entirely superfluous. But the managers of these conglomerates don’t really care. If they can get famous authors to lobby the government to stop Amazon from killing them for free, then they’re happy to take the free labor. But they don’t want to invest actual money and energy in competing with Amazon, they’d rather wring whatever remaining profit there is out of book publishing and dedicate the money to dividends or other industries they’re also involved in.

Matt goes as far as to suggest that publishers’ role as middlemen between authors and consumers has become superfluous in the digital age. Hear hear. But Evan Hughes isn’t having it:

A publisher’s list of books is in essence a risk pool, a term most often associated with health insurance. In the insurance business, the profits from the healthy people outweigh the big losses from the sick ones because the healthy outnumber the sick. In publishing, it’s the opposite, yet the underlying concept is the same. Most books lose money, but the ones that make money earn enough to cover all those novels that didn’t sell.

The publishing scenario that Yglesias is advocating is a world without health insurance. (Ironic, I know.) In a system without the publisher operating as middleman, where the author takes his life’s work and just posts it to Amazon, each book becomes a lonely outpost in the stiff winds of the marketplace, a tiny business that must sell or die. “So what?” Yglesias might say, because that’s the kind of ruthless neoliberal thinker he is. “If people didn’t buy the book, that’s just proof of its worthlessness.”

Yep, especially when the Internet allows anyone with the right voice to find an audience, however niche, to buy their book. And none of the money from those sales will get eaten up by the bloated middlemen of the publishing industry. But Guan Yang runs through some downsides of self-publishing:

A lot of work goes into publishing a book. Someone needs to edit the manuscript. The manuscript must be typeset and copy-edited. A cover has to be designed (most self-published books are terrible in this regard). The book needs to be marketed to readers, which can require producing ads and seeking out publicity. Paper books have to be printed, stored, shipped to distributors and bookstores, and sold; returns need to be managed. E-books have to be converted to various formats, ideally not just using automated tools.

Self-published authors can try to do all of these jobs themselves. Many attempt that, and it shows. Or they can outsource some or all of the tasks. When doing so, it’s best to use professionals who have tried to publish a book before. Maybe a team that’s used to working together. Perhaps the people even sit in the same building, so that they can quickly coordinate.

Congratulations: You have just re-created publishers, but without advances.

And without all the waste and inefficiency of many large publishing houses. Freelance copyeditors or cover designers can be found online for much less, and they are likely to be more receptive and flexible when it comes to the author’s needs. McArdle puzzles over another question Yglesias raises -whether the interests of authors align with those of their publishers:

If Amazon manages to kill most of the other outlets for books, it’s not clear to me that authors end up with more royalties and book sales. The distribution of royalties will certainly be different; some people who would have done well under the current system will end up losing out, while others who couldn’t get a major publisher interested in their product will end up making bank. But as a class, author interests might well be better aligned with those of four mega publishers than one mega retailer. Or might not; I haven’t seen a convincing case made either way.

Even assuming that we establish that Amazonian dominance might be bad for authors, we still have to answer another question: Why should anyone else care? Travelocity was bad for travel agents. Toyota was bad for General Motors. To which most people respond, “Gee, that’s too bad for you, isn’t it?” and happily go about their days. Why should authors be any different?