Mar 22 2009
Slate’s Jacob Weisberg argues that the Kindle will totally reshape the publishing industry. Not likely.
As to the fate of book publishers, there’s less reason to be optimistic. Amazon, which is selling Kindle books at a loss to get everyone hooked, will eventually want to make money on them. The publishers will be squeezed at best and disintermediated at worst. Amazon is already publishing Stephen King. In the future, it could become the only publisher a best-selling author needs. In a world without the high fixed costs of printing and distribution, as the distance between writers and their audiences shrinks, what essential service will Random House and Simon & Schuster provide? If the answer is primarily cultural arbitration and editing, the publishing behemoths might dwindle while a much lighter weight model of publishing—clever kids working from coffee shops in Brooklyn—emerges.
I’m skeptical. Within a few years, the Kindle might, might present a credible alternative to selling books in a physical form. But printing books is not even close to the most important role that publishers perform. Publishers pick authors that look like they could sell, and then they provide services to maximize sales. A new and cheaper way to distribute books will not reduce the need for publishers.
1. Publishers serve as a gatekeeper between readers and wannabe authors. For the authors that actually get published, this is very helpful because having a credible publisher is a mark of quality. That makes it easier to get into bookstores, to get reviewed, etc.
2. They provide advances to authors, which mitigates the risk of writing a book and starving because you can’t sell any copies. Judging from how many people submit their manuscripts to conventional publishers, this is something that authors value very highly.
3. Publishers provide free editorial support. Jacob acknowledges this, but he suggests that it’s not particularly important. Why is that? Why will authors be able to thrive without editors in the future even though they rarely do now? Jacob doesn’t offer any reason to believe that kids in coffeehouses will be able to produce work that people are willing to pay for.
4. The publisher provides free promotional assistance to help sell the book. I like online promotion as much as anyone, but what does Amazon know about real-world marketing? Why would they have close working ties with brick-and-mortal bookstores and other important players?
I don’t think that the potential growth of Amazon as an alternate publisher will change anything. Either Amazon will be another kind of self-publisher that only provides copies of a book, or it becomes another professional publisher that selects appealing manuscripts and then provides free services to maximize sales. If Amazon accepts every manuscript (like a vanity press), then it cannot provide these free services. If Amazon has a selection process, then it has every incentive to provide free services to maximize sales and its share of the revenue.