17 January 2012

The publishing animal

Publishers, in ecological terms, are at the top of the publishing industry’s food chain. They are highly adapted to their, now changing, environment.

The fauna

The value that most publishers have provided in recent history1 has been relatively clear and obvious to even the most biased outsider. They provide capital for writers and others involved to finish their work. They arbitrage between the numerous unknown writers who think they’re the greatest thing since sliced bread2 and the even more numerous readers who are tired of the unimaginative, self-important, idiots who think they’re the greatest thing since sliced bread.

They have invested in a intricate quality control infrastructure, which has been developed over several decades and affects every step of the bookmaking process, from writing, to the design, to the printing, and to the delivery of the final package.

They are business-to-business corporations who know that their survival has hinged on their ability to give booksellers the tools they need. Tools booksellers then use to unload semi-coherent tripe onto a sub-literate populace—buyers who really should know that their time and money is better spent on a boxed set of Pixar movies, not on whatever self-important hipster the ‘literature’ industry has decided to push this week.

They have built up relationships with the megafauna of the publishing world: Distributors and printers, two animal species that are routinely inaccessible to individual actors.

They are, in short, specialised animals who, over the last century of publishing, have been the fittest of the lot and so have survived.

The microfauna bloom

The problem with publishers isn’t with publishers as a class of species. There’s still room for larger animals that live higher up in the publishing food chain.

The problem isn’t that all publishers must die and be replaced with writers acting alone.

The problem is that their environment has changed, completely and drastically.

Like an algal bloom, the explosive growth of small and self-publishers – enabled by the entrance of a new megafauna species, the ebook ecosystem vendor – has in many ways sucked the oxygen away from the big publisher’s environment.

This is only a bad thing if your intellectual faculties are crippled by nostalgia and you have a pathological emotional attachment to ill-suited companies who have to be kept on mechanical ventilation to survive.

The ebook infrastructure has nothing in common with the old retail infrastructure that provided publishers with the nutrients they need to thrive, an infrastructure heading towards an inevitable collapse. When ebooks eventually become half of the book market, the old print infrastructure will be trying to survive on half the revenue it formerly took for granted. There is no industry that can cope with a loss of revenue of that magnitude, in such a short space of time, without collapsing.3

This means that existing, previously fit, publishers are facing a new environment where their capabilities for dealing with distributors and booksellers has little economic value. It means their quality control processes are inappropriate and over-costly for the ebook market. It means they are ignorant of new methods of arbitrage between the mass of unknown writers and the crowd of bored schlubs that enable them to connect with each other without turning book browsing into a full-time job. Most of the costly, energy-intensive, characteristics that made them fit for the old world, are making them slow and unfit for the new world.

A new species?

Anybody who has given the history of innovation even a cursory read knows that the incumbents rarely survive. The very characteristics that made them fit and well run in the old environment are liabilities in the new.

But, a mass extinction isn’t such a bad thing if the big blokes dropping dead are dinosaurs and you are a lean, mean, mammalian surviving machine.

Some of the value a publisher provides remains. A single writer can’t be expected to build up a network of designers, coders, editors, marketers, just writing the goddamn book is difficult enough4. Some of them will, not because they have to, but because they want to. (Tackling a multi-dimensional problem like that is actually fun.) But, that’s one thing the new publisher can provide.

Another vital ingredient in the bookmaking stew is capital. Writers, designers, coders, editors, and everybody else involved need money to live and eat and sleep occasionally.

Finally, even though the new marketing and arbitrage environment is different from that which surrounded the old publishers, it still rewards expertise and participation.

The new publisher is a small company, only a few employees tapping into a network of services and freelancers. It can thrive by selling ebooks at a fraction of the price the big publishers demand. And, most importantly, its output is no more and no less vacuous and inane as the regurgitated MFA-slime that it replaces.5

It’s just crap in different ways.

Of course, there will be good books here and there, but good books are, and have been for decades, such a minute quality in the publishing industry that they are completely irrelevant in economic terms. A well written book in the ebook era is just as much of an aberration as it was in the print era.

If the publishing industry had to survive on just selling good books, it’d disappear overnight. All bookstores would close. Amazon would fold. Rakuten would flush Kobo down the toilet like a dead hamster. Apple would continue without missing a beat, possibly with a sigh of relief. Good books are a rounding error in the economics of publishing.

Ebooks will do nothing to change the fact that most people are idiots with no taste6, both inside and outside of publishing.


  1. Recent history in print publishing being anything that happened after World War One. ↩

  2. But they all know they aren’t, which is the reason why the profession is cluttered with neurotic, passive-aggressive, fucks. ↩

  3. The definition of collapse I’m using here is that of Tainter’s: “Collapse is a rapid transformation to a lower degree of complexity, typically involving significantly less energy consumption.” This isn’t to say that print will die out or that it won’t be important, just that the print publishing ecosystem will be substantially simpler and be able to survive on much less revenue. ↩

  4. Obviously, since so many seem to be so so bad at it. ↩

  5. Of course, the new publisher is already here. Plenty of them around. What I’m saying is that there’ll be more of them and that there will be fewer big publishers. ↩

  6. It gets worse. Even the smart ones are usually just bildungsphilister—little more than caricatures. ↩

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