Once publishing was inherently tied to printing. Those who owned presses published books. “Printers & Publishers” went in the name of many companies. Later on, technology advanced, printing became more accessible, and one printer became easily substitutable with another. Publishing became less about printing and more about selection, editing, design and distribution.
Things are changing again. Just like access to printing, specifically offset printing, did not remain much of a differentiator, access to good editors, designers or distribution channels has not remained particularly exclusive. Some level of editing and designing can be done even by lay people with the help of tools.
MS Word, for example, can check your spellings and even warn you about the use of passive voice. I can hear the cries of “that’s not all that editing is about”, but the point is you don’t need a skilled editor to tell you this any more.
Besides, editors and designers often freelance. So with Internet and communication technologies, it is easy for individuals to reach out to them. Print on demand and e-books along with online retailing have made production and distribution very accessible as well. So, a publisher’s access to these no longer distinguishes him.
What is the future of publishing then? Will the publishing industry die while readers and writers connect directly, as many change-enthusiasts proclaim? Will the publishing industry become an uncontrolled jungle in which writers and readers will be lost because anything and everything will be published? A place where nobody can tell the good from the bad and the ugly, as the doomsayers fear?
If the history of such proclamations is anything to go by, the extremely optimistic and extremely pessimistic viewpoints are unlikely to come true. Here are two basics of publishing that are needed and that will survive:
- Readers need to choose what to read
- Authors need to reach out to the readers
Readers need curation. Authors need marketing.
In one form or the other, someone has to meet these needs. People who did this before were the publishers of past. People who will do this in the future will be the publishers of the future. There is no way to predict who those would be. If the existing organizations adapt and find ways to meet these needs, they will survive. Otherwise, they will be replaced by new, innovative, entrepreneurial ones.
Earlier, curation reflected in whether or not something was published at all since resources needed to publish were exclusive. In the future curation will most likely happen after publication. Because, let’s accept it – the actual act of publishing has become trivial with print-on-demand and e-books. There is no longer any scarcity of supply, so curation will be the way of streamlining excess. Curation will not reflect in unpublished manuscript piles, but in unnoticed online listings of published ones.
Earlier, marketing reflected in the number of bookstores that were flooded with the book. In the future, marketing will reflect in the number of readers who have heard positive things about the book. Because, let’s accept it- distribution has become trivial with online retailing. Marketing will not reflect in large piles of books in stores, but how many readers searched for it on online retail sites.
From editors and designers, Publishers will become curators and marketers.
Publishing is dead. Long live publishing.