I’ve begun to see the “small publisher” (SP) value proposition diminish. In cutting back on editing and marketing support, in losing ground to technology that makes it possible to go direct from author to reader today (i.e. e-books), in having no better alternative to online distribution offered by the likes of Amazon, and in still sticking to an outdated compensation model that pays an author only 10% in royalties despite its diminishing contribution, the small publishing house has to go the way of the dodo. Sure, some arts subsidies may hold SP aloft for awhile, but shrinking government support for the arts makes that lifeline no better than hanging onto a deflating life vest in a giant flood.
On the reverse side, I see another SP gaining traction: Self Publishing is getting its second wind. Yes, savvy self-published authors are now having their work vetted and edited, and even designing fancy covers for their work; they have come a long way from the early days when self-publishing was slammed by adherents to the traditional model for the movement’s obvious lack of “quality.” Self-published authors are settling in for the long term and doing it “for love of the art” and are getting comfortable with the notion that they may only end up selling a few copies of their books even if they work hard at it in this ever widening tsunami of written material out there today. And they hold out in hope that they may yet get “discovered” one day. How long will this idealism last?
I’ve also seen the author-as-publisher model emerge. Given the technology that is available today, and the narrow doors into the brand name publisher portals that makes entry difficult but for a chosen few, these writers (the savvy ones) are starting their own publishing companies, anchored by their own books and supported by others who have struggled to get published in the traditional way. Outsource everything but editorial selection, is their mantra.
When water is plentiful, it will find ways to flow through any crack, and written material is plentiful these days; it will find a way to get out, even if limited to 140 byte driblets. However, it is not supply, but demand that is hard to generate. The successful publisher is the one who can create demand and make the proud claim—either on the back of its own brand or on that of its authors—“Read this book, for it is good!” and have readers comply. I am not sure that any of the three models mentioned above can achieve this level of reader obeisance unless they cultivate niches that they have experience in.
Therefore, could these small publisher, self-published author, and principal-author-anchored publishing company models be setting themselves up for a smart aggregator to muscle in, offer them an exit strategy, snap them up at a bargain, cut out non-selling titles in their back lists, and retain only ones whose authors have built a reader platform for themselves through personal sweat equity? Isn't Amazon and Kobo trying to do just that with their recent announcements about becoming publishers? This aggregator-type reminds me of those leveraged buyout vultures in books like Barbarians at the Gate who dismembered companies to extract only the valuable and re-sellable parts, dumping everything else without any compunction towards the industry they were raiding. What value will aggregators add to authors, and what will they destroy?
In this fluid situation, what does the author, who does not have access to the big brand publishing house with its embedded marketing machine, do? Wait and watch these shifting landscapes, and continue to refine his prose, for at the end of the day, the reader is the judge.