Back in April (can you tell I just found this post in my drafts?) BookTwo sent me in the direction of Intelligence Squared for a video of a recent debate: “All that matters are authors and readers. Publishers will soon be irrelevant“.

Cory Doctorow’s take seemed sensible enough and quite measured, but I agreed more fully with James Bridle’s take (not that their opinions clashed much – they were both speaking for the motion).

Richard Charkin, arguing against the motion (but saying he rather agreed with it), held up academic publishers as still performing a vital role. He was very persuasive.

The only bits I really disagreed with were elements from Andrew Frank’s talk. The following quotes come from the written summary under the video but I’ve checked and they’re accurate enough.

“Authors are all too happy to leap into the open arms of the publisher”, especially after failed attempts to self publish. Publishers have to do a good job because that’s the only way they can make a living. Yes, you can publish for yourself, in the same way that you can self medicate, or operate on yourself – but it’s hard, painful, and not recommended

The bit about publishers doing a good job echoed James’s postion. The rest may be true but I’d suggest it ignores trends – it might still be a painful process but self-publishing is only getting easier and easier. Cory Doctorow made this point, having tried self-publishing and concluded that we’re not quite there yet.

Publishers select from a “pile of dross”, and are doing the public a favour by selecting the best for them.

Even if this is true, this statement is hugely problematic for the publishing industry – nobody’s paying them to do this specific job. People already go to bookshops and sift through 99.99% of books that are of no interest to them.

Actually, I’d say that publishers are doing themselves a favour by selecting the best – they need to guess which books will be popular enough for them to make a profit on. Any benefit to the reader is incidental. If finding the good stuff becomes a problem due to an explosion of online/self-publishing then I’m certain someone will find a smart way of sifting for the gold and making a small sum from doing so. And that’s before we get all long tail about it (a point Andrew did allude to, saying that they’re not interested in publishing such small numbers).

Ah, and I see Pete’s written in a more informed fashion about how the book market has long been swamped with spam. Go read that – he knows more about this stuff than I do. Anyway, continuing…

The charge that publishers censor out different voices doesn’t stand up because their editorial teams always represent a wide range of different tastes.

This strikes me as hopeful. Let a hundred flowers blossom and all that.

Only when an author sells well do they appreciate what a publisher is doing. Even if all writing were available on the internet, Franklin reminds us that “free is far far too much to pay for the overwhelming majority of self published books, and even for many of those that are published by a publisher.”

Maybe so, but again we have recommendation engines and the market to do this job. The publisher’s interest in judging what’s popular lies in being able to make a profit from it. Not that there’s anything wrong with this, of course – the publisher’s role seems to be quite a useful and important one in many respects, just not for the reasons above.

Anyway, it’s not really my area this, but I thought it was interesting and worth a note.

Published by Chris Unitt

I work at One Further, doing digital projects with cultural organisations. Follow @ChrisUnitt or find me on LinkedIn.