The watchword now is disintermediation. That is, getting rid of the middle man in just about any context from food to print. That means self-publishing. Which means a lot of pesky stuff about formatting, advertising, distribution and so on. Stuff that authors are often not very good at.
Publishing companies are not going to willingly step down from their position of privileged and autocratic mediation between writer and audience. They still haven’t quite realized they’ve lost their monopoly. And they have lost their mystique. Slowly people are realizing that they are not the Olympians (or maybe Landed Gentry) that they once may have been, but only flunkies for soup companies in Germany. They are quickly being disintermediated in the same way the USSR was, without really knowing.
But they’ve been laying off their editors for a while and many of those have become agents who know how to be TACTFUL and FAITHFUL and HELPFUL intermediates for authors who want to write, not self-publish. So why don’t they? Why aren’t those editors/agents presenting themselves to writers? Why does everyone want to be an author -- write the great American whatsis -- but no one wants to be the new multi-talented author support system?
It’s because there’s no myth, no glamour. There are no praising and dramatic novels about agents who can handle contracts for ebooks, audible books, trophy books, self-published books, and all the other kinds. There are no ennobling guides to agents who have databases for line-editors, rewrite editors, formatters, illustrators, reviewers, reliable providers of content for reading devices, current providers of which bibliography for which device, and so on. In fact, I doubt if there is anyone anywhere who really KNOWS all this stuff. Some of it isn’t even invented yet. We all need search engines and even then you have to consider what search terms to use.
One of the probs for the shift from publisher’s editors and writer’s agents to some kind of hybrid is the huge and very steep learning curve about tech stuff -- not just translating to bytes but also keeping up with the ongoing tsunami of possibilities. (The latest is print books with sound tracks, just like movies, so that as your eyes pass over certain print, the page turns on a surge of violins or maybe a crooning sax. I love it on my audible books. Though none have gone to the lengths of Garrison Keillor’s sound effect stories on the radio.)
So the steady older woman who was able to soothe and guide tempestuous young geniuses is going to have to find a young techie partner. The man who “did lunch” with big shots and profited greatly from it, will have to learn to use his computer-mounted vid camera which means his face will count more than his tailoring. (However, he will be able to smoke his cigar. I’d advise against martinis at the keyboard.) One of the reasons that publishing and agents are concentrated in either Manhattan or LA is that deals have been made in facetime. Face “book” doesn’t cut it. It’s dialogue, body language, the ambiance of a nice restaurant or cozy cafe that has made things happen.
Since “publishing” is now scattered all over every continent, the writing-enabler will have to be everyplace as well. The formatting, illustrating, distributing and so on are easy enough to do on a computer via internet. All the concierge functions are a snap. One can do them at home in pajamas. It’s the money raising that makes the difference. Who will invest? Why should they trust you? What return will they get? This is the one factor that might allow publishing companies, esp. ones with big names, to regroup. What will tend to disperse them is the kind of bait and switch games they’ve been playing with authors in order to pull in readers. They need to be busted in the enforcement sense, but that will probably be what busts them in the monetary sense.
There are websites that monitor agents/editors. One writer runs a blog where he simply posts all replies he gets to his queries. The letters that come back are snotty, disrespectful, arrogant and stupid, but what’s most amazing is that when they were made public on his blog, the responders went ballistic. They expected total confidentiality and obsequious respect. Plainly, they thought of themselves as the dauphins of the industry at their receptionist desks, busy keeping the doors shut.
An agent/editor/intermediary who is not a realist is useless. Probably their hardest job will be evading the talentless who don’t know that’s what they are, but maybe harder than that will be recognizing those who are enormously gifted but unrecognizable because they are in early stages. Of course, that’s what everyone hopes they are. So maybe someone ought to open a separate business that caters to those people. They could call it, um, let’s see -- a school? No, schools are conformity-focused. At the moment “self-publishing” companies are making big money out of the untalented and overoptimistic. At least if they’re ebooks, they won’t be moldering in a garage.
Probably in the end consortiums will form, groups of people working together in some trusting contractual relationship so that each does some part of the project. I suppose they might evolve back into being publishers, but more like today’s mom-and-pop speciality and local operations.
An interesting development will be what happens to the academic presses. They have existed to support the Ph.D. thesis industry, the specialized journals, and textbooks. All of these are far better served by ebook operations. Their dependence upon “peer review” has become corrupt, cumbersome and always tardy. Instead of three supposedly anonymous readers (to preserve honesty) the peers could include everyone affiliated with the professional organization.
The truth is that peer reviews are often seen through as the efforts at control and sabotage they can be. If all hundred specialists in some subject are looking at the article in question, games will be disabled -- at least to some extent. We are in a period where the boundaries and centers of many disciplines are reconfiguring, so probably the biggest danger is simply chaos. But there will be major staff changes. Most employees of academic presses are making modest salaries that far exceed any compensation for the writers.
If publishers as we know them are being dropped out of the game, will the writers or the readers call the tunes? Very hard to know, because both depend on world events from technological events to political reinventions. The nature of information will change. What will not change is “story,” the invention of narrations, for this is how Scheherazade stayed alive and that won’t change. She will never be disintermediated.