The future of publishing: Amateur hour in a DIY universe.
The saddest thing I’ve read lately is this HuffPo essay by Philip Goldberg in praise of traditional publishers and the essential services they provide writers. Why sad? Because publishers are about to go the way of record labels– which means authors will be on their own.
On their own for encouragement, editing, marketing–everything publishers traditionally do. It’ll be amateur hour in a DIY universe.
Poor misguided Goldberg, an “interfaith minister” and author of 19 books with spiritual themes. He means his piece, recounting the development of his most recent book, American Veda, to be celebratory. It’s even titled: “Who Needs Publishers? We All Do!”
But considering rapid developments in self-publishing and digital books, Goldberg’s piece reads more like a eulogy.
Goldberg lists two ways his publisher, Doubleday Religion, made it possible for him to research and write an ambitious history of Indian spiritual thought in America.
First, Goldberg received an advance. While the upfront money didn’t cover the expenses incurred in three years of research, it helped, he says. What’s more, it signaled that a major publishing house wanted this book: “Given my personal circumstances, I simply could not have sustained the effort to complete the project without that commitment.”
A smart guy, Goldberg frets about a future in which authors of “research-heavy” books will have to be independently wealthy, tenured academics, or supported by “commercial or ideological organizations with a vested interest in promoting a point of view.”
The second, equally important thing Doubleday did for Goldberg was provide quality control — catching not only pesky errors of spelling and grammar, but also fact, structure and readability. A writer for 30 years, with 19 previous books to his credit, Goldberg declares: “I still need editors.”
“[W]hen it comes to serious nonfiction especially, readers, libraries, reporters and everyone else concerned about accuracy and readability should rely only on books that have been competently edited.”
Much as I sympathize with Goldberg, I can only view this with nostalgic melancholy, because the publishing process he describes is doomed. And soon. Take a look at Bob Stein’s call, at futureofthebook.org, for “a hospice for publishers.”
Stein predicts 50 percent of publishers won’t survive “the transition from print to networked screens,” suggesting they choose to go out with dignity by selling off assetts, providing employees with severance and help finding new jobs, “and then at the very end giving some wonderful parties, celebrating the end of an era.”
And those 50 percent Stein expects to survive, what will they be like? They’ll be a lot like the independent record labels thriving after file-sharing crashed the music industry. You can find a taste of this brave new world in “The Dotted Line,” Sasha Frere-Jones’ piece in the current New Yorker.
Richard Russell, owner of XL, a London-based independent, says artists should professionalize their music and bring an audience with them before they approach a label. His top act, Vampire Weekend, already had “a significant press kit when XL signed them.” Band members still do most of their own marketing through social networking on Twitter and elsewhere.
So, writers: Unless you’re already a blockbuster like Stephen King or Janet Evanovich, this is your future. Writing will be the least of what you to do.