The future of publishing may be not publishing at all

Drawing of a man flying with a flock of books
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, courtesy of Ars Electronica

One of the main characteristics of the industrial age is the concentration of activity under a same roof. In order to realize the full potential of resources that are scarce and to minimize transaction costs, organizations tended to perform as many roles and tasks as possible. That is, a factory would non only weave, but spin, dye, weave, design, cut, sew and distribute.

We got used to this. And for the sake of efficiency and efficacy it did make sense.

A publisher, for instance, would also concentrate several roles and tasks under the generic concept of publishing. Not being exhaustive, these could be:

  1. Identifying talent. Who is good at writing.
  2. Investing in talent. Providing resources to the one that is good writing so that they write instead of doing some other thing.
  3. Improving originals, that is, editing. In two ways. Firstly, improving the quality of writing by providing an external dispassionate look at the work. Secondly, making it more marketable according to the tastes of the potential readers.
  4. Prepare the work for a support. If it is going to be printed, prepare a layout for printing.
  5. Printing the work (or creating the actual product).
  6. Prescribing good works. That is, building a reputation so that your opinion counts and then you’ll recommend the talent you found.
  7. Finding or creating a demand. Who will by the book? Where are they? What are their tastes?
  8. Distributing the book to the seller near the demand you found.

The digital revolution has implied that resources (knowledge intensive resources, like data, information and most kinds of intangible goods) are no more scarce, at least in technical terms (some legal restrictions may apply, but this is a layer put upon the technical one); with the end of scarcity, information costs drop dramatically. And the digital revolution has implied too that communications are almost costless and, thus, transaction costs also drop dramatically.

This has led to an increasing process of decentralization — subrogation, outsourcing, off-shoring… there are many names and ways to it — since the late XXth century and whose possibilities are but expanding with new software for creation and social media.

If we break up the roles and tasks that publishers usually perform, we can easily find alternate ways to do them in a mostly distributed way. We have changed some names to bring them closely to the actual names of such roles in the market:

Roles Alternatives
Finding talent Social media for content sharing, recommendation sites, virtual communities.
Producing Crowdfunding, microlending — besides several ways to drastically reducing the need for investment or enable self-production.
Editing Collaboration tools, comments on social media, ranking and recommendation sites, streaming and content sharing sites (with their analytics), tremendous exposure to others’ works, availability of professional or expert analysis to these others’ works, open courses and MOOCs, open educational resources.
Layout Crowsourcing platforms, free layouts, self-editing and self-publishing websites, layout and format conversion software.
Printing (provided there still is a need for printing) print on demand websites or services
Prescribing Social networking sites (word of mouth), self-publishing websites, experts’ blogs or videoblogs, reputed authors’ personal websites or blogs or social media users.
Marketing Most of what has been written above counts here, because markets are conversations, right?
Distributing Personal websites, social networking sites, file sharing services, online retailers, online marketplaces.

That there are alternatives does not necessarily mean that publishing, or publishers, are over. The alternatives may not even catch, the alternatives may live together with traditional publishers, or publishers themselves may abandon traditional ways of working and adopt the alternatives themselves, thus changing the ways without a change in the actors. The idea here is neither to kill anyone nor get rid of them, but just showing some of the many ways that intermediation is being challenged by the numerous possibilities to break up of centralization, the distribution of decision-making and task-execution.

Publishers — as many other institutions like schools and universities, newspapers, the recording industry or political parties themselves will have to reflect on what are the tasks that they are now performing, what are the alternatives to the centralization of these tasks, what is the task or set of tasks where the institution can add more value — especially in relationship of the alternatives — and whether it makes sense to stick to centralization or move towards specialization.

For most of these institutions, especially publishers, guidance on the design is probably the task where more value is added: how to become a better learner (instead of imparting courses), how to understand a piece of news (instead of producing yet more information), how to record a better song (instead of printing more CDs), how to make better decisions (instead of making them for the citizen) — or how to write a better book, despite who will pay for it, raise awareness on it, print it or distribute it.

Detaching the core task from the rest is difficult: firstly, because it is not easy to know what the core task is, given than for decades or centuries all of them have been mixed and sometimes indistinguishable between them; secondly, because the temptation to control everything is strong. But it is very likely that control is no more an option, and that others will identify your core business and make it their own.

PS: my gratitude to Borja Adsuara for “forcing” me to write this reflection. He has posted the original Twitter conversation on the role of publishers in his website.