Publisher, be very, very afraid?

I just saw a printed copy of the New York Times Magazine issue that contains Kevin Kelly’s brilliant essay What Will Happen To Books? (It’s called “Scan This Book!” in the online version.) Kevin did an amazing job of bringing the potential of the universal electronic library to life, and highlighting both the issues and the opportunities. So I was really disgusted to see the cover treatment of the article bearing the subtitle, “Reader, take heart! (Publisher, be very, very afraid.)”

This is yellow journalism, pandering to fear of the future. Publishers need to get with the opportunity, not be afraid of it! As I’ve argued previously, in essays like Piracy is Progressive Taxation, the role of “publishing” is rediscovered in each new medium after a period in which everyone argues that the playing field has been leveled once and for all. I was writing about music and film being threatened by peer-to-peer networks, but the same argument applies to books:

The music and film industries like to suggest that file sharing networks will destroy their industries.

Those who make this argument completely fail to understand the nature of publishing. Publishing is not a role that will be undone by any new technology, since its existence is mandated by mathematics. Millions of buyers and millions of sellers cannot find one another without one or more middlemen who, like a kind of step-down transformer, segment the market into more manageable pieces. In fact, there is usually a rich ecology of middlemen. Publishers aggregate authors for retailers. Retailers aggregate customers for publishers. Wholesalers aggregate small publishers for retailers and small retailers for publishers. Specialty distributors find ways into non-standard channels.

Those of us who watched the rise of the Web as a new medium for publishing have seen this ecology evolve within less than a decade. In the Web’s early days, rhetoric claimed that we faced an age of disintermediation, that everyone could be his or her own publisher. But before long, individual web site owners were paying others to help them increase their visibility in Yahoo!, Google, and other search engines (the equivalent of Barnes & Noble and Borders for the Web), and Web authors were happily writing for [publishers] sites like AOL and MSN, or on the technology side, Cnet, Slashdot, O’Reilly Network, and other Web publishers. Meanwhile, authors from Matt Drudge to Dave Winer and Cory Doctorow made their names by publishing for the new medium.

As Jared Diamond points out in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, mathematics is behind the rise of all complex social organization.

There is nothing in technology that changes the fundamental dynamic by which millions of potentially fungible products reach millions of potential consumers. The means by which aggregation and selection are made may change with technology, but the need for aggregation and selection will not. Google’s use of implicit peer recommendation in its page rankings plays much the same role as the large retailers’ use of detailed sell-through data to help them select their offerings.

The question before us is not whether technologies such as peer-to-peer file sharing will undermine the role of the creative artist or the publisher, but how creative artists can leverage new technologies to increase the visibility of their work. For publishers, the question is whether they will understand how to perform their role in the new medium before someone else does. Publishing is an ecological niche; new publishers will rush in to fill it if the old ones fail to do so.

In the five years since I wrote that essay, things are turning out much as I predicted. iTunes is well on its way to becoming the Barnes & Noble of online music, and may soon become a next generation music publisher as well, as I predict that individual artists will soon be seeking to get their work into iTunes before they worry about a deal with an old fashioned record label. Meanwhile, blogging, another “bottom up” medium touted for its opportunities to throw off the shackles of publishers, has found many of the top performing weblogs part of next generation blog publishing companies like Weblogs Inc or Gawker Media, or affiliating with a marketing keiretsu like John Battelle’s FM Publishing. (Disclosure: I am an investor in FM.)

Let’s be clear: Kevin doesn’t make the arguments that publishers are dead — I’m just complaining about the cover treatment of the article. In fact, Kevin gives a compelling description of the new kinds of curation that publishers will need to perform. There is a lot to learn in the new world, but the biggest fear that publishers should be thinking about is the fear that they will be displaced by new publishers who are better at mastering the rules of business than they are.

The one place where I do think Kevin waxed a little too enthusiastic is in his vision of how books can be linked and annotated in the library of the future. We aren’t there yet. The libraries of scanned books that are being built right now are for the most part read-only. People can link to them, but not from them. People can potentially create active reading lists, but for now, they can’t add to the works themselves. That still remains an exercise for the future, and one of the big opportunities for publishers who make that level of reader involvement with the work possible through a more open implementation, or through frameworks that provide additional layers on top of static texts. (Google Earth or any other GIS system is a good model. You can think of the original work as the base layer, just like basic topology of the earth is the base layer on which you can organize countless layers of additional data.)