The Democratization of the Publishing Industry

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On
Thursday, February 28, Chilton Williamson complained about the bias
in the modern, "major" publishing industry ("Equal
Opportunity in Fictionland
"), claiming that the big New
York publishers aren't interested in publishing anything by straight
white males, no matter how good it is. Particularly straight white
males who've left a paper trail of politically incorrect sentiment.

He's
right, of course. This is not the first complaint I've read about
the publishing industry, and I'm sure it won't be the last. Slush
piles, nepotism, politics. It's enough to make a writer throw up
his hands in disgust.

But
for all you aspiring novelists and non-fiction writers, I come bearing
good news. The day of the New York publisher is almost over. A revolution
in the publishing industry is almost here, driven by – what else? – the Internet. Just as the Internet has revolutionized the newspaper
industry, and is in the process of turning the radio, video and
television industries topsy-turvy, the Internet is on the verge
of revolutionizing book publishing.

Very
soon, we'll do our book shopping entirely online, purchasing an
e-book for half or less than the current paperback cost. We'll download
a whole book into our e-book platform in less than a minute, with
no distribution cost, instead of waiting several days and paying
for shipping and handling. Of course, no one, not even technophiles
like me, thinks that paper books will ever go completely out of
style. But instead of a publisher printing books in huge runs and
hoping they'll sell, we'll first buy them in electronic format.
If we then decide we like the book well enough to keep a paper copy,
we'll go back to the same website we bought the e-book from, and
with a couple of clicks, a print-on-demand order will be made using
the paper quality and binding style of our choice. A cookie set
on our machine will tell the bookseller than we've already paid
for the e-book format, so we'll get the entire amount of the e-book
discounted from the price of the paper book. It will arrive at our
doorstep in a few days, just like books do today. Print-on-demand
is already available from Lightening
Source
, a service of Ingram Books, though of course it's not
yet widely used. I don't know what the economies of this process
are when compared to mass printing, but I'd be willing to bet that
it's a lot better than it was ten years ago, and will be even better
ten years from now.

Already
electronic book platforms are available, and they're good and getting
better. For six months I've been carrying a Rocket E-book everywhere
I go. It has a nice large readable screen, two font sizes, a great
backlight and room for a whole shelf of books. It will even rotate
the screen any of four directions, to accommodate however you want
to hold the book at the moment. But as good as it is, it's already
obsolete. The
Franklin Ebookman
, the second generation of e-book platforms,
combines e-book functionality with an organizer and an MP3 player.
Way cool.

They're
not perfect yet, naturally. The main problem is weight and readability.
When you increase screen size, you increase weight. And of course,
an e-book platform will be left on much longer than a pure organizer,
which requires a lot more battery power. But they are already useful
tools, and will only get better.

(Of
course, what I really want to see is an e-book platform that
will read text to you, so you can listen to it in the car. How hard
could this possibly be? There's already software to do this. Come
on. Anybody listening? Franklin?)

But
it's not the hardware that's going to kill the publishing industry.
It's the new distribution channel. Very soon, it will cost almost
nothing to publish a book. An author will finish his final draft,
use free software to convert the file to an e-book format, and upload
it to a website to be presented for sale. Very soon, no book will
ever go unpublished.

Of
course, the percentage of gems to garbage isn't ever going to change.
No book will go unpublished, but most books will still go unread,
just like today. But in the future neither author nor reader will
be beholden to gatekeepers with a stranglehold on the industry.

We
don't want gatekeepers who can force their opinion on us. But obviously,
we do still need gatekeepers. We need people to do our sorting for
us, to tell us what is worth reading and what isn't. Without them,
we'd drown in a sea of mediocrity, searching for the gem in the
middle of the garbage heap. The difference is, each of us gets to
choose our own gatekeeper, or gatekeepers.

We
already use this exact concept in our news and comment consumption.
What is LewRockwell.com but a gatekeeper telling us what is worth
reading? We choose to view Lew's site because we agree with his
viewpoint to a great enough extent that we know we'll always find
something personally interesting on his site. Should his interests
change, or should our interests change, we can always dump his site
and move on to another gatekeeper. In fact, LewRockwell.com is now
the third site that I've had as my first choice for news and comment.
On the other two, either I changed or they changed, but in time
I found they were no longer a fit. So I moved on.

I
believe that the bookseller of tomorrow will look very much like
LewRockwell.com looks today. Yes, big sellers like Amazon.com and
BN.com will probably still be around to provide the big consolidation
service. But they will by no means be the only distribution channel.
I believe most booksellers will grow out of already-existing web
communities having common interests. Fans of Star Wars will buy
the further adventures of Luke Skywalker at TheForce.net. Repairman
Jack fans will buy his books on sites devoted to mystery and action.
And the complete works of Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard will
be available for sale at www.mises.org.

In
the case of LewRockwell.com, the books will focus on politics, economics
and culture from a paleolibertarian and paleoconservative viewpoint.
I ask you, where else could you possibly go for a collection of
books like that? Nationalreview.com?

So,
Wendy McElroy, when you publish your next book, why not publish
it as an e-book and ask Lew to sell it? And Humberto Fontovo, when
you write a sequel to The
Helldiver's Rodeo
, put it on Lew's site in Rocketbook format.
I promise I'll buy it.

March
3, 2001

Joel
Gehman works in the telecommunications industry and occasionally
moonlights as a web consultant.

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