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The Democratization of the Publishing Industry

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.