The business where editors chose worthy titles, carefully edited and vetted the results, then offered them to a waiting public is gone.
It has been for years.
Today, book publishing is about marketing. That’s it. Marketing. It’s all about moving the merchandise, and has been for some time. There are some in the industry crying copious tears right now over this, following a piece by Kevin Kelly in Wired that questioned the book as a format.
But both sides miss the point.
The last real innovation in the old "book publishing business" was the invention of the "Dummies" series, 20 years ago. This
was originally a computer book series, and in that field it made some
sense. The purpose of a computer book is to teach the use of a computer
program, to follow-up on the manual with defined, real world examples.
But over time this morphed into Dummies books about everything,
ridiciulous subjects really, and (what was most amazing) they all sold
Dummies puts any set of lessons into an easily digested (some would
say pre-digested) format. And it defines the book as a support
But note: the series was a marketing innovation. Is there any other kind?
All this means that book publishing companies, as now known, are
becoming obsolete. Anyone can publish a book. All they need do is
create demand and arrange for a supply. This is what right-wing groups
like Regnery and left-wing groups like Working Assets do. Whether that supply is real or an elaborate fiction is beyond the scope of this item.
More to the point, any marketer can be a publisher. Publishing books
can be a sideline meant to prop up a larger brand. This is how Starbucks
does it. The purpose of the book in this case is to support the
underlying brand. It’s one step removed from what Regnery does.
Magazine publishers have long done this kind of thing, using their own
lists. What’s different is people who never published before buffing up
their brands with "books" that appeal to the perceived brand values.
The same thing is actually happening in what’s called "mainstream" publishing. Every best-selling author is a "brand," no different than Starbuck’s, and once they make a splash those names had better keep writing what they’re defined as being, just as Coca-Cola better not tinker with its formula. Stephen King write a children’s book? John Grisham a medical text? Anne Rice a comedy? Not under their own names. And in fact, many famous authors today are reduced to using pseudonyms in order to publish outside their specialties. Their names have become brands, and you don’t go outside the brand.
Once I hit "publish now" this article will be published. It would
not matter if this article were part of a longer, coherent work or now
— it would be equally published and equally available. Book
publishing, as a gatekeeper over the public discussion, has been dead
for a long time.
What’s new is that the industry has just awoken to that fact.