How the functions and roles of publishers are changing in an era of digital ‘disintermediation’

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Baverstock (2012) defines self-publishing as ‘the taking of personal responsibility for the management and production of your content’ (p. 43). Indeed, significant technological advances in the democratisation of the publishing and distribution processes of book creation (Carolan & Evain 2013), have seen a substantial proliferation of self-published material reaching yearning readers and thus challenging Johnson’s (2017) aforementioned observation of the traditional publishing industry. In fact, according to an Author Earnings report (cited in Sargent 2014), self-published books now account for 31% of e-book sales on Amazon’s Kindle Store, whilst self-published titles are ‘dominating traditionally published authors in sci-fi/fantasy, mystery/thriller, and romance genres…’ (Sargent 2014). This dramatic rise in the proliferation of self-published material is perpetuated, not just by novices wishing to ultimately see their creations in print, but also by established authors yearning to reclaim a perceived loss of creative control over their work.

Whilst this popularity has sometimes offered a somewhat doomsday prognosis for publishing organisations, there are several changing forms, functions and roles appearing for publishers that, if nurtured with creativity and innovation, can actually transform the role of publisher from ‘gatekeeper’ to ‘facilitator.’ To some degree, this evolutionarily requirement has been facilitated by increased interplay between author and reader; with the latter demanding ever-increasing levels of involvement in the development, direction, and delivery of written material. As a result, even scholars have had to reconsider audiences as not just passive entities simply absorbing cultural experiences, but rather as a living organism actively creating and purveying these experiences (Vadde 2017). This changing perception also has implications for publishing organisations who previously viewed the creators and recipients of work as separate, and essentially, powerless entities. Digital publishing, however, has blurred the lines, not just between amateur identity and professional activity (Vadde 2017), but also between levels of involvement, degrees of power, and defined activities and roles envisioned by all involved; particularly those of publishers.

The ability of technology such as print-on-demand, blogging, and e-books to facilitate one-off writing creations has allowed increasing numbers of people to enter this productive and satisfying world – from novice to serious writers, to people writing for organisations, and experts writing to showcase their work – increasing numbers of people are autonomously creating and publishing their own work (Baverstock 2012). Carolan & Evain (2013) contend that the emergence and growth of self-publishing works has led to a flooding of the market in terms of content. In the same study, the authors contend that, ‘eighty percent of new releases originate from self-publishing or small presses and this figure has been increasing year on year for several years now’ (p. 286). Even some academics, frustrated by the slowness and hurdles of publishing in peer-reviewed journals, have looked to disseminate their work more easily to a critical audience through social media channels, including Twitter and blogs (Baverstock 2012). In so doing, however, the role of the author has transformed to that of author- entrepreneur, whereby the writer must consider ‘managing a multi-faceted product that requires the intervention of actors from various sectors both within and outside publishing’ (Carolan & Evain 2013, p. 287).

People use self-publishing for many reasons other than commercial gain, including ‘perhaps experimentation, rationalization, preservation, finalization’ (Baverstock 2012, p. 42). Interestingly, most self-published authors using print-on-demand services sell an average of seventy-five copies (with an average shelf life of six weeks) and maintain a low profile (Carolan & Evain 2013).Self-publishing, however, is perhaps best suited to those writers who wish to engage with niche markets on specialised topics: those specialised topics that established publishing houses are reticent to delve into but which, for a self-publisher, are relatively easy to market to and even quicker to deliver to (Carolan & Evain 2013). In fact, ‘many authors now use self-publishing as a stage in their creative journey, enabling them to share material with others and receive feedback’ (Baverstock 2012, p. 43). Some even let their readers become involved in the material’s creation – writing live online then creating a single print-on-demand copy to be read at leisure (Baverstock 2012). However, not all writers who self-publish are novices; J. K. Rowling, for instance, not her publisher, is the key instigator behind the transition of her print books into e-books – and the key recipient of resulting profits (Carolan & Evain 2013).

An interesting consequence of the autonomous windfall for creatives is the ability to choose whether, and with whom, they would like to collaborate. This is referred to as‘team writing’ (as it may involve many people) and is not only a way to share risk, but also a foundation for providing greater levels of energy and motivation. With so many parties involved, however, there may sometimes be consternation regarding how much editing is undertaken and by whom. Furthermore, this method may also furnish threats to the function of established publishers if these teams decide to circumvent conventional organisations in order to keep a greater proportion of revenue (Baverstock 2012).

In an age where digital publishing is creating an environment of ‘mass amateurisation’ and gatekeeping practices of publishing organisation are being successfully bypassed (Vadde 2017), it is interesting to note the changing functions of publishers. A significant change for publishers, for instance, comes in the form of how and where they scout for new talent. With burgeoning levels of self-published work appearing on digital platforms, opportunities for established publishers to scout for work have exponentially increased – resulting in substantial growth to both profit margins and readership clientele. An example of one such enterprising endeavour within this realm, is the ‘matchmaking’ service WeLoveWords platform which links content providers (as well as other professionals including playwrights, editors, and copywriters) with those looking for original content (Carolan & Evain 2013). In this way, publishers can efficiently source potential work – making sourcing new material increasingly effortless and timely.

This tactic, however, has its detractors who perceive it as exploitation, particularly of female writers (Johnson 2017). This is because, rather than take a chance on a new author (as was previously the case) and thus risk capital and resources in the hope of works performing well, many established publishers now scan social media for writers; particularly targeting those with substantial following and coverage. Since many females are adept at forming and nurturing wide social networks, it is often these writers who are commandeered by publishers into their fold – thus taking advantage of a wide readership network that the author themselves, not the publisher, has taken the time and resources to develop.

Interestingly, as these types of platforms come into existence, the previously dominant intermediary role of established publishers in specific areas is being challenged. One such example is the publisher’s function of providing book recommendations to bookstores and prospective readers. As writers and their avid readers become increasingly connected, each party is progressively coming to rely upon the other (rather than intermediary, faceless institutions), for reviews and recommendations of books. Indeed, this phenomenon can be seen with the Goodreads platform. Despite being owned by the conglomerate Amazon, this virtual space goes someway to flattening any hierarchical and monopolising effect publishing organisations previously held within the book reviewing domain.

Conversely, a function that innovative publishers are starting to embrace is that of collaborating with other businesses. For instance, in the case of the construction by J.K. Rowling of an interactive platform to launch an electronic version of her books (called Pottermore), publishers of her print books, Bloomsbury collaborated with Sony and the author to see it come to successful fruition (Carolan & Evain 2013). This example is evidence of how the functions of publishers can be expanded to incorporate the production of other media in collaboration with outside actors. In the same vein, some publishers engage in partnerships with other businesses in order to both promote sales of their author’s work and gain easy commissions, all whilst developing and sustaining other businesses within the community. Even libraries are embracing such collaborations with Adema & Schmidt (2010) contending that, ‘not only have libraries started up their own presses, they are also collaborating with existing presses or forming alliances with other institutions on campus such as scholarly communication offices, ICT departments, and academic research centres’ (p. 28).

As self-publishers realise they must market their contentin ways that make their creations ‘come alive’ (Carolan & Evain 2013), so too opportunities are emerging for traditional publishers to expand their marketing initiatives well beyond the traditional model of author tours. To this end, innovative publishers are beginning to incorporate the use of multimedia formats, such as social media, websites, and blogging, to enhance their writer’s profile, gain exposure to a wider market, and serendipitously build an online community. For it is this online community that can be ‘an effective and economical way to produce and test content, build a fan base, create reader loyalty, communicate with the public and diffuse works electronically’ (Carolan & Evain 2013, p. 289). Moreover, with considerable earnings to be made from the digital rights to books, many publishers are becoming more prudent in negotiating digital rights to titles on their backlist (Carolan & Evain 2013).

The increasing proliferation and value of print-on-demand (POD) is another way in which the functions of traditional publishers are changing. These enterprising publishers – rather than supply a quantity of books to booksellers on consignment (and allow them to return unwanted units to be pulped) – seek to provide a holistic service whilst simultaneously reducing wastage. Indeed, for a fixed price, ‘POD publishers provide different services including proofreading, formatting, and printing and can additionally be responsible for the cataloguing and the distribution of works through the various sales and distribution channels’ (Carolan & Evain 2013, p. 294). In fact, publishers adopting this dynamic business model, such as Callisto Media, can outsource distribution (in this case to Ingram Publisher Services), enabling them to concentrate purely on content acquisition and product development (Gallagher 2014). If there is a sudden demand for an out-of-stock title, a publisher has the option to digitise the title in order to immediately print copies as needed – thus substantially shortening delivery times for customers (Gallagher 2014). Coupled, therefore, with increasing consciousness from the public surrounding environmental issues, publishers’ adaptation to this functionality is resulting in substantial cost reductions, elimination of speculative printing and related costs, and the negation of excessive warehouse costs (Gallagher 2014). Whilst many established publishing houses are therefore eagerly integrating this function into their business models, this technology is also allowing emerging independent publishers to flourish without having the burden of large-scale inventory models and costs. It has therefore benefited small publishers (particularly regarding satisfying orders for out-of-print titles or titles for niche markets) and authors looking to self-publish (Gallagher 2014).

Interestingly, as many self-publishing authors become increasingly savvy about the self-publishing process (as well as more adept at marketing their product), many established publishers find themselves having to pay a premium to lure these writers into their fold, thus posing the conundrum, ‘Who will work for whom?’ (Baverstock 2012, p. 45). Costs for established publishers may be further engorged as they increasingly see themselves divested of in-house editors; the latter preferring to work with self-publishing authors who value their contributions, rather than perform pressured work for publishing houses who routinely offer inadequate remuneration (Baverstock 2012).

A customary role of publishing organisations is the provision of an advance to an author that allows the latter, amongst other things, to work productively with a sympathetic editor (Carolan & Evain 2013). Despite the prolific growth in publicly available self-published material, remarkably there lacks an overarching mechanism for standardised quality control within this realm. This consequently leaves readers to individually navigate written offerings without an established publisher’s usual reassurance of quality control. Whilst some readers may be willing to sacrifice prudent editing for economic frugality in their selection of reading material, some communities continue to fervently regard this specific role of publishers as a vital and prestigious one. The area of academic publishing is a distinct example whereby it consistently prioritises issues of quality control over the cost-effectiveness of production (Carolan & Evain 2013). Indeed, as Kular (cited in Carolan & Evain 2013) contends, the traditional publishing institutions are seen, ‘as a highly structured environment with strict requirements for publishing protocol’ (p. 286) whilst conversely, self-publishing is perceived as a relatively low risk, low-cost alternative. From a writer’s perspective, therefore, the major function of protection of the author’s work (and by default, reputation) by publishing houses is invaluable. To this end, in-house services such as structural editing, copy-editing, and proofreading, are all provided by established publishers to ensure they present their author’s work in the best possible light to readers, whilst simultaneously streamlining the production, distribution, and marketing aspects of the publishing process (Hviid, Izquierdo-Sanchez & Jacques 2019).

Another role of publishers that is stalwartly dominated and retained is the acquisition and use of ISBNs. This retention of power is because of the prohibitive cost of purchasing an ISBN: it is costly for many self-publishing authors, with the result that their ability to access wider markets for their work is severely inhibited. Large publishers, alternatively, buy ISBNs in bulk and receive a discount for doing so (Johnson 2017).

Conversely, regarding self-published titles aimed at niche markets, the role of established publishers is somewhat diminished. This is because transference of information and recommendations of these titles tends to occur via word-of-mouth amongst devotees (Carolan & Evain 2013), rather than through elaborate marketing investments. Furthermore, self-publishing authors are discovering that to successfully market their work, they must actively engage with their potential audience – whether it be in digital or physical form (Carolan & Evain 2013). To aid in this process, complementary businesses, such as Smashwords and Lulu, have emerged to provide a holistic service allowing the ‘citizen author’ to present their work directly to their niche readers (Johnson 2017). In this way, they circumvent the need to have work published by established publishing houses, thus diluting publishing’s ‘gate-keeping’ role.

In an era where readers’ expectations incorporate the desire to interact with both content and authors, however, the role of publishers in providing a valued system of quality control must be balanced against this predilection. To this end, the inclinations of readers who are adapting to a perpetual democratisation of information, require that publishers also adapt. This means the latter relinquishing the mindset of ‘gatekeeper’ and replacing it with a more affable model incorporating the paradigm of ‘facilitator’.

This strategy is perhaps never timelier than in the current literary environment as, ‘with the advent of, and access to, the internet in the mid-nineties and the citizen author who creates as well as consumes what they find online, the power that is predominantly held by traditional publishers is shifting’ (Johnson 2017, p. 143). This power shift away from publishers is not only allowing supplementary providers to help authors navigate other ways of publishing – and in some cases help negotiate deals between authors and publishers) (Johnson 2017) – but is also empowering citizens to have access to a market for their work. The advent of e-books and particularly e-book readers, has also been a substantial contributor to writers’ abilities to circumvent established publishing protocols and thus have their work distributed in timely and cost-effective ways (Hviid, Izquierdo-Sanchez & Jacques 2019). As a result, instead of publishers holding most of the power in the publisher-agent-author model, technological advances have enabled authors to become more empowered, with entities such as publishers, agents, and digital platforms all vying for ways to entice these authors into their fold (Johnson 2017). Furthermore, since self-published authors retain the rights to their work, they hold strong negotiating positions when dealing with publishers and other experts (Hviid, Izquierdo-Sanchez & Jacques 2019).

In conclusion, in an environment where ‘the ease and ubiquity of digital publishing have enabled the “mass amateurization” of the critical, creative, and communicative arts’ (Vadde 2017, p. 27) thus allowing an increasing array of globalised individuals to enter the publishing realm, it is imperative that established publishers both embrace and develop their valued and developing functions and roles. One such role is to re-evaluate how they view authors. In an era where authors expect to be involved in all stages of their book’s development, established publishers must ‘carefully reconsider both how they treat incoming authors, along with the latter’s level of involvement in producing the final creation’ (Baverstock 2012). Furthermore, whilst independent publishers embrace emerging technologies – allowing them to concentrate on content acquisition and development in the absence of managing warehousing and inventory costs – many established publishers need to implement new business models. These innovative models must attend to cost increases (such as luring promising new authors), whilst simultaneously looking to capture potentially lucrative media assimilations (such as securing digital rights to works) – all whilst retaining the publisher’s valued role as a stalwart and reliable form of quality control for published works. Undoubtedly, those publishers who are agile enough to adapt to this changing environment will see the fruits of their labours eventuate for inevitably, ‘in the coming years they will catch up with the rise of the citizen author, and will actively seek to shift the power dynamic back in their favour by potentially leveraging the power of reader numbers, views, and the cultural economy of a printed book more definitely in their publishing strategy’ (Johnson 2017, p. 144). Hopefully, however, they do not reclaim the recalcitrant title of ‘gatekeeper’, but instead actively immerse themselves in the collaborative role of ‘facilitator’ – thus enabling all parties entering the publishing realm to prosper.


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2 thoughts on “How the functions and roles of publishers are changing in an era of digital ‘disintermediation’

    1. Thank you for your feedback and the link provided.

      A very interesting read and something that obviously greatly effects both publishers and readers’ choices for and access to a variety of literature.

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