Will book publishers be able to maintain their cultural authority into the future? Should they?
These seem to be the questions implicit in a recent article in the New York Times, “Site Lets Writers Sell Digital Copies.” The focus of the piece is a new file sharing site called Scribd. In a nutshell, Scribd allows users to upload all sorts of document files to the web, whereupon anyone with internet access can read, download, embed, comment on, and share them. The site also provides pricing and encryption options for writers who’d rather not give their work away for free. Scribd scoops up 20% of the revenue.
Scribd is the latest in a wave of self-publishing platforms, including blogs, digital journal archives, wikis, and more. Collectively, these types of sites allow writers to bypass publishing’s traditional gatekeepers and thus to reach the public more directly and with less — if any — editorial intervention.
It’s hardly news to say that these developments make book publishers and other cultural authorities quite anxious, given how easy it’s become for writers simply to bypass them. It may be news, however, to say that publishers shouldn’t see Scribd and other self-publishing platforms as threats. Instead, they’re opportunities.
Think about it this way: sites like Scribd are the reality TV of book publishing.
Love it or loathe it, you cannot deny the brilliance of a show like American Idol. Essentially it amounts to a months-long focus group, where potential music buyers vote on who they’d most like to become a signed recording artist. The presumption is that many who’ve voted will then go on to buy singles and albums by the people they’ve seen featured on the show.
American Idol demonstrates how amateur cultural production and a more traditional, hierarchical approach can be made to harmonize. Why not use sites like Scribd toward similar ends?
Indeed, marketing has long been a major sore point for the book industry, filled with guesswork and erroneous conclusions about what will and won’t ultimately sell. So why not take some of the guesswork out of book marketing? Why not use Scribd or some other site to focus-group books (or parts thereof) up front before investing all the time and resources to publish them?
Now, I know what you’re thinking: why would people buy something that they might well be able to obtain for free, or at a comparatively reduced cost? That’s where the publisher comes in. Pubishers have long imagined their work to be about proferring cultural authority; in the model I’m proposing here, their work would be more about proferring cultural authenticity. That is, their job would be to produce the definitive tangible object — an object whose content may nonetheless continue to evolve in the digital realm.
Think about it: the contestants’ live performances from American Idol are available for purchase online, but I’d venture to say that most people would consider the studio recordings of their songs to be the “real thing.” This is how academic journal publishing has been working for some time now, by the way. Journal publishers have recognized the ease with which academic authors can post pre-prints (e.g., .doc files) of their work online. In response, the publishers are now insisting that PDF journal offprints that are posted online be referred to as final, definitive versions of scholarly articles.
People love things, and indeed they love to consume what they perceive to be “real” things. When your authority starts waning, book publishers, what you need to start selling is exactly this type of authenticity.