Today I shared Matt Yglesias's spirited defense of Amazon's publishing efforts, after a colleague had posted it first. This spurred great discussion about whether Amazon's challenge to traditional publishing should be championed or challenged.
In recent months Franklin Foer has called Amazon a monopoly, and Paul Krugman says it is a monopsony. Yglesias disagrees with both assessments, and says that all Amazon is doing is exposing the truth that publishers are now superfluous in an age of digital distribution. Since publishing no longer requires printing presses and physical distribtion, publishers are no longer needed.
Yglesias argues that the authors who are currently defending publishers against Amazon are being duped by those publishers into acting against their own interests, and that cutting out the "middlemen" would benefit authors who are adept at technology and marketing. Publishers, avers Yglesias, are terrible marketers anyway.
Much of this must feel familiar to observers of "scholarly communication," the segment of publishing devoted to books and journals for the academic market. For more than a decade we've heard that the Web would disrupt scholarly publishing, especially for scientific and medical publishing. Who needs bound volumes at the library when you can get the paper online? And why publish old-fashioned "papers" when the Web enables digital publishing that transcends the bounds of print?
It turns out that this is only half true. Indeed many people do not browse the stacks anymore, because downloading PDFs is much easier and more efficient. But the old-fashioned journals, like Science or Nature, are as influential as ever. Now they simply "publish" PDFs. The prestige of certain titles, and the familiarity of the format, ensures that established means of scholarly communication will persist for a good long while.
This seems to indicate trouble for Yglesias's thesis; at least in some sectors publishers are thriving. But scholarly publishing is a niche case, steeped as it is within the traditions and inertia of academia. In the broader consumer market, which is Yglesias's focus, his case is strong. Why should today's authors send query letters to agents when they can publish directly at almost no cost?
Sure, this will lead to an overwhelming amount of dreck. But it's not like publishers only published classic literature in the pristine pre-Web era. The penny press and Harlequin romances give the lie to that illusion. Today's ease of self-publishing is a difference in degree and not in kind.
Part of the trouble here is that Yglesias is defending Amazon. After all, this is a behemoth that long shirked collecting sales taxes and has asked customers to use a thuggish app for scanning bar codes in physical stores and then ordering items through Amazon.
But just because Amazon is a bad actor does not mean incumbent publishers deserve protection. Yglesias reminds us that the major US publishers all belong to giant conglomerates that are every bit as business-minded as evil Amazon. Small, word-loving presses these are not. Now as ever for the traditional publishers, books are just one more means to pad the bottom line. Since that is the case prospective authors may as well look for where they can find the greatest return. If for some people that is self publishing on Amazon, so be it.