Is Print the New Vanity Press?

In August, The Wall Street Journal covered Seth Godin’s decision that, going forward, he would solely self-publish. Godin, a best-selling author of marketing books such as Tribes and Permission Marketing, felt he no longer needed his traditional publisher. Notably, Godin defined “publishing” far more broadly than did Penguin Group. He plans on distributing his content in a number of media—audio books, apps, podcasts, print on demand, etc.

As for the value of publishers, Godin commented: “Publishers provide a huge resource to authors who don’t know who reads their books. What the Internet has done for me, and a lot of others, is enable me to know my readers.” Publishers bemoan the flood of self-publishers into the marketplace, aghast at the quality of editing and printing, as well as authors’ lack of appreciation for the marketing support of a traditional publisher. Authors such as Godin, on the other hand, have spent years cultivating their relationships with readers through blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. Their response to traditional publishers is that they can outsource the editing, production, and fulfillment functions and that they can do their own marketing.

This may be the beginning of a disintermediation between the content creator and the content user, similar to the old one between library users and high-end digital information. I remember when patrons would have to meekly ask the librarian to run a search for them in a premium online service. Now, library patrons can not only search their library’s online resources from home but they can go directly to the news sources they
trust and value … and those sources may not be ones typically included in news databases.

There’s still a role for content aggregators, but it’s one that is far different from the past. In an environment in which content creators interact directly with our readers—in multiple channels, no less—any intermediary (either publisher or news aggregator) has to show its tangible value to both the creator and the users of the content.

As someone who has had six books and innumerable articles published by traditional print publishers, most notably the publisher of this magazine, Information Today, Inc., I have seen the transformation of a raw manuscript into an edited, indexed, laid-out publication. It is a sight to behold, and certainly something I couldn’t do on my own.

That said, if publishers can’t find innovative ways to create new markets for an author’s content, and if more successful authors shift to Godin’s model, we may get to the point where print publishers are seen as the vanity press and high-quality self-publishing is the new professional standard. If writers do not know who their audiences are, they can, in essence, ride the coattails of the marketing channels of a traditional publisher. If, on the other hand, they have already built their readership through other avenues, they may rely on their own reputation for credibility, rather than on the imprimatur of a publisher, to sell their books.

One of the key factors in self-publishing success is the long tail: that feature of power-law distribution graphs in which there is a large number of small-quantity items as well as a small number of large-quantity items. The long tail assures us that there will be people interested in what any author writes, and social media have made it much easier for those information consumers to find that author.

What ought to be most alarming to traditional publishers is that Digital Natives don’t rely on a publisher’s “brand” to indicate quality. These are readers who have always found all their information (both reliable and spurious) on the web. They have always looked up facts on Wikipedia, and they have no idea why a little girl named Virginia would write to the editor of The New York Times to verify the existence of Santa Claus.

For these readers, whether a book is published and distributed by a reputable print publisher or self-published in ebook form is not as important as whether or not the content is immediately available, is reasonably inexpensive, and meets a need.

Can traditional publishers leverage their existing resources to help their writers build direct connections with their readers? Can they expand their vision of publishing to include the new media in which ideas flow most easily, if not freely? And, perhaps most importantly, can publishers, aggregators, and authors work together to meet the new needs and expectations of readers?