Back in the days of print domination, there were basically two choices an author had to publish content: Try to garner the interest of a big publisher or do it yourself. Before the Web, if brand name publishers like Random House, Time magazine, or The New York Times didn't put your work out, you had little choice but to "self-publish." If you chose this route, your actions tended to elicit looks of pity on the cocktail party circuit: In a matter of seconds upon revealing this dirty little secret, glasses needed refilling or a passing tray of smoked salmon on toast point would irresistibly beckon. Nearly everyone assumed that the poor author just couldn't find a real publisher.
We've certainly come a long way. The Web has turned all kinds of organizations—companies, academic institutions, non-profits, and even political campaigns—into just-in-time and just-right publishers. Organizations and institutions, the new publishers, churn out boatloads of content to the benefit of their many constituents.
Until recently, nobody ever thought of these organizations as publishers. A newspaper, magazine, or book company was a publisher. But that's all changing. Self-publishing is mainstream but organizations big and small are the ones doing the publishing.
The fascinating thing about this new publishing paradigm is that getting stuff out there is both much easier and more difficult than in the self-publishing past. Production has gotten much easier today; the author of a book or paper bangs out the manuscript on a computer, emails it to an editor and proofreader, makes the required changes, and the material gets posted on a Web site. Or, if the author wants to see the work on paper, it's reasonably easy to apply for an ISBN number, set up a micro-publisher, and print up some books. Of course, as everyone who read papers on the Web knows, you can also (at your peril) bypass the editor and proofreader stage and publish directly to the Web. And in paper form, you skip the ISBN number and just print ‘em up. The easiest form, the blog, offers direct-to-reader publishing made simple.
Production is easy. The difficult part is getting your stuff noticed in a crowded world.
Billions of Web pages and tens of thousands of books are published each year. Anyone can publish and it seems everyone does. And with the explosion of blogs adding to the tremendous mix of available content, the numbers of "authors" must certainly now be in the millions. An author can easily get content out there, but how can one voice be heard when millions of others are yelling too? Easy: Get yourself published on a brand-name organization's Web site.
All sorts of organizations are now publishers in every sense of the word. For example, the Microsoft corporate site has reams of detailed information on viruses, worms, and other pests that plague Microsoft products, which is certainly publishing. Because the papers were published by Microsoft and given Redmond's stamp of approval, these authors' works are read by millions, just as if the work had appeared in a major computer magazine or non-fiction book imprint. As a new form of grassroots politics has emerged on the Web, the political Web site has become an important new publisher. Academic papers go straight to University sites, bypassing the traditional journal publishing process. Pharmaceutical companies publish detailed information about their products on well-organized sites for health care professionals and the general public alike, combining information and advertising into a winning format.
We're in a new world where the publishers' brand name remains critically important—but that name's not McGraw-Hill or Penguin Putnam. The new publishers are non-profits like AARP and the NRA, companies like Pfizer and Dell, academic institutions, and more.
As organizations of all types behave like publishers, many will need to adapt to some of the rigors of the business. The editorial process will need to improve at many organizations. The importance of voice, editing, formatting, and the like will increase in importance. Authors' names may appear in more and more documents and some companies may spawn superstar authors just like traditional publishers.
As many important papers are published directly by academic institutions, companies, and others, new syndication models may develop to find these important works new sets of readers. And it won't be long before our brilliant friends at Google organize content from new publishers and monetize advertising against it. Oh wait, they're already doing that.