Portrait of internet publishing as a young man

A photo of a painting? How derivative!


It’s not news that the rising popularity of ebooks has got the publishing world in a frenzy. This article is on a new ebook model that treats the distribution of books as akin to public radio broadcasting. Content is supported by a minority of people who think that spending money on things they can get for free is worthwhile (signaling patron-ism) while everyone benefits from the content. Even authors seem to benefit by getting a larger share of the profits and exposure to a wider audience. Obviously, success is not guaranteed any more than traditional publishing but the profit incentives are there.

I like the public radio analogy, but I think there is a better one – and that’s from the art world. The production of art is not non-profit, yet the distribution isn’t controlled by major publishers.  Well that might be because original artworks, and even some of the better reproductions are too expensive for most people… But who cares – there is plenty of good art that’s freely available on the web for your viewing pleasure.

Media like radio and visual art have a very different history than book, music and movie publishing (I’d also add beer to that, but that’s a post for another day) but the trend is towards diversification, appealing to a longer tail and quality improvements on the margin. While the industry might be losing money on the whole, this is a clear case of markets tending towards Pareto optimality. Centralized, top-down publishing schemes are becoming more obsolete to be replaced with artist-driven, self or free distribution of content that’s supported by key patrons.

This is not to say that distribution and other jobs not related to content creation are in jeopardy. After all, most authors are not going to be experts on how to design websites, content sharing platforms, etc (In other words, not every author is going to be Cory Doctorow – who’s stance on copyright and tiered approach to selling his novels is the best I’ve seen).

Since authors will no longer be able to take advantage of old publishing networks, authors will need help from idea people, software engineers and social network experts. Exposure to markets will rely on getting picked up by the right circles on twitter or reddit (or where-ever) or to try and get noticed by important and respected bloggers. In other words, Oprah’s role only more distributed. There’s plenty of efficiency and value to add by consultants and there will be plenty of money in the market.


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