I ran across another eulogy for the not-dead-yet publishing industry; this one is written by Garrison Keillor and appeared in the New York Times.
Keillor's op-ed opens with a description of a Tribeca "rooftop party" replete with bestselling authors. The description of the party is almost Gatsbyesque, albeit smaller in scope, down to the detail of Keillor as a modern-day version of Nick, the star-struck midwesterner in the city. In any case, without going too far down the rabbit hole of authorial intent, the point is made: traditional publishing has elegance, style, and glory.
But all is not good. Keillor goes on to note:
These are anti-elitist times, when mobs are calling for the downfall of pointy-head intellectuals who dare tell decent people what to think
Keillor is correct, of course, but it should be noted that traditional publishers are happy to give voice to this sentiment when it moves books. Sarah Palin has trumpeted this message from Alaska into the lower 48 as a part of, among other things, her book and the accompanying book tour. And book tours are increasingly rare these days, as publishing houses are less willing to take the risk on an expense that won't get repaid in book sales. From a business place, you can't blame traditional publishers from cutting back, but if you are making a case/waxing nostalgic about the good old days of publishing you can't ignore the role that publishing houses have played in crafting their decreased relevance. Unless, of course, you are writing fiction.
Keillor then proceeds to trot out one of the traditional digs leveled at a world without major publishing houses controlling the flow and distribution of texts (or, a world in which people of varying levels of expertise are allowed to have opinions on a subject):
And that is the future of publishing: 18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.
This argument is rooted in the basic notion of supply versus demand, and assumes that as supply goes up, demand - and therefore profitability - goes down. The notions of quality, choice, and taste are completely (intentionally?) left out of this conversation; I can only assume this oversight is allowed to stand because if we actually assume that people are rational actors with the ability to discern good from bad, we would also have to admit that "better" writers will be more widely read, no matter who controls how their work is distributed. The existing publishing houses and media companies have lost stature for many reasons, but in part because they provided too big a megaphone for too few people. On a side note, this is one of the reasons Net Neutrality is so important, as without net neutrality, Internet Service Providers could place comparable limits on how we are able to freely communicate over the internet.
The people who made money in the world of traditional publishing are predictably nostalgic for it - I understand this, as it's difficult to watch the thing that helped you become prominent wither and fade. But, as we begin to face the inevitable, we need to remember that the publishing houses supported a small number of authors and then distributed their creative output; they didn't actually enable the act of creation. Talent is talent, and the ability to articulate a nuanced point should not be conflated with the mechanism that distributes the resulting content. The demise of traditional publishing is not the same as the end of an author's right to profit from their creativity and perspective. However, the demise of traditional publishing should lead to the end of content distributors placing unrealistic and unhealthy restrictions on how people use and interact with our cultural inheritance in the name of protecting the author.