Is anyone still bothered by the power shift in the music industry? Napster's big bang ended in 2001 (later incarnations aside). All of a sudden, music was free, piracy was cool, and the historic Capitol Records building in Los Angeles became a living museum almost overnight.
It took iTunes to bring a semblance of order and a reliable revenue stream back to the stunned major labels. Indie artists celebrated their new found audience access. And we got American Idol, The Voice, and, well, Everybody's Got Talent.
Why should the book industry be any different?
Because books take time. And I'm not talking about the authors here, but the readers.
Reading a novel is an investment of time, a luxury many people ignore, or simply cannot afford. It's not the $24.95 hardcover cost, or the $9.99 e-book cost, or the $2.99 Amazon discount bin that matters. It's the hours or days spread across weeks (or months) that people need to read books. That's the investment.
With music, you hear it, you like it, you decide whether to buy it, steal it, share it with your friends. You don't need a music label telling you whether it's good or not. Your friends will do that for you.
Publishers, editors, and agents have been the arbiters of the book world.
Publishers, editors, agents, marketers, reviewers, book lists, book merchants, and librarians serve a function that may yet prove more resilient than their equivalent in the music industry. They are arbiters, taste shapers, gatekeepers. Or, at least, they have been until now.
An arbiter is someone who has complete control over something (from the French arbitre or referee). Losing control is never pleasant for anyone, especially not in an industry as old and, frankly, revered as the publishing industry.
So what happens as that control gets taken away? Who will become the new arbiters of literary taste? Will social media determine who reads what? What role will Google, Amazon, Apple play in how readers channel their investment?
It's not about the price of books.
As a writer, there's no question I'd love to have a team of professionals decide I'm worthy of publication. It would be a tremendous ego-boost to watch them roll up their sleeves, improve my work, and shoulder the sales, marketing, and distribution effort on my behalf. I'll just do the book tours, okay? Can we start with that little independent in Waikiki? (Hello? Holding my breath here.)
At the same time, it is deeply satisfying to see alternative channels open up for indie authors. To see the stigma of self-publication evaporate like spilt brandy in a firepit.
And yet, as a reader—and a slow one, at that—I am still willing to pay the freight to a colophon. Large or small, big six or independent, there's value in someone helping me decide what book I will take to bed tonight. That's not a decision I want to trust to a piece of software, nevermind the latest flashmob.
New indie publishers will challenge and chip away at the gatekeeper function—the curatorial role. They will help new authors find audiences and homes for their oeuvre. Traditional publishers will take note and learn along with the upstarts. The best of them will do more than adapt to the new reality: they will create it.
Ten years from now, the publishing landscape will have changed, presumably for the better as is often our human way. Readers will still read books, perhaps with a little background music cued to their titles.
The only people who will really remember today's turmoil in the publishing industry will be those who choose not to change. And a curator or two.