Mergers of giants such as that of Penguin and Random House appear to show that the publishing world is consolidating. I believe the opposite is true: it is becoming more fragmented, and such mergers are merely postponing the inevitable.
Young authors, active on Twitter and Facebook, are developing a powerful personal following, independent of their ailing and cash-starved publishing houses. Traditional publishers’ marketing budgets were reduced some time ago and haven’t recovered. So authors are increasingly aware that if they want their books to sell, they must be proactive about promoting them.
Once authors realise they are promoting their work more effectively than their publishers, it is not a great step for them to decide to go it alone. After all, the advent of digital literature has meant that many of the other practical barriers to self-publishing have been removed.
At Quadrapheme (www.quadrapheme.com), a digital literature website which I founded with the advice and support of several Standpoint contributors, we write reviews and articles on the best in contemporary literature across books, theatre, graphic novels and digital formats such as enriched ebooks and literary apps. Perhaps in part because of our focus on niche areas which are popular with young people, we are seeing this process of fragmentation become more marked.
It does not occur in a vacuum. The process is encouraged by a number of enterprising businesses which support the independent author. Aside from the obvious case of Amazon, Whitefox provides all the editorial and marketing services you would expect from a major publisher but direct to authors on an outsourced basis; Unbound allows books to be financed by crowdfunding, solving the problem of independent authors’ lack of capital; and Wattpad provides an online community of writers to enable peer review and support. These are just a few of many examples.
Publishing houses will not, of course, disappear entirely — the idea of the writer, already solitary, becoming yet more isolated is not an attractive one. Instead, smaller, more informal arrangements will arise. I have just downloaded Standpoint‘s ebook of articles about the US by Andrew Roberts, and in future institutions like Standpoint will publish more, taking advantage of their ready market of readers, their intellectual capital, and their relationships with outstanding writers and thinkers. Quadrapheme will soon follow suit, albeit with a different focus.
To me this vision of the future is a challenging one. A wider variety of choice will increase the importance of the service that magazines like Standpoint and Quadrapheme offer. It is exciting to be involved in publishing at a time when an old order is dissolving but consumers have not yet decided where to transfer their loyalties. A struggle is taking place to find the themes and formats that will reinvigorate literature and the trade in ideas. I think back to the days of the pamphleteer, in which a wide variety of press and social commentators fomented a tough and agile industry full of vitality and relevance, where publishing institutions offered not only convenience and enjoyment, but a social and intellectual mustering point.