Once upon a time, publishing – the printing and distribution of bound books – was expensive. It was necessary to outlay large amounts of money in order to publish enough copies of a book to make a profit. Because of this, those people who had the money and the desire to publish books made the not-entirely-stupid decision to be extremely discriminating when choosing who to publish. Because these decision-makers were the gateway for distribution, they were able to play the music and make the authors who wanted to be distributed dance to their tune.
There have been many reactions to this situation, mostly hovering around the unfair mark. It may be unfair, but it's also simple economics. There is a limited supply of publication slots due to the prohibitive price and there is a massive demand from writers who want their work to make the cut. Limited production capacity created a market based on scarcity.
Or, at least, that's how it used to be.
Publication has now become so cheap that it is now cost-effective for smaller companies to subsidize anyone's publication – to the point where publication for the individual author is effectively free. Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, this has largely removed the monopoly that the publishing industry held due to the scarcity inherent in the market.
The industry has reacted to the loss of their monopoly by ignoring the loss and/or pretending that the scarcity has not disappeared. On those occasions when they deign to notice that publication is cheap, it is pointed out (at length) that the industry maintains a large collection of professionals who will work hard to turn a manuscript into a polished product. This is intended to be an incentive to maintain the illusion of the scarcity market.
What's interesting is that these features do not really fall under the category of publication. In the most accurate sense, editing and marketing and proofreading and graphic design all fall under the category of pre-publishing; more, any and all of those jobs can be outsourced or freelanced. The fact that they have become an integral part of the publishing infrastructure owes more to the human need for stability than anything else. But there is no reason why a freelance editor should not be given a bonus 5% of an author's sales for doing a good job. Chances are their work is more important to the overall success than an agent's is and look how much agents get.
Other frequently cited points in favor of the industry include the advances that published authors can expect to receive, as well as the fact that bookstores will only stock books from publishers that participate in the remainders process. Nowhere in that incentive package does the word "sales" appear. Which makes sense, because the publishing industry cannot promise sales. There is a good chance that a published author will sell enough books to earn out the publisher's advance, but most books tend to hover right around the slightly profitable mark, not really going over on a regular basis. This is either a cause for some concern or standard business practice, depending on who you listen to.
Personally, I view this very thin profit margin as evidence that the publishing industry has spent far too long focusing on the wrong end of the market. It's a natural thing to do – when you control one end of a supply and demand relationship, it makes sense to focus on the best way to wrench a profit out of it. It is obvious that a writer will endure almost anything to get published, despite the astronomical odds against him being chosen or turning a long-term profit. The reason? Prestige. Being chosen transforms a writer from being just anyone with a book into a Published Author.
Authors are routinely told to research the industry before getting involved in it, but this is counter-intuitive. If an author did actual research about the business of publishing, he would see that it is increasingly obvious that the publishing industry does not have any control over the supply and demand relationship on the other end of the market. As long as industry professionals continue to believe that bookstores are the main point of distribution, the bookstores will continue to control the market. As long as there are far too many books to fit on the limited shelf space available, someone will be willing to pay additional money to be stocked on those shelves.
But now the scarcity is gone from the end of the market where the publishing industry previously held an advantage. Basic economic theory says that this will catch up with the industry eventually. Publishing is a gateway industry and when the gateway is no longer essential, it must make itself important or it will not survive. Self-publishing will not bring the publishing industry to its knees – the industry is doing that to itself by refusing to acknowledge its biggest blind spot: the fact that there is no compelling reason for a compentent author to necessarily pursue professional publication.
Once an author has beaten the odds and made it to the promised land of publication, he can expect to turn a profit (sort of), but that profit is nowhere consistent enough to promise a full-time job to the vast majority of writers. If anything, publication merely serves as supplemental income – a healthy supplement to be sure, but still not the primary source of support. More to the point, the supplement has every chance of drying up quickly if the writer’s sales end up on the wrong side of the profit margin. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the reason publication advances are so high is because a writer should not expect to remain in the industry for very long – a few years, at most.
From the point of view of the gatekeepers, this short-term supply of supplemental income seems to be regarded as an attractive incentive for writers – after all, there are vast numbers of them salivating over the opportunity to earn it. From the point of view of a man in the crowd who is looking at how difficult it is to get through the gate, however, mere publication seems like a pipe dream at best; supplemental income merely makes the dream flawed and imperfect. Nobody in the industry seems to ask the question “How, exactly, is a flawed pipe dream meant to be an incentive?” much less the follow up question “If professional publication is so great, why is an incentive necessary?”
An incentive for getting through the crowd only works if that's the only way in – it highlights the rewards and tells people why they should struggle against astronomical odds. But professional publication isn't the only gateway anymore. Right now, any author can publish anything for next to nothing. Which is exactly as it should be. (Of course, the implied correlative to this is that any author who does not take the proper steps to ensure that he is putting out a quality product deserves the reputation he has earned. Which is also exactly as it should be.) Now that there are other alternatives to professional publication, demand has to be artificially maintained somehow. Otherwise, someone is going to realize that maybe doing it yourself is a viable alternative, if only because the writer doesn’t have to subsidize the living of every other person in the publication chain.
It should be clear by now that I am not writing to convince the publishing industry of anything. They have their standards and practices, which work for them. Instead, writers are my intended audience. The publishing industry cannot promise you sales, but more importantly, they cannot promise you publication. Self-publication will not change the fate of the entire industry, but it will give you an opportunity to take your fate into your own hands.
But please, act responsibly and remember to document your expenses.