Disrupting the Publishing Distruption

The publishing industry is ripe for disruption hahahahahah.

Sorry, but I couldn’t resist a giggle there, because writing a line like that is sure to be misinterpreted.  Since I live in an apartment with WiFi, and not in a cave, I realize that the publishing industry has already been quite well disrupted, thank you.  Amazon has blown it up and the resulting shattered walls have created light and freedom for writers. More readers have access to more books than ever. There’s more control than ever for the indie writer. Costs of publishing a book are near zero. You can get good cover art by contracting on Fiverr and a good editor on Elance. There is also a kind of digital slavery involved, since Amazon controls access to your online work.  Amazon is working hard to be the digital railroad baron of our age, controlling delivery and distribution. But as Kristine Kathryn Rusch has written so effectively and articulately (her blog kriswrites.com is worth your time) Amazon’s destruction of publishing’s old ways has created a boon for the old publishing houses.

In Rusch’s clear-eyed analysis, she recognizes that publishing houses are part of global media conglomerates, and as such they acquire rights to books as media properties. Those properties can turn into movies, YouTube series, HBO series, t-shirts, whatever. In the old way, books were printed, distributed to bookstores, and sold, or didn’t.  In the new way, books are e-published at low cost and live nearly forever as corporate assets to be repackaged.  It’s a neat magic trick that results in authors getting screwed. Or I should say, getting more thoroughly screwed than ever before. As Rusch points out, authors who are drawn to traditional publishing houses are risk averse. They are reassured by their publisher handling production, publicity and distribution.  But publishing contracts have tilted ever further toward the publisher’s advantage. I’ve signed contracts to create movies, TV and media for Disney, A&E, Discovery, Fox and others, and I was amazed at the rights I was signing away. But I was able to hang on to digital rights, and international markets, and even merchandise. That sort of thing is no longer on the table in publishing, Rusch says. I believe her.

Here’s the part of publishing that is ripe for disruption: Who will step in and break Amazon’s hold on distribution? Amazon is using authors and their books as widgets to bring more people to the Amazon website. That’s not news, but as an author it’s disturbing to know that your work is held at the same level of esteem as a flashlight or a jar of vitamins or any of the myriad other things Amazon sells. Your work is just something else on the digital shelf, and as Hachette learned, Amazon can take away your shelf space at any time.

Will Smashwords, an Amazon e-publishing alternative, make a serious go of disrupting the new status quo? What about Apple iBooks, or Bookbaby? I don’t know, but I do know this. The taxi business was the only game in town, with terrible customer service and bad pricing, until Uber came along to mess with it. Uber is proving not to be a whole lot better, but that’s only until somebody else comes along to overturn Uber.

Who will step up to disrupt book distribution?