For some reason, I think a lot about Gutenberg. His inventing the printing press stands out in my mind as an incredibly pivotal moment in history.
Before the press, people got a book by copying it. By hand. Imagine copying the bible by hand. (Heck, most of us have trouble with the simple concept of reading it, but that's fodder for another post.) Most people couldn't read, but with the cost in acquiring a book, who could afford it?
After the press, books became much cheaper, and within the reach of vastly more people. As a result, more people could avail themselves of much more knowledge. I remember as a child the idea of having an encyclopedia being pretty neat. All that knowledge, sitting on your shelf, waiting for you to dive in. (At least, that's what the Brittanica ads said.)
But even with the advent of the press, there were still costs. Costs in running the presses, costs in getting the materials, costs in getting the finished product to the reader.
Enter the publisher.
The publisher took on the task of getting books printed and into people's hands. More explicitly, they did the reproduction and transportation of the idea. Because of limited resources, they also ended up performing another interesting service, which was filtering out poor content.
So far I've been talking about books, but the same thing applies to sheet music, music recordings, movie distributors (i.e. from the studio to the theatre), video/DVD publishers, software publishers, even TV stations, cable TV companies and radio. They all exist to reproduce works and transport them to users.
Fast forward to today. We've got the internet. It's a reproduction machine. It exists to copy. It must copy anything that passes over it. It's also a transportation machine. It exists to get data from here to there. That's why it was invented: to transmit data. And all of the works mentioned above are or can be expressed as data. Digitized, and sent over the 'net.
So, again, why do we need publishers?
Oh yeah, there was that bit about filtering out poor content. In the music world, there are apparently hundreds of thousands of albums made every year. A few of them are worth listening to. Publishers in every genre have historically provided a quality filter, picking the "best" works and making them available.
Of course, "best" in this context is a synonym for "most marketable", or even works that are "most likely to be bought by whoever I think of as my customers". (See my earlier post on "The Long Tail" for more info about the fallacy of this way of thinking.) But the 'net replaces this, too.
Think of Amazon.com. Pull up an item, and Amazon will tell you what other things were most likely to be bought by people interesting in this item. Amazon lives by selling everything it can get its hands on, (i.e by not being a quality filter), and by letting people talk to each other about what they like, and in so doing, does a darn good job of directing people to things that they might be interested in, in a way tailored to the individual, rather than to some notion of "best" or "most marketable". That's why I do a lot of purchase research (and make a lot of purchases) at Amazon.com.
Now think of the 'net as a whole. All of a sudden, you can find groups of people with exactly your interest. I'm finding that I really like downtempo electronica. (That's music, in case you were wondering.) I wasn't really even aware of the genre a year ago, but now have three new albums that I found from suggestions of other people online, and have listened to many others. (See my magnatune.com and staccatomusic.org entries.)
The 'net has become my quality filter, and works fairly well. Of course, what I'm really saying is that I'm finding new works based on word-of-mouth, but I've found many mouths online that match my own tastes. Things could be improved upon, but largely, I can find pretty good suggestions and ratings on pretty much anything I care to look for.
So, again, why do we need publishers?
There's another issue that many folks are finding they have with publishers these days. Over the past several years, publishers across all of the genres I mentioned above have merged from a plethora of smaller companies to a small number of giants. Books, music, movies, TV, radio, software. Each has combined their previously large number of sources into a few behemoths that control entry into the market. It's commonplace enough that businesses will actually form in hopes of becoming popular enough to be bought by one of the giants.
But what happens when this occurs? There are some real doom-and-gloom statements out there about this, and I'm not sure that I buy all of it, but what becomes apparent is that the bigger the company, the more interested they become in protecting their base, and less interested in exploring new ideas and works, and in exploring new ways of doing things. When have you ever heard the term "nimble big corporation"?
What this means is that in each genre, new and interesting works get passed by in favor of things that marketers know will sell. The result gets stale and uninteresting pretty quick. Apparently, the two behemoth radio station owning big corps, Infinity and Clear Channel, have taken huge hits in stock value lately, because nobody wants to listen to their offerings any longer.
Enter the 'net. Each genre now has individuals and small groups bypassing the Goliaths, (who used to control entry into the market by controlling the way that people got their content), and going straight with their content to the users. In some cases, these individuals and groups are businesses (i.e. independant record labels, now called "net labels"), but in many cases, they are the artists themselves (i.e. musicians, podcasters, programmers, etc.) In each genre, the user can avail him/herself of content over the 'net without needing to go through a corporation, or indeed, through a business of any kind.
So, again, why do we need publishers?
I started off this post talking about Gutenberg. Before the press, the few people with the knowledge (hand copies of works) controlled things. The church controlled access to the scriptures, etc. After the press took full effect, (and people learned to read, because now they had reason to), that control was spread out to everyone. Few would say we're poorer because of it.
The internet is causing a shift in the way we think about content. It's a big shift. The groups that currently hold power (those big corporations I just mentioned) are fighting the shift, and will continue to do so. But in the exact same way that nobody credibly wants to return to a bookless world, even though a few powerful people would have wanted to way back when, this shift today promises to put much more power into the hands of individuals than ever before.
And by "power", I mean "the power to have a voice". Bloggers are finding that when they spread a story, the old-school press (or "mainstream media") can be made to follow along. Open Source software creators have been scaring large software publishers for years now. And as the rest of the genres I mention mature online, this trend is certain to continue. Radio stations are starting to podcast. Newspapers are starting to blog. Book publishers are trying to figure out e-books. Netflix.com rents movies online, and other companies are starting to deliver movies to your computer.
So I'll end this by asking the question one last time.
Why do we need publishers?