Friday, April 22, 2011

Gatekeepers and Advocates

Free-form Friday

An established author made news recently by walking away from a $500,000 deal with a major publisher in order to become his own publisher in the new disintermediated world of electronic publishing.

In the past, there was a clear line between traditional and vanity publishing because it was difficult and expensive to set oneself up as a publisher. Now that anyone can be a publisher, the electronic pioneers wonder if traditional publishers bring any value to the table.

It's a good question--and I don't have any answers. But I want to point out a structural truth that's getting muddled in the agony and ecstasy of the invasion of the e-readers.

We often talk of all the gatekeepers we have to get past in order to get published. I've even heard the phrase,"vetted by publishers"--as if publishers where somehow the guardians of all that is good and true. But our sloppy language contributes to our confusion about the role of publishers.The problem is that we've confused gatekeeping with advocacy.

Advocacy is an important element in maintaining the social fabric. A too-evident self-interest triggers alarm signals in the fairness centers of our monkey brains and we become deeply suspicious of the proposition. On the other hand, if a nominally disinterested party champions someone's cause we take that as an indication that the case has merit. That's why we need lawyers and agents.

The role of publishers, in the market that is publishing, is advocacy through investment. Talk is cheap. Putting your money where your mouth is by investing a substantial sum in a book says something. Of course there's no direct correlation between the amount invested and the quality of the book. But if publishers are rational economic actors, a non-trivial investment implies an endorsement: if the publisher was willing to contribute so much to a project, perhaps it's worth our attention.

The new world of frictionless, costless e-publishing changes the nature of advocacy. Some people have done well as self-publishers because they've cultivated a legion of on-line advocates. But that same lack of friction has attracted mindless hordes of content-farmers, with automated systems that spider the web for articles and spew random compilations as e-books, who can make a fortune even if people buy only a few copies of each book.

My point is that regardless of the form, whether traditional publishers or social media reputation networks, our structural need for advocates doesn't go away in the digital world.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

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