Leave the middleman alone…

The readings reviewed last week make it appear open access is winning (or should win) the battle versus the mainstream publishing industry and remove barriers to access content and publishing platforms (not only related to books, but also to media, videogames, video, art, etc) in order to make them accessible to “consumers”, under the banner of freedom and the promise to reach widespread audiences.

The middleman, as publishers (of all sorts) are commonly referred, is often seen as an evil and abusive factor in the chain of production, an obstruction, an elitist judge who filter and decides who and what gets published and who/what gets not. But we have to be careful with this assumption. The fact that an author is rejected by one or more Publishers (as it happened to many great authors published today) does not mean it is a bad job (enter J.K. Rowling), but it also does not mean the middleman is wrong.

The thing is, you don’t need to beat the middleman in order to propose your own model.

For the revolutionary inclined, it seems that justice is finally being made by the availability of free -or very accessible- publishing tools and platforms for people who wish to share and create communities with common shared goals and, thus, picturing a world where every effort is aimed towards the advancement of the human race, whatever that means to each advocate of this movement.

While I love the idea of being able to, for example: write a book, code a videogame or film a video over the same topic and share them with people who may get interested in it, then create a community and develop it further. I am always suspicious about what is behind the veil of generosity that most of the platforms available get in return, in other words “What’s the catch?”. I mean, after all, examples abound about technology companies offering free services which later turned into beasts which, despite still offering their services for “free”, profit with items of more value than one could ever have imagined, name Facebook for example.

However, free/acessible publishing and content services do not seem to be trying to become the IT giant. As far as we can see, they even seem too disorganized or focused towards different and some times contradictory goals. Thus, even if an “Uber of publishing” becomes a reality, it looks like it would be a little more of a nuisance to established publishers role, yet, it can become a serious threat to the existence of published works themselves.

Why?

Because facilitating widespread publishing would definitely increase the offer for works and while this seems to be a good thing, the fact is the industry and its open access counterpart is not lacking titles but rather suffering from an oversupply of them. In contrast, lack of interest and a change in the way people consume information, has made the whole industry more elitist, less original and oriented towards specific topics.

For example, there is a lot of Harry Potter fan- fiction (love it or hate it), but as we reviewed last term, everything counts, thus, if such fan-fiction were to become a canonic part of this story, we would have to resort to some kind of “multiverse”, like those used by comic book publishers to accommodate the whole spectrum.

In essence, after some iterations, “Harry Potter” would lose its meaning, its purpose, its identity, all the values associated and given to it by its author. On the opposite side, even if all fan-fiction strictly adhered to a set of rules, respecting the base form of the novels, then each fan-work would be constrained and limited by those rules.

What publishers had to offer then? Order. The publishing, design and distribution services can surely be replaced and even automated. Someday, an AI will be capable to write you a book based on a plot, characters and story-line you provide. However, what Publishers do and have been doing for centuries is a most valuable thing: to offer order in terms of curating potentially successful stories based on their knowledge of the readers (or market if you wish), on the editing process where a writer turns an idea into a successful story, or even a great story into a widespread success, the distribution planning, the events or media to close writers and readers and finally, protecting the integrity of those works by applying IP laws.

Those services, proper of the middleman, are now being devalued in favor of an apparently egalitarian discourse that in fact, proposes to crate an “Uber of publishing” or similar, forgetting that “Uber” is a company that actually profits from the effort and resources of others without risking or offering any securities to them.

We have to be careful what we wish for.

One Reply to “Leave the middleman alone…”

  1. Lovely piece. I would say I agree with you that the idea of offering a free publishing platform online seems fishy; there’s always a catch. Maybe they won’t be as big as GAFA, but once they see a way to generate more profit; believe me, they will take it.

    I would also like to bring back your point about publishers being the ones who bring the order in publications. I get what you mean, but maybe we can come up with a better word for that? Professional insight/judgement maybe?

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