In an essay at Backspace, Richard Curtis enthuses over the possibilities of Amazon's BookSurge:
I pondered – why would amazon buy a print on demand press? I didn’t have to wait long for the answer. A few months ago, they launched a service aimed at helping publishers keep their books in print. When the stock of a book runs low, amazon takes the publisher’s file and reprints the book at amazon’s own plant and fulfills back-orders. How do publishers feel about outsourcing their printing and fulfillment? What’s not to be thrilled about? They’re making money at no cost to themselves whatsoever. It’s all done virtually, and everybody makes money, including you the author.
Curtis thinks the logic behind this service is unavoidable, and might ulitmately result in making Amazon itself obsolete:
. . .Right now, in order to satisfy those subscription orders on amazon, Random House has to print five thousand copies at its printing plant and, ship them to amazon’s warehouse. Well, that’s perfectly fine if you’re in the twentieth century. But this is the 21st, and publishing is becoming virtual. How about this alternative: amazon prints all five thousand copies at its BookSurge plant in Charleston, South Carolina. Booksurge then ships the books directly to the customers who pre-ordered them months ago.
Pretty sexy, yes? Neither Random House nor amazon are out of pocket for the printing cost, because it’s covered by the price of the book; nor is there any shipping cost to the publisher, because shipping is paid by the customer. Nor is there any warehouse cost, because there are no warehouses! I used the term “virtual;” we know that in a digital world, all middlemen become impediments. I say unto you categorically that direct bookselling to the consumer, with no middlmen, is the way of the future. And here’s something more to think about: as stupendous as amazon is, it is only a middleman for book publishers. Is there any reason why publishers have to outsource their fulfillment to amazon? None that I can think of. Once the Random Houses of the world see the profitability inherent in the subscription/print-on-demand model, if they’re smart -- a condition we cannot always take for granted – but if they’re smart, they’ll realize they can do it themselves.
According to Curtis, this do-it-yourself approach will come to dominate bookselling because cutting out the middlemen and "selling directly to customers is the only way that the book industry will find its way back to profitability."
I certainly agree that the middlemen are "impediments" in the process of getting books into the hands of readers, and that their tentacles have enwrapped the "book business" so thoroughly that debacles like this will only become increasingly common.
But I'm afraid the warehousers and the sales people and the "distribution groups" aren't the only middlemen. And it's not only Amazon that will become unnecessary for publishers to "outsource their fulfillment." Bookstores, while in some instances providing a relaxing enough way to spend a Saturday afternoon, aren't really necessary if my primary goal is to purchase the book I've been reading about on the litblogs, and the days when my choices are limited by the tastes of bookstore owners and the limited storage space they have available are of course long over. Even the Borders and Barnes and Noble megastores (maybe especially them, since their inventory is now almost completely determined by big sales and quick turnarounds) cannot supply the diversity of selection now possible online, except at their own online sites. Nostalgia for the old-time bohemian bookstores will linger for a while--and such nostalgia is not altogether misguided--but the bricks-and-mortar bookstore will eventually disappear, as, literally, few people will have much use for them.
Agents are of course the most conspicuous middlemen in today's book business. Like all other agents in our entertainment-industrial complex, they exist to keep the industrial cogs running smoothly and to siphon off as much profit for themselves as possible. But then agents are really the middlemen for the next level of middlemen, the editors. The problem with editors is not that they edit--some writers need editing--but that they mostly don't. (Reportedly, much of the hands-on editing is being sloughed off on the agents. That they must take on this burden in order to maintain their place in the pecking order has to be very frustrating to them.) Instead they indulge in their own delusions of grandeur, masquerading as "gatekeeping," or else they see the writing and reading of books as an opportunity to stamp the process with their own exquisite sensibilities:
With a book that is clearly well-constructed and interesting but leaves me with no inclination to acquire it, I can see on paper why it works -- and often even anticipate that it will be very successful -- but I just don't feel particularly enthusiastic about it. . .a really "me" book feels like an intense crush, illuminating and electric -- like it was written just for me. I become infatuated. I have butterflies in my stomach, and I want to tell all of my friends about it. I can hardly think straight until I have acquired it. (Or at least tried to!)
How darling. Books as boyfriends.
Apparently this is the philosophy behind book acquisition in our time (aside from chasing after the next blockbuster and wasting all the marketing money on it, before discovering the public thinks what you're promoting is just so last year.) All the editors gather together their "me" books, and everyone's ego is suitably gratified. Who needs "well-constructed and interesting" when you can pretend to have half-written this other swell book just by discovering it?
However, even the editors are just the stand-ins for the most imposingly intermediate of middlemen, the publishers themselves. Curtis proclaims that POD will "save the publishing industry" because it can peddle its wares directly to consumers. It doesn't occur to him that the efficiency made possible by print-on-demand will almost inevitably make publishing companies as we know them obsolete as well. Why entrust the downloading of your book to self-described publishers when you can send it straight to your readers yourself? Yes, some services will still be provided by ostensible middlemen in this new process (some of them perhaps still operating as "small" presses), but I can't imagine that, eventually, the technology involved won't be sufficiently streamlined as to make "self-publishing" effectively the only kind of publishing a writer would desire.
Ultimately, Curtis's shot across the publishing bow is no doubt just a warning to the "book business" that it needs to reconstitute itself to accomodate New Media. He comes to salvage third-party book publishing, not bury it. But if his mission were really to ensure that "books of lasting cultural value" continue to be written and read, he'd acknowledge that publishing as it has existed for the last 50 years is the biggest obstacle to that goal and he'd assist in digging its grave.