The Caxton Printing PressThe advent of electronic self-publishing has caused a tidal wave of reactions, emotions and effects in the world of publishing, as well as in broader society. A surprise to many of course, however it has really all been done before – a very long time ago in the Fifteenth century.

My first qualification in working life was as a lithographer, so during my apprenticeship I learned a great deal about Alois SenefelderJohannes Gutenberg, William Caxton and the revolution that the printing press created. A quote from a Wikipedia entry about the Printing Revolution caught my attention while checking my facts for this post.

The phenomenon of the Printing Revolution can be approached from a quantitative perspective which has its focus on the printing output and the spread of the related technology. It can also be analysed in terms of how the wide circulation of information and ideas acted as an “agent of change” (Eisenstein) in Europe and global society in general.

So here we go again with an ‘Agent of Change’.

Just as the printing press Caxton invented around 1439 enabled text and therefore information to be circulated to the masses and upset the status quo of that period, electronic publishing, print-on-demand and the power of giant online retailers such as Amazon and Apple, have all created a similar effect by tipping today’s publishing and distribution status quo on its proverbial head. This is especially true for the traditional publishers who have had a shared but still almost monopolistic hold over the market. Often referred to as ‘The Big Six‘, they held the power over authors, agents, distributors and retailers for a very long time.

So now the gates are open and the ‘horse has bolted’ so to speak, as we read everyday of new battles raging between the major technology players and the giants of publishing. All of course protecting their own vested interests and shareholders. However, while they are fighting for supremacy, and others for survival, the humble writer has been freed from their chains.

No longer is it necessary to crawl over broken glass to find a Literary Agent and then if finally fortunate enough to be signed, abide by a rigid contract of obligations and editorial dictates. Today’s writers and authors can now pick and choose their medium and avenues to readers. Mind you, on their own and with none of the clout and financial resources the ‘Big Six’ had to offer.

It will take quite some time for the waves on the publishing pond to settle, but a new monopoly may be readying itself to pounce on the turbulence. With Amazon preparing itself to become a publisher under the name of Amazon New York, could we see a future where the ‘Big Six’ becomes the ‘Big One’?

Publishing History Repeats
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11 thoughts on “Publishing History Repeats

  • 28/08/2011 at 5:57 pm

    It will be interesting to watch the new Amazon project. I did not realise they were heading in that direction.

    I am a pinch away from considering self-publishing. I thought I would hold out for the dream, but now the dream is just to hold my book. The agent had their chance. :)

    • 28/08/2011 at 7:29 pm

      Hope you make it over the ‘pinch’ Glynis. Lit agents are probably as, if not more befuddled by what’s happened to publishing in the last 12 months than authors. Although probably hard to find many who’ll admit it.

  • 28/08/2011 at 6:14 pm

    I don’t see a Big One (because too many competitors would rise) but I easily see a Big Three. Amazon will definitely be number one by the end of 2013 if not before.

    • 28/08/2011 at 7:32 pm

      There’s no doubt Scott. Anything and everything seems to heading into the hands of Amazon, Google and Apple. The days of monopolies are not dead. But then again, we have seen them come and go over the decades.

  • 28/08/2011 at 9:49 pm

    I’m not sure we have to accept having one or more publishing overlords. That’s certainly what we’re used to, and therefore we may allow it to happen again, albeit in a new form. But Joe Konrath and Blake Crouch see a different possibility at (I added my two cents at my blog.)

    Ultimately, I hope for symbiosis with publishers in the new order (e.g. Amazon), rather than the old author subservience publishing model.

    • 28/08/2011 at 10:14 pm

      Yes Marie, I read the post by Joe Konrath and Blake Crouch. Much of what they say makes a lot of sense. Especially about writers being freed from the constraints of Big 6 publishing and the lack of control writers had over their own work.

      But getting a big enough bunch of Indie writers together to create market impact will be tough. It’s something the indie music industry has had more time to achieve but as yet, hasn’t quite worked.

      I think it’s truly a question of market reach, and B&N, Apple and Amazon especially have that advantage. Being a small fish in a big pond may have it’s drawbacks, but at least the world knows where the pond is when they go fishing for books.

  • 28/08/2011 at 10:31 pm

    That’s why I’d like a symbiosis with Amazon, etc. In the old days (last year), a writer’s only recourse was to “crawl through glass” and hope some publisher will pick up their book. Now there are other avenues. Right now, there is nothing stopping me from publishing my book at Amazon (with around 70% royalties) AND networking with other indie writers. Best of both worlds. But if Amazon becomes too powerful, we may start seeing contracts that restrict us from publishing/selling a novel in more than one place. That is a thing to be avoided.

    • 28/08/2011 at 10:44 pm

      I hope it stays the best of both worlds Marie. However I’ve had one or two experiences with Amazon that have concerned me. The major one being their ‘Price Matching Feature’ as they so wonderfully call it. It’s clearly designed to drive prices the way Amazon wants. Down.

      This nasty little feature can take away your pricing independence in an instant. I ran a ‘free offer’ on another site for a week or two. Amazon found it and immediately reduced my book’s price to zero. Free. So my 99 cent ebook is now a give away!

      In another case, I reduced the price of a book on another retailer, and you guessed it. Amazon ‘matched’ the price. The big problem is that even though I put the price back up on the other store, Amazon for some reason have not reacted to this, and have left my book at the reduced price.

      It seems as though their little ‘feature’ only works one way. Down! I have yet to see it go up. So be careful. The bad old days may still be around.

  • 28/08/2011 at 11:36 pm

    Interesting post, Derek. The publishing industry has been going through some lightening fast changes, thanks to the Kindle and now the Nook also. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if others try and compete with them in coming days. Competition really is key to keeping prices down. I love as much as the next person, especially with their free shipping option for everything $25 and over, but if they were to become cut out all of their competitors, that price could increase because they would have no further incentive to keep it. Look what happened to Netflix with raising the prices lately after they cut Blockbuster out of the market.

  • 29/08/2011 at 7:35 am

    No doubt about it – the giants will be pounding each other senseless for the foreseeable future. I hope we don’t all get stepped on.

    Doesn’t the US have anti-trust legislation preventing any one company from taking too much of the market? Even ancient Rome had their own equivalent to regulate grain.

    If Amazon is allowed to kill off the big six or five or three (depending on what time zone you read this in) it would leave them with a near stranglehold on the printed word.

    And to think, every kindle sold is speeding the process along.

    Caveat Emptor…

  • 29/08/2011 at 8:33 am

    It’s like hearing live music. Raw and up polished, with all the sharp edges of emotion. I have seen works where ‘editing’ meant sanitising. I want the line oc communication to be short, Authors mind to mine, not via a bunch of third parties, knocking the edges off.
    Self publishing has given me some edgy reads.

    Also, publishers have turned out less quality productions. Short run e-print or plastic plate low quality crap. Binding that the last few pages of your crime thriller have fallen out before you get to the ‘who done it’. It is my belief (or hope?) that successful e-books and self pups will lent themselves to second press versions and collectors editions. Book cases will be filled with beautiful bindings. We are considering a fake pink leather and stitching over it to resemble a cut for my limited edit cover.

    Tactile will have it’s place along the ebook and the self pub’s. Consumers are in the driving seat now.

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