Matthew Yglesias posted a powerful article on his website, Vox, on Wednesday in which he attacks book publishers. His argument is very clear and one sided to an extreme, with strong subheaders like ‘Publishers are superfluous’, and ‘Book publishers are terrible at marketing’. Yglesias’ article, in my opinion, fails in many areas. To a reader with knowledge of the publishing industry, there are lots of inaccuracies in what he says, and to a reader without knowledge, the article seems to be too biased to be credible.
Yglesias begins by stating that the book publishing industry is becoming obsolete. This is a view held by many, as publishers are in the midst of great change currently, due to digitalisation and the changing attitudes and spending habits of consumers to name just a few reasons. I do not disagree with Yglesias on this point – it is very difficult to predict what will happen to the industry in a few years’ time, but I do not believe that ‘writers and readers will be better off’ if the industry is lost.
Usually, when critics address the possibility of the end of the publishing house, the publisher is portrayed as a victim, unable to compete with the likes of Amazon. Interestingly, Yglesias thinks of the publishing house as a ‘giant conglomerate’, a business perhaps as ruthless and profit-seeking as Amazon. This point is supposed to strike a blow, but I’m sure the majority already knew that many publishing houses, just like other companies, are owned by big corporations. Just because they are not ‘tiny, helpless enterprises’ does not mean that they are money making machines, and though they are likely to be supported by their parent company, this does not mean that they have money ploughed into them.
Something else I disagree with is the belief that ‘transforming a writer’s words into a readable e-book can be done with a combination of software and a minimal amount of training’. As an editor himself, Yglesias is deliberately overlooking the amount of work and time a publishing house puts into the author’s words to make them coherent. The publisher does not simply transfer the writing from a Word document into a piece of publishing software. They work with the author to develop their ideas and put them into a format which is best suited to the product and will sell. It is not the publisher who ‘adds almost no value’ but Amazon, who is just a distributer, and is not yet able to replace the real function of the publisher. Of course, some might say that a good agent could improve a piece of writing just as easily, but by overlooking this, Yglesias’ argument falls flat.
Again, relating to the e-book, Yglesias believes that publishers price e-books too highly to ‘offer enormous profit margins’, while Amazon sell e-books cheaply because they are inexpensive to make. This simply isn’t true. E-books do not make an enormous amount of profit compared to a print book. E-books are still costly for the publisher, and are sold at a slightly cheaper price than print books as print production costs are taken away. Yglesias fails to recognise that Amazon is able to sell e-books cheaply as they can absorb profit elsewhere.
Something that Yglesias does not write about is what he thinks would happen in the future if Amazon were to monopolise and drive the publisher out of business. Does he really think that Amazon would still just function as a distributer? It would be necessary for Amazon to fulfil at least a few of the roles of the traditional publisher. Yglesias states, ‘Of course’ a world where more books can get to more people is a better world. I think that this is naive. I believe that authors should be able to get their thoughts out to those willing to receive them, but if Amazon did not act at all as a publisher, then harmful material would inevitably expose itself to the masses. I do not agree with censorship, but I do believe that content in books which could be considered to be particularly damaging, for example offensive language in a book targeted at children, should not be allowed to be made available to the public. If Amazon did not take up some editorial roles, this would become a major issue.
I think that Yglesias’ central argument is right in theory. Technically, an author’s work can be read by an audience without a publisher, and therefore the publisher can be taken out of the equation, but at what price? Publishers are not mere ‘middlemen’ – they are trained to improve work to get high quality material out to the consumer. Without the publisher, we might see a rise in the amount of reading material available, but a dip in the high quality literature we are used to.