In the future, book producers will not produce books. They will manage brands.
Authors are already told they have to behave like brands. They need to run their own web sites, have a presence on popular social media sites, cultivate reader communities and market their own books (publishers won’t bother). Under such conditions, who needs publishers? Aren’t they little more than parasites on the reputation and income stream of authors? Won’t publishers wither away?
No, they won’t. They’ll become more important than ever. Paradoxically, as it becomes easier for authors to establish direct relationships with readers, publishers will become more significant, not less. This will happen for two reasons, both related to their essential future function as brand managers. Because these likely future entities won’t resemble contemporary publishers, let’s stop calling them publishers. Let’s call them Autonomous Literary Imprints, or imprints for short.
Readers will want imprints. Imprints will help them navigate the confusing, effectively infinite digital graphosphere. In my previous essay, I evoked the farcical figure of the Book DJ. Well, he’s back, and he’s here to stay. In his function as an embodied imprint, he may even be the same person running your local pop-up book retailer. His job is to have good taste. His livelihood will depend on his reputation. He will make – and break – canons. His stock will rise and fall with literary history. His culture will be his capital. He may, of course, be part of a multi-person imprint. Imprints may consist of one person or one million. They may interlock or be nested within each other. The point is, you will have a relation with the imprint. You will trust it as much as you trust your friends on Facebook or the people you follow on Twitter. Imprints are people too, not only legally but also as vibrant presences on social media.
Writers, too, will need Autonomous Literary Imprints. In your role as a writer, you will look to imprints because they have the power to confer upon you a slice of their accumulated cultural capital. Earning the brand mark of the right imprint will shape your career. It will launch you toward fame or disrepute. It’ll determine whether you can get that university teaching gig that’ll pay your rent. Whether you’re invited to that posh writer’s retreat. Whether you can generate income streams from speaking engagements. Whether you’re invited to write essays for prestigious magazines and book collections. Whether readers will even (yes, it’ll still be possible) buy your books and (who knows) maybe even read them.
More importantly, in your role as a writer, you will need imprints because you won’t know who to believe in the shark-filled marketplace for author services. Do you trust that freelance editor? That book designer? In the future, the imprint will be a kingmaker and a node of trust for various literary actors. The imprint will be an orienting map in a confusing supply chain of authors, agents, editors, designers and academics.
In a field of production populated by a ragged surplus army of desperate, hungry, fame-seeking writers – in a world where more pretty good books will be published in one second than any reader can read in a lifetime dedicated to nothing other than reading – mediators will become more, not less important.
So a popular techno-utopian buzzword like disintermediation is deceptive. It suggests that we’re moving into a world of no limits or controls. Instead, we’re moving into a world of total branding. Whether this new world is desirable or not is another question. I’m ambivalent about this likely future, but I’m sure our friend the Book DJ is pretty stoked.