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The Digital Challenge: Disintermediation [AN EXTRACT FROM ‘THE CONTENT MACHINE’]

This is an extract from The Content Machine: Towards a Theory of Publishing from the Printing Press to the Digital Network, by Michael  Bhaskar.

  In conversation with publishers, one sometimes gets the sense disintermediation – a cutting out or unbundling of publishers from the literary value chain – isn’t taken seriously. Publishers assume they’ll always be wanted and needed and that their imprimatur means any attempt to disintermediate will be at worst equivocal, at best footnotes in the grand history of the written word. Such thinking is mistaken. Papyrus workers, scribes, rubricators, hot metal typesetters and even map publishers probably all once thought themselves relatively secure, yet they have all been rendered irrelevant by new technology. For publishing, digital technology is an ‘out-of-context’ problem: like the Conquistadors in America being technologically more advanced and following imperatives incomprehensible to the indigenous population. Even recognising the true nature of the problem isn’t obvious. It can’t be couched in the usual terms. The flow of centralisation and fragmentation clearly articulates a mode of disintermediation. Authors work as they usually do, alone, but centralisation enables the intermediating work of discovery and distribution. Fragmented practice and centralised discovery and distribution, the key movements of the digital network, require nothing more for the full functioning of a literary, even a print, economy. Disintermediation isn’t an abstract or trivial possibility. It’s a live threat to traditional publishers of all kinds. History is littered with resistance from antiquated technologies and their masters. Despite the fact that change often occurs at a slower pace than its more evangelical proponents predict, it eventually wins through efficiency savings and superior value extraction. On the Internet everyone is, or can be, a publisher. They might be bad publishers, unnoticed publishers and largely pointless publishers, but some of them will be good, lean and highly adapted publishers capable of winning market-share skirmishes. As traditional channels to market – bookshops – keep closing, the appeal of disintermediatory tactics grow. This is not to suggest publishers will overnight find themselves unemployed. It is to highlight how networks can bypass an industry adapted to a prior set of circumstances. Influential technology blog GigaOm has argued we live in the age of ‘the artist as entrepreneur’ with collapsing distribution channels, the growth of promotional and monetisation tools and a generation of creatives willing to run their own affairs. We are in the age of disintermediation. Doctorow (2011) and Shirky (2002) both make this point. They argue that publishers add value by accommodating the high fixed costs of distribution, marketing and generally producing content in a world of bricks, mortar, paper and print where scarcity is an economic constant and practical problem. In the context of digital media, scarcity is not a problem. Fixed costs to entry are nowhere to be seen. Coupled with network-enabled discoverability, publishers with their DRM, ‘sustainable’ pricing and recreation of atomistic sales models may actually be artificially manufacturing scarcity. In this scenario, it hardly helps that, as we saw in the last chapter, publishers are already highly ambiguous creatures that outsource work formerly seen as integral. Without a firmly delineated raison d’e?tre, they might become more hindrance than help to the smooth circulation of content. If publishers cannot clearly define what they do and why, defending themselves will be difficult. Whereas previously no other options existed, now any talented writer can reach a potentially monetisable audience.

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