Day: July 27, 2010

Disintermediation Happens

Any change, even for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts.
Arnold Bennett

Just Two Things
Somewhere in the rush to judgement and foolish reaction to Andrew Wylie’s deal with Amazon two major things have been overlooked.

The first is that Agents have as much to lose from the ongoing disintermediation of publishing as publishers do. That has important implications for how we should think about Wylie’s deal and the ramifications of it.

The second is that regardless of this deal the technology and the motivation exist to enable this ongoing disintermediation. If Wylie were to chose not to push it on, someone else would. IT IS UNSTOPPABLE.

I want to explore those two ideas a little more.

A little explanation: Agents & Power
The first is not so obvious. After all, agents are central to one of the relationships that is a key driver in the industry. They own or mediate the author-publisher relationship. That makes them pretty powerful in the scheme of things.

What’s more, they are clearly on the author’s side of that relationship and as an individual author gains power (if they are, for instance successful or critically acclaimed) so too the agents gain power. So the gradual shift of publishing power away from large publishers and towards established name authors and less powerful more fractured publishers (whose individual power is weak but whose collective power is potentially strong) agents position would appear to be stronger.

However the same disintermediation that threatens publishers threatens that relationship that is the core of the agents power. If they cannot provide the services that a powerful name author (or even a non-name author) requires, then that author is as likely to avoid the agent as they are to avoid a publisher.

As the publishers weaken and the authors grow more powerful, the need for an agent to negotiate a deal becomes less pressing. So disintermediation is not always the agents friend.

The challenge can be faced by expanding the agent’s role and that is what Wylie is doing. Yes it is fraught with potential conflict, both in interets and with partners, but the course is a brave and ultimately from an agents perspective necessary.

We should remember that strategic hole and how we might move to straddle it when we think about Odyssey Editions and Wylie.

Inevitability: Ability & Motive
Anyone with time and energy can now self publish. The tools of self-publishing, both in print and digital have been getting easier to access for some time. In the digital realm they are free (as in beer) and open. WordPress the platform that powers this blog enables publishing to the web by anyone. Of course that hardly guarantees an audience but the potential is there.

Even if the industry was not stacked in favour of publishers (at least when an author first encounters them) there would be the glimmer of financial incentive to authors to exploit contract loopholes or negotiate such loopholes as might allow them to test the waters, or, as time goes on and digital markets show their worth, ignore the old model for something new.

As publishers weaken and show themselves less agile than they might be in this period of digital, authors holding grudges or just out of self interest and self preservation. They are also beginning to question the value provided by publishers and booksellers. They are beginning to wonder if they might not be better served by other models, ones that are better suited to the digital age.

So the tools to enable the disintermediation of publishing industry exist and the motivation exists for people to do it. Those two conditions make it likely to occur, regardless of Andrew Wylie.

Thoughts
If adaption is the key to survival then we should be looking at Wylie’s move as a brave effort at change. If, one day, a publisher were to make a dramatic bid for relevance in this changing space, I wonder would they be condemned as Wylie has been?

I expect to see more experiments from agents. What’s more I expect to see more experiments from publishers and authors. If we don’t then I expect them to perish.