Stephen Page, the President of the UK Publishers Association (and CEO of Faber & Faber) considers both sides of the question in an extremely well-written piece in yesterday's Guardian. Page sees conventional publishing working side-by-side with self-publishing and the new technologies without there being a clash of interests.
Some points he makes in favour of conventional publishing:
It seems clear that the age of abundance has already given way to the age of attention, in which the two key attributes of successful publishing businesses will be expertise in how to catch people's attention online and developing brand identities that reassure consumers that the information, culture or entertainment they are buying comes from a reliable source.A publisher's imprint should be a guarantee of quality, of a rigourous selection process and careful editing. A few dubious choices of manuscript, less than thorough line-editing and fact-checking, and all credibility is out the window.
This kind of work is detailed and difficult, and will require a committed investment of time and resources across the range of titles published, plus a strong and authentic brand that will at times be identified beyond the writer.
Perhaps the very biggest authors might be able to do this themselves, and perhaps self-published writers will find a small audience they are happy with, but it seems to me that the vast majority of future publishing, be it books, ebooks, pay-per-view or audio download, will require the publisher's expert marketing skills.
This notion of attention brings us to taste. Taste is central to the age of attention. Publishing is a taste business built intuitively, not scientifically. Out of taste comes the publisher's identity - who and how it publishes, its tone of voice, how its values are perceived through those choices. Many of the online book communities - the evolution of book groups - are ruthless in their assessment of hype. They are gloriously wilful, intelligent and opinionated. Independent publishers usually have a strong editorial voice, and I believe that a defined taste will be a key attribute of publishers who are effective online. Your taste will be more on view, your publishing seen more in context.
Taste does not end at the acquisition of books; it exists in the editorial process that Geoffrey Faber called criticism, revision and initiation. We try to help make the work better. To be a writer's first reader is to reassure them of the quality of the work, but also to engage with them about how it could be improved. Most writers find this a highly valuable experience. Publishers who do not offer this risk reducing their value to writers. It may not matter that the world will be awash with unedited work, but I believe that edited material will have a higher currency than ever. Wikipedia is without doubt a miracle of the modern world, but I don't think it can be compared to information that has been carefully edited and checked. They are just different animals and will coexist.
Publishers also have a role which is about to become much more urgent: ensuring that authors' copyrighted works are sold and not given away. In the digital age, piracy is becoming a serious issue for copyright creators, a bizarre by-product of a technology-driven revolution that has somehow turned into a new manifesto for freedom and democracy. Removing the artist's right to earn a living from their copyright is nothing short of uncivilised: it is not pioneering and attacks the very heart of the culture of every nation. If we learn one thing from the music industry, it is that only to protect artists' rights is potentially disastrous - you have to create value and engage with the new market.
Something our local publishers need to bear in mind as well.