Do We Still Really Need Publishers?

Headshot of Bob Sacks

I have been talking for years about a possible new business model for publishers that I have termed, for lack of a better title, consortium publishing. The idea works like a cable TV plan—with tiered subscriptions starting with a flat price for a basic service and working up to a platinum package containing any and all available content.

Recently, a new idea popped into my head: As we move into the digital information distribution era, do we still really need publishers? As a publisher myself many times over, I offer this not as a trick question, but rather a platform for discussion.

For years, we all have been scrambling for a new business model, one that takes into consideration all the technology of the present rather than the flawed, inefficient systems of the past. Perhaps we have been looking in the wrong place for improvement. It is possible that it has been right in front of us the whole time.

I have always stated that our true franchise as publishers is our words and the stimulating thinking that those words encourage. When you clear away the smoke and mirrors of our various publishing platforms, you are left with people reading what writers write.

But what if writers went directly to the reading public without the publisher as a middleman? I realize that this is a bit radical and that the senior folks at some major publishing houses will have to be picked up off the floor by their assistants after reading this, but what if it happened? Why couldn’t writers in the Internet age reach out directly—and profitably—to their readers?

We are about to enter into the new age of customization—an age of specialization and refined, powerful, individual search. An age in which time and distance, like many a Star Trek episode, is irrelevant. I suggest that we rethink our relationships with our customers, the readers, and re-examine that symbiotic existence. Instead of writers being the swarming pilot fish living off the smaller spoils of the sharks’ kills, the pilot fish now can get to the meat and the rewards of the system directly. This wasn’t possible in the past because writers didn’t have access to a distribution system, nor the deep pockets to expose themselves to an expensive manufacturing process. Those two venerable concepts are nearing an end of their productivity. The need for manufacturing and distribution is decreasing (though it still can be and will be done). Any writer can write and distribute his words and ideas to anywhere on the planet from the safety and comfort of his own home.

Now, there are certainly some things these writers would be lacking, including the services of a trained editor and the creativity of an art staff, to name just two. But global creative freelancers could take care of that. The only real missing component is an infrastructure that does two things—provides a payment platform and, at the same time, gives the authors a mechanism for visibility. But I would suggest that Amazon and Barnes & Noble have created just such a platform. And, if their royalty system is not sufficiently fair to the writers, then some other young, enterprising entrepreneur will invent just such a system.

You might say that this already has happened. With blogs, Web sites and RSS feeds, writers are reaching out to readers directly with no publisher intervention. I am just suggesting that, as we proceed into the digital future, the need for a publishing empire may not be as relevant as a PayPal system for our writers to be paid for the words they write. Admittedly, there are many flaws in this Writers Consortium proposal, but there are also enough grains of truth for us to consider it further.

Bob Sacks (aka BoSacks) is a printing/publishing industry consultant and president of The Precision Media Group ( He is also the co-founder of the research company Media-Ideas (, and publisher and editor of a daily international e-newsletter, Heard on the Web. Sacks has held posts as director of manufacturing and distribution, senior sales manager (paper), chief of operations, pressman, circulator and almost every other job this industry has to offer.

Publish date: October 1, 2009 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT