I think the role of the publishing house, certainly when viewed from the standpoint of being a content gatekeeper authors must pass through to reach the market, will diminish substantially. What we will see instead is the rise of the educated critic—in other words, some blogger or reviewer of influence (or several) will become the Oprah(s) of the internet book world and people will increasingly rely on them to filter through the boggy mass of the great internet Slush Pile and lead them to the good stuff. Things like Amazon ranking or some other rating system will be very important. People will browse by rating and the cream of the content will hopefully rise to the top.
This could be bad news or good news for the publishing houses of today, depending on how swift on the uptake they are with this. What they need to do is leverage the power of their on-line stores in some of the ways I describe in my future of the bookstore article; to give one example, the cross-promotion really has to be the way of the future for them. Instead of having someone’s Nook offer them a mere free cookie, have it be a free cookie based on a recipe in a certain book, and give them a free sample to read while they are eating the cookie in the store. Or if I buy a book that is a prize-winner, put together a freebie anthology for me with samples from other books which have won the same prize. Publishers need to spend less time writing silly DRM programs and preventing people in the UK from spending money and more time actually promoting their authors and selling copies of their books.
I think we will at the same time increasingly see authors make less money from the actual book and more money from ancillary deals: speaking events, sales of art work relating to the book, syndicating the book as a blog and collecting ad revenue, or even television-esque product placement. Those who can both write good books and think outside the box with a commercial mindset can potentially map some interesting roads here—I think the next big internet publishing success story, following the Scott Sigler Podcasts His Way to a Book Deal thing, will be the author who releases the book under a ‘the book is free but the movie rights cost 5 million dollars’ type of deal and actually gets a taker. Just remember, before you bemoan the death of real literature, that Shakespeare made the bulk of his money through a cut of the ticket proceeds for the plays he staged, not through actual bound paper copies!
I have heard every argument from authors in the past on how they are writers, not publicists, but that mindset has to change. No career is immune from drudge work and if you are going to treat this as a job and not a hobby, this is where it will happen for writer-types. I don’t think any business has the right to assume that the way things have been is the way they will or should remain forever after!