Self-Publishing and the Long Tail
The New York Times runs a lengthy article on self-publishing books.
The emergence of self-publishing shops reinforces the Long Tail theory. By reducing the publishing costs, more niche-oriented content can be produced cost-effectively. Thus, self-publishing houses put real pressure on the value added by traditional publishers. Traditional publishers play a variety of roles: gatekeeper, editor, manufacturer, marketer. The manufacturer role is completely outsourceable; the value-added in the editing process, while not zero, is both outsourceable and comparatively low. So the principal roles of traditional publishers will ultimately become as gatekeepers and marketers.
However, each of these roles are also subject to pressure. For example, the article discusses how some self-publication shops are trying to pitch their role as a farm team, which allows some authors to build a track record sufficient to crack into the big publishing houses. Over time, perhaps the self-publishing houses will be able to develop reliable criteria that will serve the gatekeeper role.
Furthermore, the article indirectly discusses how self-published titles are marketed—they are invariably too niche-y to market through expensive traditional intermediaries like booksellers, so they are marketed through friends-and-family networks, guerrilla emails and other niche distribution channels. These haphazard marketing efforts are not a perfect substitute for traditional publishers’ marketing campaigns, but the fact that authors are willing to bear some of the marketing responsibility suggests that this function is potentially outsourceable as well.
UPDATE: Over a year later, the NYT revisits this ground again, this time reviewing various offerings.