Publishers are still relevant in the Amazon-dominated world of book retailing, but they are losing their influence in some of the most important areas of publishing — and they will either adapt or fade into the smallest niches.
Academic publishing is a huge industry, from peer-review journals to textbooks. There are also industry journals, which cater to a variety of fields and specialities. Publishers charge a lot for academic and industry publications because they can.
Over the next five years, and certainly within a decade, major universities with in-house “presses” and journals will migrate to digital editions. There are several content management systems (CMSs) designed specifically to manage academic journals and monographs. I anticipate that these systems will someday support numerous output formats from a single database of articles or chapters. If you need an e-book in ePub format, a few clicks later it will be transferred to your device or computer.
The Public Knowledge Project (http://pkp.sfu.ca) is one example of a set of open platforms targeting the academic publishing market. The applications are free and already popular among research universities around the globe. Other open software solutions and numerous commercial solutions exist. I’ve helped install many of these platforms; one or two good administrators can manage a complete publishing and online solution.
We’ve already seen self-published books for the mass market displace books from major publishing houses on Amazon. Self-published textbooks are starting to rise on Apple’s iTunes U. The publishers are losing control — so they can either adapt or fade away.
Industry organizations will also move to online, digital publishing. They won’t need to rely on massive publishing companies to print and distribute journals. Those organizations that are also publishers, and there are many, will also migrate to digital publishing. They will be forced to make content more affordable and more readily available.
As an aside, I hope writers aren’t among the losers in this shift to affordable distribution models. So far, moved to digital formats haven’t helped publishers or writers. We will need to find a way to balance the needs of writers with the needs of readers. Then again, academic publishers have seldom offered fair compensation to writers.