Publishing is unlikely to dump its model and start from scratch, partly because no industry is likely to do that, and partly because publishing of all professions has probably evolved the least since the invention of movable type. Perhaps in this Information Age of ours they'll finally have to catch up, and indeed they are starting to stir themselves slowly, and cautiously.
The system as it is now isn't really all that bad. The problem is that what works quite well on a small level, with a few friends getting together to publish some books "at random" (as Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer did when they founded Random House), works less well when these small houses are bought and sucked into a large media empire. The corporations want to make money, consistently, with growth, growth, growth, and books just aren't the right business for that -- they're too unpredictable. You have to take a chance on books, to go with your gut as to what is a fine work, but the bean counters don't tend to believe in that kind of thing. The major bookstore chains, Barnes & Noble and Borders, also do their part to make the selection more vanilla than it might otherwise be. Their superstores have tremendously high rents, so they're forced to concentrate on high turnover, when the magic in books is really the quiet gem sitting on a shelf waiting to be discovered, not the Sure Thing on the front table (whatever a Sure Thing is in books, anyway). And with that going on in the stores, rather than independent booksellers who know what they like, know what their customers like, and will stick by a book they believe in, the publishers can't afford to let a book sit in the warehouse until it finally takes off ... which takes us back to the rant about remainders.
One way to "fix" publishing today is to make it less of a risk to sign up an author and publish their book. A peer review model might work -- I'll be keeping my eye on iPublish and the like -- but I'm a bit wary of that. I tend to believe that good communities are small communities, but if it's small then it's not a very good indicator of the potential audience for a book. In theory it would be great if you knew, before you even published a book, that thousands of people already liked it and would buy it, but I think that it's asking a lot to make people wade through the dross to find the stuff that's good, or even readable.
The other thing iPublish is doing to hedge its bets is to publish the works that come out of its web community in eBook format, rather than paper. Lower production costs, lower risk. But publishers are still nervous about going digital -- they'll have the same issues with "infringement" and so on that the RIAA and MPAA have, only they haven't been in the spotlight as much because by and large people don't feel that an eBook is as good as the real thing, as opposed to DVDs or MP3s (not to mention the lack of a real standard format).
Print-on-demand is exciting, though, since it allows a publisher to produce a book without committing to a significant print run. Jason Epstein (another grand old man of publishing, at Random House), thinks this is the Future. You could walk into a Kinko's or some other vendor, step up to a machine that allows you to browse a vast catalog of choices, punch in a code, and in a few minutes have a nice, freshly bound paperback book in your hand. As adamba has pointed out, though, print-on-demand isn't quite ready for prime time, though Random House and others are really starting to get into it, and maybe with them behind it, it will be a different story. One nice thing about print-on-demand is that even if a book gets pulped for lack of sales, it need never go officially "out of print". Just keep the Quark documents around that it was printed from, and you can spit out a reasonable facsimile with relatively little effort.
Actually, on some level this can (and does) happen without any fancy technology. A bunch of smaller presses, who don't have the resources to publish lots of first editions, often buy up the reprint rights to books that the big players have basically given up on. That gives some books a second chance, but unfortunately the smaller publishers don't have as much of a distribution presence, and you're back to the whole chain store problem.
Anyway, I'm done rambling for the time being, but I'm sure there are many, many other possibilities that haven't been thought of yet, or tried, or written about in places I would have read about them :) If you think of any, let me know ...
--Stop it, evil hand, stop it!--
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