Revisiting: How Traditional Publishing Works
The word 'traditional' is problematic
Author’s Note: When I first drafted this post, I conceived of it as an “explainer” for people not familiar with the business side of publishing. I was astonished that the comments to the post focused not on traditional publishing, the subject of the post, but on Open Access publishing. I cannot state this strongly enough: this post is not about Open Access; nor is it a part of a debate about the relative merits of Open Access and traditional publishing. It is, rather, a brief summary of the market mechanisms that have historically supported publishing. One does not have to be an advocate of market mechanisms to understand how they work; and knowing how they work is a good first step in coming to terms with non-market-based publishing.
With so much current talk about new business models in publishing, and a series of announcements that may make it appear that we are headed toward a fulfillment of Open Access (OA) millenarianism, whether of the gold or platinum variety, it seems useful to describe how traditional publishing works, if only for reasons of nostalgia. I want to provide a high-level description, without any particular regard to practitioners or even of specific formats (i.e., books, journals). Most of the comments here apply as well to other media forms such as movies and music, as there are common elements to all businesses that invest in content.
Which brings us to the matter of definitions: What is traditional publishing anyway? Publishing is the business of investing in and marketing content that is largely text-based. There are exceptions to this. A volume of photographs from Aperture can hardly be called text-based, and scientific articles found in journals may have video and animations embedded in them. But anchoring a discussion of publishing in text has the sanctions of history and common usage. There is a difference between what we expect from The Lancet and Steven Spielberg, even if both use video cameras at least part of the time.
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