The history of publishing is also a history of self-publishing. Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, Ezra Pound and Jane Austen all published their own work, or paid someone else to do so. Publishers, as we would think of them, didn’t emerge until the late 18th century; before then, printers were publishers. Their input was limited to typesetting (and perhaps proofreading) the book, then printing and distributing it.
Publishing is now, of course, a global business. But, over the last twenty years or so, its established role as the engine of modern literature has become a little less secure with the resurgence of self-publishing. ‘Disintermediation’ is what the advocates of digital disruption call it. Now that anyone can write something and seek an audience for it through the internet, why involve a middleman? This line of thinking means accepting the premise that publishers are no more than margin-taking distributors. You may not be surprised to learn that as a publisher myself I do not hold this opinion. But the fact remains that the barrier to entry for authors has not so much been lowered as removed.
It’s not a great look to be the person ostensibly arguing against writers having the freedom to tell, share and profit from their stories. Publishers are gatekeepers and that inevitably means there are plenty of people who are or feel locked out of the literary establishment. The same structural