If you think the answer is "the publishers" then boy are you living in the 20th Century. Back then publishers did indeed have a more or less complete lock on what you got to read. There were indie publishers and small houses and of course vanity self-publishing, but if you wanted real exposure (in this thing called a "book store" - two words, a store for books, odd to think of that now) then you went through a major publisher. A couple years ago I wrote a piece about the slush pile
versus self-publishing; here in 2012 it's clear which has won
So if the answer isn't "publishing houses" then who are the new gatekeepers? Turns out they're the big names in e-commerce: Apple, Amazon, and PayPal. Let me point to two stories that illustrate the new reality.
First, a story that hit the wires this week (here well summarized by Violet Blue for ZDNet): PayPal has decided you shouldn't read smut it doesn't like. That's right, the company is forcing its merchants that publish and distribute e-books to censor - that is, prevent you from buying through PayPal - books of a certain adult nature. As Blue explains, it's not naughty words that PayPal is objecting to, it's the kinds of stories told in the books. Try to let that soak in for a moment: the dominant online payment processor feels it has the right to tell you and me what sexual fantasies are acceptable, and which are not. Say WHAT?
And lest you think it was only PayPal that engaged in this sort of controlling behavior, let me direct your attention to today's Domino Project column from Seth Godin. In the column, he explains that Apple has decided it will not carry his latest book because that book contains links to Amazon.com listings for other books. Apple presumably feels this might cause some readers to buy those books from Amazon and this might somehow hurt Apple's business? Maybe? I dunno, I'm grasping at straws here.
We've already covered how Apple is using iBook 2 to lock in writers. And we've already covered how Amazon is using its ability to yank content from its listings to strong-arm independent publishers. Feel free to jump back via those links if you missed the first go-round.
What this adds up to is a picture of a broken system. The notion of a book store (or bookstore, if you prefer) as a place to get books has not just been transferred into the digital realm, it has been wholly disintegrated. In this century any corporation can stick its fingers into the stream and pluck out things it doesn't like, divert the flow away from you, and play favorites with its own content to the exclusion of all others. What should be incredibly liberating technologies (print on demand, self-publishing, electronic books) instead become the means for recapitulating the worst behaviors of the previous technology (payola, pay-for-placement).