As an author of many books, I’m thankful for the hard work of my publishers, but I also I’m fascinated by changes in the publishing industry.

An author self-publishing his or her book — also known as the “vanity press” —  has traditionally been viewed with a bit of disdain.  It usually meant that the author was unable to find a publisher willing to risk the time and money required to bring a book to market, either because the topic wasn’t interesting and/or the writing quality was poor.  Publishers want to be confident a book will sell well enough to cover the expense of printing and warehousing the book and promoting the author.

But the stigma of self-publishing may soon disappear. The book industry is ripe for reform.  It’s incredibly inefficient, with approximately 30 percent of books returned to the publisher because they didn’t sell.  Publishers cite this wastage as one reason they demand high fees, particularly from first-time authors.

But the arrival of devices such as Amazon’s Kindle in 2007 and now Apple’s wildly popular iPad, the cost of  printing, storage, shipping and wastage obviously disappears.  And with the Internet and social media, an author can acquire or maintain a high profile at relatively little cost.  So are publishers irrelevant?  Amazon thinks so. It announced earlier this year that it would pay authors 70 percent of an e-book’s selling price if the author bypassed publishers and dealt directly with Amazon.  Since authors typically receive only 15-20 percent royalty, Amazon’s offer will doubtless prove tempting. At the annual convention for the book industry that was just held in New York, one publisher suggested that within five years ebooks will account for half the market.

Prior to the Kindle, Amazon promoted the notion of self-publishing through its CreateSpace, a service that prints books one at a time in response to an individual order.  Authors upload their text and cover artwork, and Amazon does the rest.  CreateSpace also produces CDs and DVDs on demand.  The service offers access to more than two million titles, although not all books from the service are self-published. Publishers are also using the service to make available old titles that have gone out of print. Barnes and Noble unveiled its own version of CreateSpace two weeks ago, called Publt.

Back in my 1995 book the Digital Economy I talked about “disintermediation” arguing that the web threatened business activities in between producers and consumers.  I also introduced a term “re-intermediation” saying that the opportunities to create value in the new middle exceed the displacement of the old middle.  But I also noted that the leaders of the old middle are unlikely to be the ones to create find their place in the new. Will there be any publishers who step up to this opportunity?