03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Dancing with Shiva: Aligning Publishers' Interests With Those of Writers and Readers

I began arguing back in the heyday of Napster that the entertainment industry was fighting futilely to impede Shiva in his cosmic dance of creation, destruction and renewal.

As the traditional publishing industry attempts to toss up roadblocks to Amazon's Kindle, you can see a similar preference for protecting the status quo from a tsunami to riding the next wave.

Granted, publishers insist their best minds are out looking for ways to adapt to change.

But the problem for them, and for Hollywood and the music industry or any other industry facing decline in the face of new technologies, is that they're the only ones who are financially and emotionally invested in how things were done yesterday. Consumers, and most writers and artists, are only worried about the best way to do things today and tomorrow. So these traditional industries can't help being clumsy dinosaurs with a 10-million-year plan to slowly evolve into nimble mammals. Meanwhile, the asteroid has already hit.

A few good ideas are out there. Marion Maneker argued in the Washington Post that the way forward for publishers could include a decision to go boutique. "Publishers can no longer be vast containers of intellectual property distributed in paper form to bookstores, supermarkets and warehouse clubs," Maneker wrote. "But they don't have to be: They can become highly selective distributors to bookstores, supermarkets and price clubs. That's the lesson of the television, music and movie businesses."

But a better idea recently came from tech blogger Mike Elgan. Elgan has argued that traditional publishers are uniquely equipped to supply the editorial, graphic and marketing support that Amazon and other independent publishers are attempting to offer

"By acquiring and cultivating quality online self-publishing companies, the big publishers could use author-financed publishing as a kind of 'farm program' for the 'big leagues,'" Elgan wrote. "The companies could operate on two tiers. The self-publishing tier could freelance out editing and design work like Amazon does, and keep the business largely separate from the existing business."

Sounds like a better option for workers in the publishing industry than continued massive layoffs, doesn't it? I'd take Elgan's idea slightly farther: Instead of two tiers, a publisher could have three niches: 1) a relatively large, unfiltered niche for authors of modest quality or ambition; 2) a niche for writers and works which may offer more prestige or social benefit than sales; 3) and a niche for the blockbuster mass-audience book. At present, traditional publishers are obsessed with niche 3, at the expense of all else. That approach serves the needs of too few consumers and writers in our era.

As a longtime columnist and first-time author, I recently wrote about my own attempt to go with the next wave of independent publishing. And I was intrigued by a comment from one reader who saw all the enthusiasm among other indie writers as a sort of sour grapes or rationalizing of our inability to break into the traditional publishing world.

Ah, he touched a nerve. I do have some sensitivity toward that. But I also had to deal with the fact that the publishing industry has admittedly had to refocus its new acquisitions less on quality and more on "sure bets," usually with authors who already have massive celebrity behind them. The good news is that, if writers with lower profiles than Kim Kardashian feel they have a book of quality that can stand on its own, they no longer have to file the manuscript away in a drawer. And they can market it more easily than ever, thanks to the Internet and especially thanks to Amazon, that great beast spawned by Shiva to gnaw at the leg of the New York publishing world.

Let's stay at the personal level for another moment. A friend of mine is about to put out a book about his Pakistani-American experiences, on an imprint of Simon & Schuster. I'm about to put out a book on my Pakistani-American experiences through a less well-known indie house. As Pakistan's biggest rock star (did you even know they had any rock stars?) he naturally offered a greater platform than I did. But I'm quite sure my book stacks up nicely against his. And although our books are coming out at the same time, giving consumers a greater range of Pakistani-American reading choices than they ever hoped or wanted to have, I was able to get my book out far more quickly, with full autonomy over content, style, design and title. And rest assured that I'll market the hell out of my book on the Internet and in other media, while he'll depend on a traditional system that does less and less smart marketing as it struggles in the tar pits. Check back in six months and ask me how things went in our friendly rivalry.

Certainly we indie writers can sometimes come across like those precious, bitter right-wing radio hosts and bloggers who cherish the imminent demise of "the MSM." But the bottom line for them and us is that there are more ways for our voices to be heard than ever, and the manner in which society determines the credibility of those voices is being shaken up. (There's a sign of this in this very article, as I was able to note that the best prescriptions for publishing's future came from a blogger, not from the reporter with the traditional credentials of the Washington Post).

Beyond the addition of new voices clamoring for attention in the marketplace, we don't even know if these voices will be carried in the year 2020 by 400-page books or by shorter texts or by multimedia storytelling.

The best chance for the large publishers to survive the near future, then, is by letting go of their traditional interests and reinventing their interests in light of what the voices and the audiences seek. If they can do so, they will have danced with Shiva... and lived to tell about it.