Earlier this week, The Guardian published an edited version of a talk by author Anthony Horowitz. Titled "Do we need publishers any more?", it's really not an argument against them. In fact, toward the end of his remarks, Horowitz asks:
"Am I mad to think that if publishers were a little less interested in story, character, style, originality, design, typography, literacy, good grammar, education, enlightenment – and a little more interested in making money, they might have fewer problems? But is that not also, at the end of the day, something to celebrate?"
It's a good question, but I think it perpetuates the myth that only publishers (and editors) care about these things. It also presumes that these are the things that truly matter.
In practice, markets are neither uniform nor static. In 2009, I captured it this way:
I think there is a place for works of surpassing beauty, and there is a (probably limited) market of people who would pay for them. Illustrated manuscripts today are essentially priceless. But I imagine that in 1439, monks standing around the first sheets of Gutenberg’s (lovely) Bible were shaking their heads, clucking their tongues and saying (in German), “But look at the kerning…”
Sooner or later, the things that matter get addressed. It took generations to perfect movable type, but it took less than a single generation for desktop publishing to move from amateur to professional quality.
Those editors laid off in the last decade of publishing retrenchment are still capable of helping define story, character, style and more. You can find some of them on their own or working with companies that also can produce your book. Type "freelance editorial help" into Google sometime.
I do think publishers can compete by providing readers with tools that draw upon context to help them manage abundance. Imprints alone will not offer a sustainable bulwark against what Clay Shirky calls "filter failure."