Web-publishing and Gate Keepers
Anyone can put a novel or story on a web-page. We might think that this will result in that novel finding an audience, but I don't think there is any reason to think anyone will find it at all. The web actually multiplies the problem of sorting through and finding that novel that is sure to satisfy.
In the end I think that we will be able to do without a great deal of what traditional publishing relies on, even paper and ink, but I don't think we'll be able to do without the Gate Keepers.
I tend to be a dreamer without follow through, and to be honest this isn't an idea without a pretty steep up-front price tag, but these are some of the elements I'm thinking might really work if given a chance:
-First, assume for kicks and giggles that I know a good story when I read it. There has to be an editor or editorial staff to make sure anything offered on the site reaches a professional (or nearly so) quality standard.
-Second, offer complete novels and stories for free. Make it possible to download them into Kindles, PDA's, computers, etc,. Sell sidebar advertisement and signed, POD, high quality paper copies. Only consider pay-to-read subscriptions or pre-releases for popular authors later on.
-Third, get excellent "cover" art and illustrations. Pictures sell books. Consider a "fan art" function and index where amateur illustrations can be posted. Art costs money, so quality might be something to look to improve as time goes on, but essentially, art is necessary for browsing... both art and blurbs. This is the best way to let readers know if they might be interested in the novel or story.
-Fourth, have an intuitive and informative search function that keys to reader (and editor) ratings and key-words and feed-back functions. An "other people who liked this story also liked..." function is necessary.
-Fifth, host live author chats, contests and door prizes.
Expensive to set up!
But could it pay for itself and make money for editor and authors?
I think it could with enough traffic to generate ad revenue.
It also relies on people who find a novel they really like wanting it bound nicely so they can keep it, so that they are motivated to pay for a POD copy of something they read in electronic form. I'm assuming that I'm not the only one who does this. I'm assuming that many people will do this and continue to do this.
While I believe very much in the value of giving things away for free, I also believe that writers and artists deserve to be paid for their labor. Copyright is important. There may come a time when a person can walk into Kinkos and print any book from a copy on their thumb drive... people will do that without paying for the right to do so unless it is easy to direct payment to the author. And it ought to be. Walk-in book binding may be standard in the future and a simple method of coding copyright information and publisher's fees into the file means that book-binders can add that fee and pass it on to the rightful parties. Until then, the nice copy with the glossy cover and even the author's signature can be purchased from the pubisher's web-site.
I'm very much anti-piracy, but lets be clear... a downloaded novel (or song) that is never read (or listened to) is not stolen. In a sense it doesn't even exist. Too much worry that someone will get something for free results in legitimate customers who are annoyed.