Seth Godin's announcement that he is forsaking traditional publishing is big enough news that Jeffrey Trachtenberg made note of it in the Wall Street Journal today. I did not learn anything too substantive from Godin's post beyond the fact that he is much more knowledgeable about publishing than I'd thought--I'd never known he spent so many years on the inside of the industry working as a book packager (read Godin's post to learn more about what packagers do).
I think Godin is a great example of one kind of author for whom pursuing this route--essentially, self-publishing his own work, with the support of a variety of different service providers (To do what? Well...most likely a lot of the functions now being filled or paid for by his publisher!)--makes good sense. Any author who has a big audience--Trachtenberg quotes Godin saying his blog has 438,000 followers--can leverage that installed user-base, as it were, to change the terms of how he pursues that audience. Godin built that audience over many years using his blog, live appearances, and other means, but also with a lot of investment from his publisher.
The key word here is leverage. Authors who have big followings and strong sales have a lot of leverage vis a vis the traditional publishing/bookselling industry. Those authors can use this leverage to negotiate a reconfigured relationship with publishers and booksellers, which is essentially what Godin is pursuing here (I look forward to learning more about how this works out for him in the months ahead). Traditionally, for the past 40 years or so, popular authors have used that leverage for another purpose: to command high advances (essentially, guaranteed upfront money). It's a fairly simple trade-off, and one that digital networked technology has made considerably simpler over the past decade. Look for a lot of well-known authors to start exploring similar avenues. Does this pose a huge threat to business as usual for the big publishers, and big booksellers? Absolutely.
But what of those innumerable authors who do not already have a Godin-sized audience? What sort of leverage do they have? Moreover, what resources do they have to invest in building the sort of audience Godin has accumulated--again, with the considerable help of his publisher? These are the sorts of authors for whom companies like Agate will continue to be a better option for publishing their work for a long while to come. Self-publishing remains a poor choice for the vast majority of authors who don't have Godin's following--or, just as important, his extensive publishing know-how. And if you think that traditional publishing is set up in a way that's unfair to authors, well, wait until you get a chance to survey the self-publishing landscape.