For most of the 20th century, a fairly stable pattern developed in the publishing industry. The system was a sequence of barriers prospective authors had to surmount before their books could ever see the light of day. The author did the hardest part first: writing the actual book, taking months and sometimes years of blood, sweat and toil in the unswerving belief that they were doing something worthwhile. Once that part was finally finished, these writers had to get the attention of an agent willing to work on their behalf. This too was an arduous task necessitating mind-boggling persistence and a blizzard of rejections. In a tiny minority of cases, an agent would be found and the manuscript would later get shopped around to publishers. And a tiny fraction of those manuscripts would then get bought - usually on minimal terms, because each of those publishing houses doing the buying was groaning under the burden of paying disproportionately enormous advances to their big-name stars. Those lucky debut authors would have a modest payday and the thrill of seeing their work in print, but would face the prospect of slowly building a following through bookseller and reader word of mouth.
The system allowed room for meteors, of course. The most famous of these in recent months was Chad Harbach, whose debut novel The Art of Fielding, which will be reviewed in these pages next week, garnered such great advance word from agents that he was offered an astronomical advance (rumoured to be more than $1 million when the paperback rights were figured in, a staggering sum in the middle of a nationwide economic depression), although even this meteor had a little help, since Harbach was an editor at the trendy literary journal n + 1 and so had already made industry contacts undreamed of by mere mortals.
But such cases have always been rare, and in the 20th century they did little to disturb the pattern that had calcified: write a book, work hard to get an agent, pay that agent a fee and a percentage of your future sales, wait for that agent to get you a publishing deal, and in the lucky event that happens, hope your publisher is willing (or able) to promote your book during the limited window in which it is new.
In 2011, that pattern began to shatter.
There had perforce always been a second route to seeing your book as a physical, printed object: self-publishing through the often accurately named "vanity presses" was the poor relation to traditional publishing all through the 20th century. The many, many writers who weren't willing to endure the slog of finding an agent or hoping a publisher would treat them well, had the option to reverse the process and pay to have their work printed and bound. Vanity presses pocketed a hefty fee, gave their clients the satisfaction of holding their book in their hands (and inflicting a copy on every last living relative in their family tree), and, of course, entertained not the faintest idea of making that book competitive in the marketplace. Indeed, resorting to a vanity press was a tacit admission by all concerned that the book couldn't compete in the open marketplace; an unsavoury aura of desperate pride lingered about the whole endeavour, despite scattered examples of self-published books that then went on to become successes (James Redfield's The Celestine Prophecy and Irma Rombauer's The Joy of Cooking being two of the more lucrative cases).
Traditional publishers and vanity presses had one controlling element in common: they operated printing presses - they had the physical means to produce copies of the author's book. And agents had a controlling element as well: they had experience in telling the wheat from the chaff. It was a fixed system of vetting, and it seemed as permanent as the white cliffs of Dover. But it was utterly dependent on those two controlling elements.