In a system without the publisher operating as middleman, where the author takes his life’s work and just posts it to Amazon, each book becomes a lonely outpost in the stiff winds of the marketplace, a tiny business that must sell or die. “So what?” Yglesias might say, because that’s the kind of ruthless neoliberal thinker he is. “If people didn’t buy the book, that’s just proof of its worthlessness.”
It's a great dodge, isn't it? Proof, if anything, that the extreme left and extreme right are indistinguishable from each other, and that both worship the "invisible hand" in only slightly different incarnations.
I've experienced this issue firsthand, vis-a-vis publishing. Without the promotional and attractional mechanisms available to a major publisher, an indie or a soloist has to rely on word of mouth — which only works when the ones talking are widely heard anyway (ergo, they're promoters, one of the functions of a publisher in the first place) — or the depth of his own wallet to make a dent. If you don't care all that much about sales, maybe that's not so bad; if you just want something out there for the sake of it being out there, fine.
That was my line for a long time, and I stuck with it in the face of humiliating examples to the contrary.
Now I'm starting to see that even what a major publisher would consider a "small" audience is still orders of magnitude bigger than what most of us can drum up on our own. Plus, the really crippling disadvantage of not having a bigger audience isn't the smaller sales, it's the less diverse feedback pool. When less people encounter your stuff, you don't have as broad and potentially dissenting a set of opinions about it.
So what does this mean for me? Right now, nothing: I've got a book to finish, and that takes up enough of my energy and effort to deserve the front burner. But I'm realizing more and more of the self-justifying b.s. that gets slung around about self-publishing is far more convenient for Amazon and its ilk than it is for those of us who're on fire with something to say. Where they do serve as a publisher, it is not to advance the art or the craft of writing, but to give people more of what they already know they want. That's great for commerce, but not so great for books.