My latest Guardian column, "Publishers and the internet: a changing role?" looks at how today it's possible to "publish" a work without distributing it, without duplicating it, without doing any more than connecting a work with its audience, sometimes without knowledge (or permission) from the work's creators:
In a world in which producing a work and getting it in front of an audience member was hard, the mere fact that a book was being offered for sale to you in a reputable venue was, in and of itself, an important piece of publishing process. When a book reached a store's shelf, or a film reached a cinema's screen, or a show made it into the cable distribution system, you knew that it had been deemed valuable enough to invest with substantial resources, not least a series of legal agreements and indemnifications between various parties in the value chain. The fact that you knew about a creative work was a vote in its favour. The fact that it was available to you was a vote in its favour.
Partly, this was the imprimatur of the creator and publisher and distributor and retailer, their reputation for selecting/producing works that you enjoy. But partly it was just the implicit understanding that no company would go to all the bother of putting the work in your path unless it was reasonably certain it would recoup. So "publishing" and "printing" and "distributing" all became loosely synonymous.
After all, it was impossible to imagine that a work might be distributed without being printed, and printing things without distributing them was the exclusive purview of sad "self-publishers" who got conned by "vanity presses" into stumping up for thousands of copies of their memoirs, which would then moulder in their basements forever. But just as the internal functions of publishing were separated out at the tail of the last century, this century has seen a separation of selection, duplication, preparation and distribution. Every work on the internet can be "distributed" by being located via a search-engine without ever being selected or duplicated or prepared.