The Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) opened its 27th annual “Publishing University” at BookExpo America on May 22 with the “Great Debate,” a discussion first introduced at the 2011 London Book Fair. This time, it featured an especially provocative statement for discussion by a panel of experts: Authors and readers are all that matter. Publishers will soon be irrelevant.”

Audience members were invited to vote before and after the debate. While only a portion of the audience voted before the debate, 57 favored publishers, while 18 voted against, with 8 undecided. It bears mention that the audience itself consisted mostly of publishers.

Moderators were Susan Danziger, CEO of DailyLit and Michael Healy, executive director of the Book Rights Registry. Panelists included Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords; Daphne Kis of; Richard Nash, founder of Cursor; and Rudy Shur of Square One Publishers.

Kis voted against publishers, arguing that readers and writers have always been the sole reason for publishing, starting long before today’s power shift. She followed by explaining why authors and not publishers are ultimately responsible for cultivating audiences, in spite of the uneven quality too often observed in self-published books. Traditional publishing “is a broken business model,” she added in the post-debate Q&A.

Shur disagreed, arguing that POD service companies are not publishers at all, but merely printers that offer order fulfillment in addition to printing. Publishers, he continued, take control of quality… and that a handful of them still control the overwhelming majority of books sales, both in print and digital form.

Coker countered with a lyric from a song: “a message of hope for those who will listen, and a warning for those who will not.” He argued that authors and publishers have inherently contrary interests, and that writers are now winning a battle that has been waged for centuries. Slamming inefficient and inequitable traditional publishing conventions, he predicts the downfall of big publishers -- except those who embrace a completely new paradigm for publishing in the 21st century.

Nash closed in favor of publishers, citing 18 million creative writers today who want to reach the 65 million consumers who spend five hours a week reading. He concluded that publishers are the essential link between readers and writers, especially independent publishers.

Not surprisingly, in the post-debate balloting (with a larger portion of the audience participating), the publishers in the audience voted for themselves again -- but in smaller proportion: 68 voted for publishers; 33 voted against publishers; 9 were undecided