Reading (In) The Future: Does Clay Shirky have a point when he says publishing is going away?

The future of publishing is and has been a hot topic of discussion ever since the first weblog went live. There are many people lined up on opposite sides of the debate and, as is typical in most things, many more scattered amongst the vast middleground. Over the past few years, I’ve been rather unabashed in expressing my opinions that the legacy institutions that have dominated all sides of publishing for so long are now living on borrowed time. Nothing I have seen or any recent developments have changed my opinions in the slightest. In fact, legacy’s continued resistance to needed change have only further emboldened my beliefs. Unlike some, however, I don’t believe the fall of these long-standing organizations is a bad development. In fact, I’ve come to believe that it is a necessary step in the evolution of communication and will only help to usher in a new era of growth for the written word and, most especially, for those who practice it.

Earlier today, I read an interview with internet scholar Clay Shirky. He detailed many aspects of the emergence and value of social reading that makes it well worth a look, but I was particularly struck by his comments on the publishing industry itself. I had thought my opinions were strong in the matter, but Shirky takes things one step further. While I think some of the formerly great and powerful entities may crumble in the digital upheaval, I never considered that “publishing” itself may cease to exist. But after reading Shirky’s opinions and, specifically, how he defines things, I am starting to see his point.

The word publishing means a cadre of professionals who are taking on the incredible difficulty, complexity and expense of making something public. That’s not a job anymore. That’s a button.

Many people, myself included, have always considered publishing an act. But Shirky paints an interesting portrayal of publishing as the entities that engage in disseminating written works. From that perspective, I can see his point about publishing no longer being a job at all. Perhaps what we need here is a different term for the industry at large. Maybe we’re not simply shifting the players and tasks within the industry, but the entire industry itself. What we may be looking at is, in fact, the death of the publishing industry and, rising from it, the birth of the writing industry. (Actual future industry name may vary.)

The question isn’t what happens to publishing. The question is what are the parent professions needed around writing? Publishing isn’t one of them.

If publishing and publishers are no longer necessary, as Shirky claims, then it really does make little sense to refer to the entire industry by a term of description for a soon-to-be obsolete element of the past. Recently, there has been an increasing number of defenses of publishers springing up all over the place. What I’ve found intriguing is that all of these defenses rest essentially on the same points–editing, marketing and some mythical notion of quality. Editing and marketing are tasks that can easily be farmed out, for much less than the cut a publisher will take of your proceeds.

Quality, on the other hand, I’ve found to be a bit of a disingenuous defense. Publishers and their advocates always spring this one to support the gatekeeper role they’ve occupied for so long. But the physical necessity of limited offerings no longer makes much sense in the online retail environment, and it’s this very gatekeeper position, one that has served to cement publisher’s control and position atop the literary food chain, that has directly led to so much resentment amongst writers and helped expedite the robust environment that new technologies have created to circumvent exactly that practice. It’s always seemed not quite right to me for publishers to use actions that have alienated and, to be blunt, oppressed so many writers to justify their continued existence. If we truly found value in publishers’ narrow windows of opportunity, why would we have ever embraced self publishing in droves, as we have?

Institutions will try to preserve the problem for which they are the solution.

This is, perhaps, one of the clearest and most reasonable points Shirky makes on publishing and publishers’ efforts to retain power over readers and writers. There can be little doubt that practices like overpriced ebooks, windowing of releases, restrictive DRM, resistance to libraries, etc, all display a pattern of publishers’ intentionally hampering ebook growth in favor of print, an area in which they still maintain a modicum of their former control. Some publishers have even openly advocated increasing friction on the customer experience, ostensibly to undermine the advantages of digital over print.

In these instances, publishers are almost certainly trying to protect the problems they have long been the only answer to. Unfortunately for them, by handicapping what we all know is possible and, increasingly, preferred by the customer, they themselves have become more of an obstacle to digital growth and consumer desire than a solution to it. This is not a good place to inhabit if you’re taking the long view of the future.

The more I thought about Shirky’s point, the more I found myself agreeing with it. Remove print books and the physical bookstore chain out of the loop, and publishers bring absolutely nothing to the table for writers that can’t be acquired cheaper and more efficiently on our own. Certainly, print still maintains a majority of the industry, but can anyone honestly claim they believe it’s going to stay that way very much longer? Typically, those that do so fall back on nostalgia and some vague notions of tradition, but those elements play very little role when competing directly with the real, tangible benefits to readers that digital possesses.

I look at book publishers in some of the same ways I look at print newspapers. It is patently obvious that newspapers in their traditional form have little or no future at all if, for no other reason than digital alternatives do every last thing they do better, quicker, cheaper, more efficiently and more conveniently for readers. Newspapers still exist, of course, but who can say for how long? Two years? Five? A decade at the most? Given the advancements of the past 10 years, can we even imagine the means by which we’ll be consuming news by 2022? The only thing I can safely say is that ink on paper will look even more obsolete than it already does. And to an increasing number of people, it looks pretty damned obsolete already.

Book publishers have the same root problem. Digital alternatives are quickly reshaping the environment into one where every last aspect of what they do can be done better, cheaper, more efficiently, etc., etc. Shirky has a strong point, I think; publishing isn’t dying, it’s already dead and just lingering around waiting to be buried.

Which brings me to another point. About a month ago, the New York Times ran this piece on how publishers have begun to sour on multi-purpose tablets over dedicated ereaders because, they believe, tablets provide too many distractions for readers. This, to me, is yet another example of industry people refusing to see the forest for the trees.

Firstly, what leads any of them to believe that distractions for readers are some new development brought about by tablets? I can be distracted while reading a print book every bit as easily as I can a digital version. If I want to read, and what I’m reading is engrossing, I’ll stick with it. And if not, I can always pick up where I left off later, same as I always could. Why else would they have invented book markers in the first place if not to allow readers to easily walk away from what they were reading, for whatever reason, and come back to the same place at a more opportune time?

Secondly, and most importantly, what about our society leads any of these folks to believe readers want to plunk down money on a device that intentionally limits its possible utility? I have a nice HTC smartphone that is capable of all sorts of nifty tasks, from checking email, Twitter, Facebook, web surfing, playing music, games, watching videos and, lo and behold, reading books. Hell, I’m even writing this blog post right now on it. I’m gonna post to the site with it when I’m done, too. All of this utility is the reason I bought it in the first place. It would have been somewhat shortsighted of me to buy a basic cell phone because all these other things might distract me from my phone calls. I wanted all of these capabilities when I went shopping for one, I bought it because of them. On purpose, no less.

I even have the Kindle app, and I frequently read ebooks with it, and am a regular Amazon customer. Sometimes, I do get distracted while reading when a text message comes through, or I get a notification from email or Facebook or Words With Friends. You know what I do then? I either keep reading, ignoring the notification, temporarily stop and check on whatever it was that wanted my attention then go back to reading, or I close it and come back to the exact same place I left off sometime later. Pretty simple. Never once have I thought, “Wow, I need a device just like this one but that’s purposefully limited to only read books so the rest of my life doesn’t intrude.”

Most disturbingly, there was a poll of publishers referenced in the article stating that only 31% believed tablets are the future. Well, tablets, smartphones and other similar multipurpose devices are the future. Anyone who’s really ever used one for an extended time can tell you that. It’s disturbing that almost 70% of publishers surveyed don’t believe that. But again, this is an opinion rooted more in what they want to believe rather than what is the reality.

If publishers are so afraid of competing for readers’ attention that they think widespread adoption of intentionally limited devices is a viable possibility, then they should just close up shop now. Besides, even if every customer had a dedicated ereader; hell, even if they only read print books; distractions in our lives would still abound. That’s the nature of the world we live in, and it’s the reality of the marketplace we have to compete in. I can buy one device that does many things, including reading ebooks or I can buy numerous task-specific devices to avoid distractions. Which option do you think most people will choose?

Of course, if Shirky is correct in his assessments, what publishers believe really isn’t going to matter in the long run, anyway. The publishing industry is dead! Long live the writing industry!

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