14 April 2012

“Publishing Is Going Away”?

At Findings, a site devoted to a social-reading service, technologist Clay Shirky talked about the future of book publishing:

Publishing is not evolving. Publishing is going away. Because the word “publishing” means a cadre of professionals who are taking on the incredible difficulty and complexity and expense of making something public. That’s not a job anymore. That’s a button. There’s a button that says “publish,” and when you press it, it’s done.

In ye olden times of 1997, it was difficult and expensive to make things public, and it was easy and cheap to keep things private. Privacy was the default setting. We had a class of people called publishers because it took special professional skill to make words and images visible to the public. Now it doesn’t take professional skills. It doesn’t take any skills. It takes a Wordpress install.

The question isn’t what happens to publishing — the entire category has been evacuated. The question is, what are the parent professions needed around writing? Publishing isn’t one of them. Editing, we need, desperately. Fact-checking, we need. For some kinds of long-form texts, we need designers. Will we have a movie-studio kind of setup, where you have one class of cinematographers over here and another class of art directors over there, and you hire them and put them together for different projects, or is all of that stuff going to be bundled under one roof? We don’t know yet. But the publishing apparatus is gone.
Publishing isn’t just making something public, as in making it available. It’s bringing the work to the attention of the public. The same forces that have made it easier to make work available are also making it easier to attract attention in some ways, but harder in others: there are many more competitors for readers’ eyes and time.

For that reason, the combination of good vetting and good presentation remain valuable. Furthermore, the “brand” of a publisher (or author consortium, or interest group, or however the business grows) may become more valuable than ever. The little name at the bottom of a book’s spine carried little weight with readers, but knowing an ebook comes from a recognized company could make readers more willing to risk a purchase.

It’s quite possible that publishing organizations will focus on marketing, including publicity, negotiating with popular vendors, and so on. But simply because anyone can make his story about a tree falling in a forest instantly available for readers around the world doesn’t mean any significant part of the public’s going to notice.


Richard Bensam said...

Agreed. I was going to leave a much longer comment about another reason we need publishers, but another blogger has just written a post that says everything I would have wanted to say, only better:


J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the link!

Hickey offers a useful comparison between the music and book businesses from the creator’s point of view. One detail he touches on only tangentially is that musicians, especially pop musicians, are used to playing for audiences. That’s probably part of the fun for a lot of them.

Authors, on the other hand, include some shy or solitary people who don’t really like the lecture circuit. (Of course, some authors do.) Introverted authors who prefer to communicate through writing and/or let their work speak for themselves might be at a fatal disadvantage without a big company to speak for them.