Repositories of culture

Why publishers should listen to Clay Shirky

Toward the end of last week, Clay Shirky posted "Amazon, Publishers, and Readers", an essay on Medium. In it, he argues that the interests of readers are served when Amazon does what it does best (and, outside of its dispute with Hachette, what it does normally).

As members of the publishing community, we've spent the better part of the last year reading impassioned calls to take sides, choosing either traditional publishing and all that it represents, or Amazon, again with all that it embodies. I've tried to walk down the middle of the road, most notably in "More fights about terms", a post I published last month. In it, I argued:

If you don't like the terms, though, you'd best be developing alternatives. In supporting Amazon's proprietary file formats, publishers helped create the eBook dominance they now regret.

While the jury is still out on whether that dominance can be challenged, the verdict is in on what happens to publishers, wholesalers and retailers who argue about terms to solve a business model problem. Check out this year's collapse of single-copy sales of magazines when Time Inc. and Source Interlink reached an impasse and Source Interlink closed up shop.

In his Medium essay, Shirky describes what Amazon does best - making the largest selection of books available to the widest possible audience - and uses it to push publishers in a new direction:

The traditional industry belief — if you don’t live in a big city and have a lot of money, you deserve second-class access to books — is being challenged by a company trying to say “If you have ten bucks, there’s not a book in the world you can’t read.” If the current industry can’t keep their prices high while competing with instant distribution of a vastly expanded literature — and that seems to be their only assertion worth taking at face value — then it’s time for them to figure out how to make a business out of improved access. They can drop DRM, sell ebooks directly to readers, add or improve their subscription services, offer print-on-demand—any strategy, really, except continuing to insist that readers must accept high prices and restricted access.

Shirky's arguments have started to garner attention within the academy, with immediate pushback contending that Shirky got his facts wrong. While I'm hard-pressed to find errors of fact in his work, I think those arguments sidestep Shirky's core point: any strategy that forces readers to accept high prices and limited access will fail.

The roles that publishers once played as gatekeepers, as arbiters and as "repositories of culture" are diminishing by the week. That's happening partly through Amazon, but it's also happening outside it. For a reality check, talk to the people who write and read on Wattpad.

Shirky's arguments are uncomfortable, sometimes personally so, and they don't sit well inside companies that sell millions of dollars of books every year. That's a pretty good set of reasons to take them seriously.

More than that, he's not saying very much that you haven't heard before, from the likes of Kirk Biglione, or Hugh McGuire, or John Maxwell, or Richard Nash or Baldur Bjarnason, to name a few members of the loyal opposition. These aren't folks who want to destroy publishing. They started out hoping to save it, although the cold shoulder we've all received in the last seven years has left many of us thinking there must be a better way to earn a living.

I've spent several years writing about what publishers can do and how they can adapt to compete in this altered environment. It's not clear how much of a difference my work has made. But here's why publishers should listen to Clay Shirky: if he's right, they aren't going to get too many more bites at the apple.