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Summary:

As author Clay Shirky points out, the simple act of publishing something — whether it’s a book or a news article — doesn’t require an industry any more, just a button. So what do the traditional content-publishing industries do now to justify their continued existence?

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As he has shown with books like “Here Comes Everybody” and his ideas about how the “cognitive surplus” has created a crowdsourcing explosion, Clay Shirky has a way of putting his finger on trends in media — disruptions that we are all experiencing, but sometimes fail to properly appreciate. In a recent interview, he described one of those trends when it comes to publishing: namely, the fact that publishing itself is no longer a job, “it’s a button.” By that he means that the sheer act of publishing something is so simple now that it doesn’t even qualify as a job or a task that requires an entire industry. So what are publishers supposed to do now?

Shirky’s interview was with Findings — a website and service that aims to make reading more social by allowing users to share passages they have highlighted in books — as part of a series called “How We Will Read,” which has also featured authors like Clive Thompson and Steven Johnson. When Shirky is asked how publishing is changing, he says that it isn’t changing at all, it is “going away”:

[T]he 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… 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.

Obviously, Shirky is being a bit disingenuous. Publishing things — especially something like a book, or a magazine, or even a newspaper — takes a little bit more than just a blog platform. But his point is the same as the one Om made in a post about what he called the “democratization of distribution” that social media and other web tools have created: namely, that publishing is now something anyone can do. You no longer have to be part of a priesthood or guild of professionals, whether it’s the book-publishing industry or the traditional newspaper business, in order to create content that can (theoretically at least) reach tens of thousands or even millions of people.

How do traditional publishers add value?

We’ve seen this with self-published authors like Amanda Hocking, who used Amazon’s Kindle platform to make more than $2-million in revenue for her books without the help of the traditional publishing industry, or John Locke, who has sold over a million copies of his self-published books. We’ve seen it in the news-publishing business as well, where web-only entities like The Huffington Post and Politico have created substantial media properties without the help of the traditional news industry — and in video, where videographers like Tim Pool and others have become one-man TV news stations.

And what are publishers to do amidst this kind of disruption? As Shirky points out in his interview, they need to think about what other kinds of value they can add, apart from the simple act of owning a platform (like a newspaper) or the distribution system for a specific kind of content (like the traditional book-publishing industry). That control — and the ability to manufacture demand or create information scarcity that came along with it — is effectively gone forever. Says Shirky:

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.

So an author might not need a publisher in order to reach his or her readers, since the Kindle and other methods provide all the access they could want, but they might see the value in having a personal relationship with an editor who can help them shape their content: when Hocking shocked some observers by signing a $2-million deal with a traditional publishing house, for example, she mentioned professional editing and support as one of the reasons for her decision. And Andy Carvin of NPR has shown how valuable fact-checking can be when applied to social media as a journalistic source.

In the end, Shirky is making the same point we have made before when it comes to publishing: if traditional publishers — of all kinds, not just the book industry — want to maintain some of the value they have had in the past, they will have to stop thinking about controlling the process of distribution or the delivery platform, and think more about the services they can add for authors and readers. If you’re interested in the future of media and publishing, be sure to join us at paidContent 2012 on May 23 in New York City.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Willi Heidelbach and Jeremy Mates

  1. Dan Meadows Monday, April 9, 2012

    The problem I see with publishers is that their model is almost wholely based on controlling the platform and distribution. Expecting them to happily shift to a model where they become a service provider to writers and readers is essentially asking them to willingly take a back seat to people they’ve controlled for so long. It’s ultimately what they’ll have to do to survive, I think, but I can understand their psychological resistance to it. Doesn’t make it right, either. Large, once powerful institutions don’t give up power willingly or easily in most cases.

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    1. Great points, Dan — I totally agree that it is going to be a difficult transition. Thanks for the comment.

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    2. Publishing’s business model is based on two things. First off, there’s the efficient buying of services. We can get editors and designers cheaper by hiring them full-time than individual authors can by hiring them as one-off freelancers. The economies of scale do extend to things like printing and distribution, although those are relatively minor costs.

      Of course, if we become editorial service companies, that would seem to remove the gatekeeper role (the ‘control’ that you’re referring to.) The reason that exists is because of the second main feature of the publishing business model: shifting the risk away from the author. Because we pay non-returnable advances against royalties, and take care of publishing services, the author does not need to hazard any money. We pay up-front in return for a share of the book’s profits. (We eat any losses ourselves – the author can’t end up out of pocket.) So we get to exercise some discrimination about the books we invest in. That isn’t because we’re on some kind of power trip, it’s just good business practice in a world where a lot of books don’t made money. We need a diverse portfolio that we can rely on to turn a modest profit.

      Neither of these roles is in danger of disappearing. In fact what we’ll see is their reinvention.

      It’s amusing to me that Shirky wants us to focus on everything other than distribution, as if distribution is mainly what we do, or mainly what we think about. Actually the idea that the value added by publishing is just about moving objects around is a common fallacy, because to the average person who doesn’t work in the book trade, 90% of what we do is invisible. (You only tend to notice us when we’re making mistakes.) We know, and our authors know, what we do. The reading public generally doesn’t. Now, Clay Shirky can probably publish something just by pressing a button, but the vast majority of ‘self-published’ ebooks out there simply aren’t published in any sense that’s equivalent to what we are producing. They’re just made available for download.

      We’ll see indie authors start to want to use editorial and design services – all kinds of publishing services – more and more, to give them a competitive advantage; and we’ll see them clubbing together to buy them more efficiently. At some point we’ll start to realise that they have essentially become small presses.

      The investment role of publishers won’t go away, either; it’ll be supplemented by alternate methods – Kickstarter, for instance – but patronage has always existed, and always will.

      We’re going to end up with a more diverse industry, I’m sure. We’ll have the trade publishers, and we’ll have indies occupying the new tier they’re busily colonising, and we’ll have Amazon starting to absorb bits of the publishing industry like The Blob; but I think it boils down to more books, more readers, more of everything overall.

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      1. Well said!

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      2. I absolutely see your point about publishers absorbing the financial risk for writers and how that relates to the gatekeeper role. Of course an entity has to be selective of what they back to justify the financial outlay. When I’m putting up the cash, I’m selective too.

        Where I would disagree is the notion that its cheaper to hire designers and editors full time than on a free lance basis. When I hire a designer for a job, I’m paying a one time fee for that specific piece of work and that’s it. I’m not paying all or part of their healthcare, I’m not paying payroll taxes or unemployment insurance, I’m not paying for the equipment and software they’re using to do the job, I’m not paying rent on the space they’re working in or the electric bill, etc to keep that space functional. When I ran my publishing company a few years back (before the economy tanked and print publications of all sorts were thriving still) it was indisputably cheaper for me to hire designers on a free lance basis than as standard employees to the tune of 50% less, give or take, when all the real costs of employment were factored in.

        The economy of scale cuts both ways, I think, these days. It seems that the transition going on has turned the larger, high overhead entity from an undisputed competitive advantage to a relative drawback in some cases. I do believe you’re right that many of these independently published writers will realize eventually that they’re essentially functioning as small presses. Many already do and are acting accordingly.

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      3. Dan, the freelance vs staff thing is definitely situational – sometimes freelance is going to be cheaper I’m sure. Just looking around the office here, though, I am not sure I could find freelancers as good or as reliable as the editors sitting around me to do the same job for less than they cost in salary terms… it’d be difficult. Again it’s kind of about risk, isn’t it?

        If you have the momentum and the structure of a Big Six publisher it seems like freelancers become less attractive. We certainly still use a few – a fair amount of proofreading is farmed out, and a little bit of design.

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  2. John Pettitt Monday, April 9, 2012

    There are different points in the value chain. Writers add value by creating content, editors add value by choosing content (particularly the “important but not yet popular” items) and publishers are responsible to making money from it to feed the first two. In many cases one person wears all three hats but that doesn’t mean that the marketing function of publishing goes away.

    That said you don’t even need to write content to be a publisher – you can get tier one content from http://repost.us (yes that’s a shameless plug for my company ;-)

    I think the meta point, that the cost of a “printing press” is now zero is the key. If anybody can publish content then the content quality, and how you market and distribute it become far more important. You can’t just write something and expect people to just read it any more than you could with a print publication – that’s where the publishing role still had a place – marketing the content.

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    1. “Marketing the content.” Which is what traditional publishers have shifted to the author’s back. So, if we have to write and market our own books, why should we settle for 8% to 12% of wholesale when we can get 70% or more while doing the same marketing function?
      The blind arrogance of some of those in traditional publishing seems akin to whistling past the graveyard.

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  3. Clay Shirky doesn’t deserve the credit that everyone gives him. Are you serious “all it takes is a button”? Then I guess all it takes is a button to be Clay Shirky. Poof, Clay Shirky. Clay seems to be all about “creating new ideas” around a hotly contested topic and then claiming to be an expert at it. You know what they say…. “those that can’t do, teach.” Well Clay, please stick to teaching your “opinions” and quit pretending to be an expert. The only thing that is different now is that the barriers to entry have come down (otherwise known fancily as “democratization of distribution”). Its easy to post stuff. Thats it. It doesn’t mean the poster has the intelligence, work ethic, capabilities, resources, etc. to post something that a NY Times columnist can. Does it Clay? All I hear when Clay talks is “blah, blah, blah”

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  4. thunking.. circa 1992… new?.._anyway… the added “service” of creating fodder WAS publishing and its process… now we have a univerce of babies poo. Heroes like Shirky “teaching” the way;)

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  5. Shirky’s analysis of what publishing is, or has become, is missising a key dynamic of the process of publishing, traditional or otherwise. To publish, or “make public,” implies that people engage (at least to some degree) to what is published. It’s not publishing, for example, if the product isn’t put on retailers shelves, real and virtual. They profound change facing publishing is requirements to actually connect potential readers to books they may care to buy. Marketing used to mean, at minimum, shipping books to bookstore which then displayed them on shelves, tables, etc. That process is becoming increasingly irrelevant. And as the sheer volume of content that is being published goes up and up, new ways of connecting people to content they may pay for will have to be developed.

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  6. Is it just me or is Clay missing out a huge element of the publishing industry? What about the seeking out of content and content authors, assessment of market need, shaping and nurturing of content in development, connection of content with other content, revision of published content, appropriate and relevant and meaningful distribution of that content etc? Publishing isn’t just binding content together and chucking it out there. Following Clay’s arguments publishing could have collapsed at the birth of the photocopier – anyone could write a page of content, photocopy it a thousand times then post it up everywhere. Many people do in fact.

    I’d have thought that in this age of easy and often thought-free self-publication and the resulting torrent of total nonsense we need publishers more and more, to stand for quality in content and protect the creation, development, release and support of solid material that’s worth our time.

    And now I shall publish this by the simple act of pushing a… ah.

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    1. Ian – with all due respect, if publishers did all the things you list here, then they’d be worth their weight…but they don’t. Authors are left to do the bulk of their own marketing, copy editors are freelance and can be engaged without going down the conventional publishing route and conventional analog distribution really means getting stocked for a few months in bookstores then pulped. Unless you’re JK Rowling, most publishers give you an initial, cheap to them, marketing splurge (few press releases sent out and a couple of phone calls) and then it’s up to you. Well…it is up to the author – so the author should take the bulk of the revenue and engage their own copy eds, lawyers and designers – then e-publish and take 70% instead of 15% of the book price. The writing is on the wall…sorry Kindle…for publishers.

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  7. Thanks for the article, Mathew.

    While you don’t directly say it, it is implied that since publishing now is as simple as clicking a button, it should be easy. In my opinion, for exactly the same reason, it is harder than ever before.

    In the past, the “cost of entry” was great as publishers acted as the gatekeepers. You had to convince someone that you are worth it. What has changed? That convincing part now has changed and the cost of entry is almost close to zero. With that change, a new cost has been introduced – that is “cost of getting attention.” Today that is the highest cost any content creator has to pay. Since the reader has MANY options and MANY vehicles to pay attention to, making your content stand out requires enormous amount of skill, talent and hard work even when you have good content.

    Nothing comes easy. Your examples of Amanda Hocking and John Locke are exceptions at best. You might be able to quote another hundred such people but the success rate drops to an abysmal level after that. Why? Simply because many people think that since the cost of entry is zero, getting attention should not be hard. Let more people think the same and it gets harder, not easier.

    It doesn’t matter what the traditional publishing industry does or does not do, content creators at all levels are up for a long, tough ride. The recipe seems to be “credible people creating the BEST content and marketing it extremely well,” the keywords being credibility, content and marketing.

    IMHO, of course.

    Best,
    Rajesh

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  8. Michael Elling Wednesday, April 11, 2012

    All industries are going digital, or horizontal. Vertical integration is giving way to vertical completeness. The “parent professions” scale across silos and create better products in the long-run.

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  9. When discussing the merit of “freelance” vs. “in house” it seems like we are adopting an all-or-nothing stance. I’m finding that a “encapsulated” staff lacks the perspective to respond to publication demands. This is particularly true in the design realm, where even the most “reliable” performers are unable to meet the demands of the new marketplace. At least with a freelance strategy, you have the options to audition new associates with fresh ideas. Also, they are not “burdened” with staff meetings, etc. to hinder productivity.

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  10. The “patronage” of traditional big publishing versus the “colonizing” of e-publishing authors (from iucounu below)? Whew! The elephants and the ants. The air must be special on the upper floors of the publishing houses. For over 100 years authors from Melville to Henry James have bemoaned the idiocy and arrogance of the publishing industry still apparent. Big publishing will have to add some new value
    and stop treating authors like peons.

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    1. You seem to be taking exception to my choice of words there and I’m not sure why.

      Could you please clarify what you’re objecting to? Because in purely objective terms Hachette, say, is indeed an elephant compared to an indie self-publisher. There’s a clear difference in scale, they occupy two different ecological niches, and don’t really compete for the same resources. That’s how I see the relationship. If you choose to interpret that as an arrogant slam on indie publishers, I think that says more about your false perception of our business and our attitudes than anything else.

      You talk like authors do nothing but moan about publishers (your two examples are both from roughly the same era of the 19th century, when things were quite dissimilar to even fifty years ago.) But I have very rarely worked with an author who felt that we were arrogant idiots. Most people who are trade published are happy with that partnership and with the people they work with. Should they ever fall out with a publisher, they tend – still tend – to seek an alternative publisher, rather than going indie.

      We simply *don’t* treat authors like peons. We are extremely nice to them, in human terms, and in business terms we offer them a very simple relationship based on shifting the up-front risk away from them in return for a share of the back end.

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  11. You say in conclusion to this article above – which is very interesting – that publishers will have to add value in editing and fact checking. But as somebody who has been published down the conventional route and now decided to embrace Kindle, I had to pay for my own copy editors and did the bulk of my own marketing (through Facebook in the main). I also had the fees for the lawyer who went through my two last books (both biographies) deducted from my earnings. So frankly, I can hire these people myself and indeed with my ebook to be published shortly, I’ve paid for my own top class copy editor already. As for the book cover, I’m paying my own designer and having a level of control that I would have liked before. I’m sorry to say this but for many publishers – the game is over. If authors can master their own marketing, editing, illustration and distribution – which they can – why put up with the prevarication and haphazard decision making of the publishing industry.

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    1. Who published you, and made you pay for copyediting? I don’t know of a major trade publisher who would. Paying for your own legal read is fairly standard, I admit that.

      Look, you surely can hire your own editors, designers etc. It’s a viable route to go down and I would never claim otherwise. But you need to understand that a) you will most likely pay more than we would and b) you will pay. You will pay money out, up-front, before your book has made you any income. If it fails to sell, you will have lost money by writing it.

      With a trade publisher, an author has the security of knowing that they will never lose money on a book. They get an up-front non-returnable advance. They get all the business of sorting out reliable professionals to work on their book taken care of for them at no cost in time or money. Sure: they will make less on each copy sold, because we are taking a cut. That’s a very easily understandable deal which many authors – especially those who don’t have a few thousand dollars burning a hole in their pocket – appreciate. We’re venture capitalists, people, not feudal lords.

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