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 (s amzn) 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 (s aol) 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.