For Publishers to Thrive Requires a Kuhnian Paradigm Shift

Smart Set

Welcome to the weekly The Smart Set, where I share three smart pieces worth reading about the publishing and media industry. I also point to issues and questions raised, and welcome you to respond or ask your own questions in the comments.

“To seek: to embrace the questions, be wary of answers.”

—Terry Tempest Williams

Amazon, Publishers, and Readers by Clay Shirky

Why Publishers Should Listen to Clay Shirky by Brian O’Leary

Big Publisher Bashing Again With Fictional Facts by Mike Shatzkin

This week’s round-up focuses on a single piece by NYU professor and provocateur Clay Shirky, which garnered responses from around the web, including pub industry insider-consultants Brian O’Leary and Mike Shatzkin.

First, the crux of Shirky’s argument: Amazon ultimately has a positive influence on book sales and book reading because it improves the availability of books; traditional publishers need to find better, more creative ways to make money off improved access to books, rather than focusing on restricted access and higher prices. My favorite part of his essay:

To criticize Amazon, the publishers and their defenders must simultaneously insist that literature is essential for society, and that a sudden increase in its availability would be a catastrophe. … The threat Amazon poses to our collective self-regard is the usual American one: The market is optimized for availability rather than respect. The surface argument is about price, but the deep argument is about prestige. If Amazon gets its way, saying, “I published a book” will generate no more cultural capital than saying “I spoke into a microphone.”

His full essay is worth the 15 minutes—go read it and pay particular attention to the Bourdieu reference. I’m in 110% agreement there’s too much hand-wringing and angst over this Myth that traditional publishers are needed arbiters of taste and somehow protect culture through gatekeeping activities. (The flip side of this concern: How will we ever survive the firehose of low-quality dreck now being published? But focusing on that is a distraction at best, and elitist claptrap at worst, as Shirky points out.)

O’Leary responds to Shirky and nods his head in agreement:

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.

Shatzkin responds very differently, and criticizes Shirky for how he lays out the context or background for his argument, particularly Shirky’s characterization of the effect of digital rights management (DRM) and Big Five publishers’ efforts to control pricing. However you’d like to pick apart fact from fiction here—and we’re talking about very insidery, deep-in-the-weeds stuff that would be hard for the average author or reader to understand—I don’t find these points materially address the larger and more important point Shirky is making about availability and prestige.

Put another way: O’Leary’s response looks at the forest, while Shatzkin examines the veins on the leaves of the trees in the forest. I’m more interested in whether Shirky’s depiction of the forest is accurate, and I think it is.

I believe that Shirky responded to Shatzkin’s blog post, but the comments would not load during my visit.

Update: The best comment thread you can find on this matter is at Brian O’Leary’s post, where very smart people weigh in and call this difference of agreement what it is: a Kuhnian paradigm shift.

Thoughts & questions:

  • How much do you agree with Shirky’s critique of traditional publishing?
  • How much do Shatzkin’s facts matter, or does he miss the forest for the trees?
Posted in Smart Set.

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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Here is Shirky’s answer to Shatzkin: Some of these observations are obviously just points of interpretation, as with when you or I would place the rise of significant digital book sales. In that particular case, we are not far off — if I say late 2007 and you say 2008, we only disagree by a few months. Likewise, since hardback sales are disproportionately valuable for bookstores, your assertion that the publishers wanted to protect bookstores is, from my point of view, just a knock-on effect of inflating hardback prices. We may disagree about which goal was paramount, but we agree… Read more »

William Ash
William Ash

I am not sure you can have a logical conclusion built from invented “facts” and flawed reasoning. The problem is a simple one–who controls the price, the retailer or the producer? To suggest that the Big 5 are making expensive ebooks is just ridiculous–the Fault in Our Stars ebook is $4.99. But only the Big Five and million selling authors can live on that. It seems like Mr. Shirky’s argument is that independent authors only have a lottery ticket option to survive–sell a million at a very low price or starve. Well, if I can control my price as a… Read more »


Thanks, Jane—I just published a piece on this today, too: “Publishers: Fight for Your Own Future” The crux of it for me is, why are publishers still charging authors 20th century rates in a 21st century environment? There is no doubt in my mind that this will rebalance. Digital has done that to everything it has touched. It’s just a matter of how quickly. And whether publishers will remake their own future—or let others do it for them. Publishers do well when authors do well, and the Shift to Digital has put more focus on the author as the… Read more »


I don’t even read Shatzkin anymore, because he’s so frustrating. He attacks everyone for “making up” data and then (in my opinion), basically claims things with absolutely no proof that it’s actually true. He is WAY too invested in the success of the traditional publishing model to be able to think about it in an innovative way. Saw him speak–was not impressed.


[…] Welcome to the weekly The Smart Set, where I share three smart pieces worth reading about the publishing and media industry. I also point to issues and questions raised, and welcome you to respond or ask your own questions in the comments.  […]


[…] Amazon has a positive influence on books because it improves availability; traditional publishers need to find ways to make money off improved access.  […]


This is a great literary arts journal everyone should submit to!

It is run by a Creative writing major who has her B.A. She has a great eye for talent!