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?
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