To Publish Without Perishing (Clay Shirky guestblog post)

Ed. Note: The following is Boing Boing guestblogger Clay Shirky's first post. Clay's traveling today, so I'm posting this one on his behalf. Image above: "Don't believe the Devil, don't beLIEve his book," a CC-licensed photo by Celeste, a Flickr user in Buenos Aires - Argentina. --XJ

Every now and again, there is an essay that is so well written, so cleanly expressed, and so spectacularly wrong that it clarifies something you previously understood only dimly. James Gleick's recent advice to the publishing industry, How to Publish Without Perishing, was that for me.

Gleick's thesis is that publishers are people who sell objects, and he means this not just as a description of their past, but as strategy for their future as well. He makes much of the book as a thing, noting that we talk about "book lovers", but never "CD lovers", he writes of books in terms of possessing them, and his advice to publishers is to cede speed, relevance, and even popularity to digital businesses, and to shift publishing into reverse:

Go back to an old-fashioned idea: that a book, printed in ink on durable paper, acid-free for longevity, is a thing of beauty. Make it as well as you can. People want to cherish it.

This proposed Ye Olde-ing the industry makes the choices faced by publishers suddenly seem more urgent.

There are book lovers, yes, but there are also readers, a much larger group. By Gleick's logic, all of us who are just readers, everyone who buys paperbacks or trades books after we've read them, everyone who prints PDFs or owns a Kindle, falls out of his imagined future market. Publishers should forsake mere readers, and become purveyors of Commemorative Text Objects. It's the Franklin Mint business model, now with 1000% more words!

In the same way the internet has forced newspapers into a 'news vs. paper' moment, the publishing world is in a 'readers vs. book lovers' moment. In this environment, the single most important choice anyone in publishing has to make is this: "How many generations do I want to be in business?" Because hawking Ye Olde Codices to aging connoisseurs is a one-generation business.

Businesses don't survive in the long term because old people persist in old behaviors; they survive because young people renew old behaviors, and all the behaviors young people are renewing cluster around reading, while they are adopting almost none of the behaviors tied to cherishing physical containers, whether for the written word or anything else. Can you imagine a 25-year-old telling a publisher "To get my business, you should stick to a single, analog format? Oh, and could you make it heavy, bulky, and unsearchable? Thanks."

From Aldus Manutius until recently, book lovers have been the most passionate readers. Now they are mostly just the oldest readers. Thanks to digital data, there is a fateful choice to be made between serving lovers of the text and lovers of the page; I think even Manutius would have sided with the readers over the collectors. I hope today's publishers do as well.

Clay Shirky Boing Boing Guestblog posts:

* Video from the Presidential Campaign, Republican Division
* Jeff Smith's comic RASL
* Publish Without Perishing
* Here Comes Clay Shirky (The Changing of the Guestbloggers)


  1. Great first post!

    Personally I think there is room for both views, as in the type of model Trent Reznor went after with cheap/free mp3 downloads OR expensive, lush collector’s-item boxsets. It lets you choose your own level of ease-vs-object.

    Personally I love the notion of digital content and ebooks, but I also love large format coffee-table books with beautiful pictures and high quality paper/print.

    There are definitely two roads, not just an either-or.

  2. It’s intberesting to note the dissappearence of the small Barnes and Nobles and even Waldenbooks from many places. These were displaced NOT by digital media, but by the giant bookstores which apparently not only make more absolutely $, but make much more $ per square foot.

    In other words, the book is a sort of social institution that transcends the mere information it contains, and those of us who love and buy books are doing so for a very complex set of reasons.

    (I’d point out that there are plenty of books I’d much rather own in hardcover, and nice editions at that.)

  3. @ Arkizzle – I concur. I consider myself a music lover, but I also unashamadely fetishize vinyl records. Many independant record companies and artists that deal in vinyl have started offering mp3 downloads along with the record, so that we can still revel in the warm feelings that records evoke, and still have access to a portable copy (without having to digitize it yerself…).

  4. 21 year old bibliophile here. I prefer books. Less eyestrain, readable format, better tactile controls, and why the f*** would I want to search it anyways? I don’t quote books at people. I read for enjoyment and to better myself, not to pass off the wisdom of others to make me seem smarter.

    While people trump the advantages of e-books and online text, they ignore the disadvantages. You can use a book to relax, but using an e-book on a conventional display actually affects your ability to fall asleep. Something to do with the illumination. Purchasable E-books have nearly all of the cost of paperbacks, but none of the resale, regifting, or trading value.

    When they drop the cost (both of books and portable readers) and make them able to fit in a pocket like a medium sized paperback and a pair of cargopants, then we’ll talk.

  5. I think this sort of misses the point of Gleick’s article. He was giving advice for how publishing companies survive and make money, not for how readers will continue to find material to read. You may be right that it’s a one generation business, but there’s still going to be plenty for us to read regardless. The example of the out-of-print but still copyrighted books being made available by Google speaks to part of that. The problem (for publishers) is that Google can make the money on volume, but no one else can afford to do it.

    Interestingly (for an author), he doesn’t really talk about how authors survive and make money. Presumably they give their stuff away on the internet, unless they can get a publisher to make Ye Olde Codice out of it. Part of the problem is that words get cheap (like music has). Maybe an author can only survive by going on tour and selling t-shirts. But there never have been that many people who survive by book royalties alone.

  6. Grimshaw, me too. While I have tons of mp3s and appreciate the convenience of an ipod, I also own thousands of records and wouldn’t consider dj’ing digitally, even for the sake of my long suffering back :)

  7. Fetishism for the physical object is not the only reason to keep producing paper books. Libraries share copyrighted content without making further copying and dissemination any easier. Any electronic library serving copyrighted content is ultimately copyable and then infinitely distributable regardless of DRM. So, physical books support one institution by which copyrighted works are shared without enabling piracy.

  8. @ Ghede – In response to your comment about the reasons why someone would want to search through the full text of a book, there’s plenty of reasons why people would want to do this that have nothing to do with passing off another’s wisdom. People’s information needs are not always reserved for the fulfillment of personal enjoyment, and sometimes people need to find a small bit of information contained within a much larger package (like a book). Being able to search through the text helps in this.

  9. So what do we make of Harry Potter? Heavy, bulky, and unsearchable. Can you imagine 8 year olds telling their parents “Mom, put that big heavy colorful book down and read off your Kindle for me”?

    The way for publishers to survive is to snap into the 21st century and see books as pure technology. Sell each book like it’s an ipod, and see how its design evolves.

    We ought to be getting ready, at least philosophically, for mirror-quality videopaper books…it’s only a matter of time. Then, perhaps the fragrant lushness of paper books can give way to nanotech…

    In the meantime, paper-based publishers need to do TWO THINGS: 1) Advance print-on-demand technology, and 2) Make it spectacularly GREEN. If they don’t, good riddance. Trees are needed elsewhere!

  10. Some books you should just read and delete. Most of the works of John Grisham, most of the -recent- works of Stephen King, the myriad of cheap techno-thrillers and crotch novels that populate the fiction sections of bookstores.

    You have nothing to say about these works. You have nothing to make yours about them.

    Some books need to be marked in, noted, self-indexed, underlined, highlighted, reflected upon, flipped through, reread, highlighted and populated with little post-it bookmarks. They need to be an eternal reference work that you had the most poignant part of creating.

    These are the books worth owning as a thing, the scarred back-broken wretches of the book shelf with their lovingly cracked and weathered covers, the highlighting fluid bleeding through the pages like combat wounds. Thoreau’s Walden, Machiavelli’s the Prince, A People’s History of the United States. Owning a book like that is not just buying an object, it is creating something all your own, page by page, like knitting a intellectual sweater.

    Buy these books, use them, mark in them, make sure they do not leave your hands pristine and make sure that your thoughts, as well as the authors, permeates them.

    I encourage everyone to read “How To Mark Your Books”, by Mortimer J. Adler from 1940, the greatest essay you’ve never read about reading. Link

  11. @ Ellisbben – Is your feeling though that libraries should choose paper holdings over electronic? In my opinion, if it is financially possible for a library to acquire both an electronic copy and a hard copy (Whether it be a monograph or a journal) than that would be the ideal – that would serve the users best.

  12. The questions that must be asked of any publication: Can you read it in the bath? What happens to it if you drop it? Being as the answers apropos books are yes and not much, they still win hands down for me. And I like whizzy future-gizmos. Actually, come to think of it, an overhead projector/laptop screen contraption to project Ebooks on the bathroom wall would be awesome.

  13. In a vein similar to PrimalChaos, I might also recommend Ex Libris, by Anne Fadiman.

    I am something of a bibliophile as well (every surface in the room I’m currently in is stacked with books, and I’m not in a library). There’s just something about fingering the edge of a page while you read, scraping your fingernail over the surface, smoothing out the page, all the little tactile tics that go into reading that you can’t replicate with an e-reader. That being said, in a recent spate of research for a school paper, the one reference I wanted to use was unavailable to me, because it was in paper form only, and not in a readily accessible library. An electronic version of it does exist, but only in universities in Germany. For pleasure reading, nothing beats ink on paper. For paper-writing and research, nothing would beat a completely electronic academic library.

  14. I have to say, I love gadgets, own an iPod, spend loads of time online, but I still haven’t broken through to eBooks. The primary reason is that I *already* spend 10-12 hrs a day in front of an LCD. I won’t read after work if it has to be from a screen – I relish the chance to view the printed page. I do also appreciate the ‘physical object’ that is a book – and being able to note it, dog-ear & etc. is no small part of that. (yes I also buy vinyl…maybe we’re just a type to be ignored?)

    At any rate, I think the publishing industry certainly would do well to look at the Radiohead/NIN model; give a download code with the physical item, price the eBook understanding that it’s less ‘ownable’, and maybe even offer a basic trade paperback version -or- a hardcover collectors edition.

  15. Gilbert, books and kindles are as happy to be near water as each other, and as unhappy to be in water as each other..

  16. I love the feel and smell of books. But given the choice between that and actually reading them, I would of course choose the latter, in whatever format.

    I suspect what I like most about physical books is the sense that they have their own identity, that the text is linked to a physical object. I suspect that my daughter — who at less than ten years old is as much of a bookie as I am — will not grow up to consider this important.

  17. I’m far more in the reader camp, having always considered the words much, much more important than the paper they’re printed on.

    I still own thousands of paper books, but I haven’t read a dead-tree book for several years now, once PDA screens got high-res and black-text-on-white-background enough.

    I can read in the dark and, with the backlight turned right down, it’s a lot more relaxing than having a bedlamp bright enough for text, the PDA (a Palm TX) is lighter than a thin paperback, let alone a Harry Potter-sized tome, and I only have to have one hand outside the covers on cold nights!

    It has a serious dictionary built-in, one touch of the screen away, not on the shelf in the next room, so I actually use it more often.

    And I have an entire library that fits in my shirt pocket, for immediate access wherever and whenever I like.

    Oh, and if you want to read in the bath (or in a kayak, etc.) you can put it in a sealed bag and still press the button to ‘turn the page.’ Try doing that with a dead-tree book!

    Yes, there will always be people who cherish books as objects, just as there are still people who drive horse-drawn buggies for recreation, but the mainstream books-are-words crowds will use whatever technology makes the transfer of ideas from author to reader work best.

  18. From observation – and I’m someone who loves nice books – they aren’t where the big money is now so I don’t see how they should be in the future. And I suspect printed words have more uses and fewer drawbacks for something the size of a book, than strike one initially.

    If you want to directly compare the lots-of-text reading experience I suspect this isn’t the moment. A half-decent book will be printed at upwards of 800ppi so screen resolutions do not compare.

  19. Words in electronic memory are pretty easy to change, or even make disappear, at will. Why might this happen? Because the government wants them to, perhaps; or because the owner of the legal rights to those words decides that you’ve had them long enough.

    E-books are tailor-made for Orwellian societies which like to “update” their history. OTOH, to make words on paper vanish, Big Brother will have to come to your house and tear it from your grip.

    The media companies seem intent on redesigning the audio/video distribution system so that we can only borrow or rent content, not own it. Selling a CD or DVD once isn’t enough for them; ideally, what they really want is a payment every time you listen or view that stuff. If they can also take words off of paper and put them in ephemeral media, they’re one step closer to accomplishing that goal in print, too.

  20. There’s something to be said for simple technologies, easily understood by humans, for their own sake. They’re less fragile. (Or more fragile? I have a triply redunant backup of my mp3s, though, which makes them less prone to destruction than my vinyl, because the backups can be physically dispersed. ) You can hold in your mind how they function. It is more pleasant to live in a world that is not shrouded with mysteries.

    I’m a big vinyl-phile myself, partly for the usual fetishization of physical objecrs reasons, but also because I understand all of the physical principles by which they operate. I understand in a very rough sense how CDs and computers work, but only through metaphors and analogy. But I could build a record player if I had to. I even built my own electric motor once.

  21. They say that the difference between an audiophile and a music aficionado is that an audiophile listens to stereo equipment and a music aficionado listens to music. I love my vinyl records, because the medium of reproduction imparts its own flavor into the music, just as the tactile feeling of a book is, for many people, a part of the experience.

    That being said, what proportion of music today is sold on vinyl vs digital? A record label would be foolish to have vinyl as their sole distribution method, and someday soon we will say the same of publishers. Printed media will always have a place for some people, but for mass distribution, digital is going to be the way.

  22. I’m definitely more a reader – on screens as much as in print – but that’s almost beside the point. Aren’t book publishers now pretty much just marketing companies? Even Procter & Gamble, which used to make soap and other packaged goods, is mostly a marketing company (it outsources manufacturing)! I’m not sure what the future of publishers, but – based on the recent NYT Magazine’s “Multiscreen Madmen” on how ad agencies are morphing into omni-media consulting companies (including but not just creative and media-buying), maybe that’s more the direction publishing will take – certainly not back to book manufacturing.

  23. Thanks for the interesting post.

    As an artist, writer, reader and person who owns a few rare books from finds in used book stores when I was in school I appreciate both sides of the story.

    While the article focuses on collectors and readers, writers may have another version of the value of the e book, Kindle and CD.

    I have recently faced the dilemma over how to publish my own first book, The Art of Seeing the Divine, Book 1- What Do You See?

    Originally I thought I would go the traditional route of finding an agent and then a publisher. My book is a visual self help book with groundbreaking information. It includes a series of illustrated visual Exercise/Experiences that can actually help a person transform his or her life by changing how they see the world. That makes it notable and something to talk about for the media. I have a platform and the idea of printed books delighted me.

    However, I am a recycler, and every time I take my bags and bundles of paper to the recycling station I see many discarded books.

    The idea of waiting for almost two years before my book could be used by others was also problematical, as that is about the average time it takes to find an agent, then a publisher and to have the book published.

    In the troubled times we are living in, I wanted to offer the book sooner since it actually can help people.

    Since I know graphics and HTML I decided to go the e book route. So, About a month ago, I created a special web site for the book and published it as an e book in PDF format.

    Soon I will finish the coding for Amazon’s Kindle and it will be available there also. Then I will publish a CD or of the book.

    While I was researching my options I discovered that publishers expect that new authors will basically handle the publicity. While tours are set up for major authors, the average writer does this and even pays for PR themselves. This is a whole lot of the work!

    That is a lot of work that the writer is not actually compensated for, except through royalties. A self published author, whether in print, CD or e book makes more of the profits on each and every sale.

    A CD or e book reader can easily print out a section of pages to take along or read in the bathtub. Kindle readers travel easily and are less cumbersome than books, especially on a trip.

    Since major book publisher become very interested in authors who sell many books or e books and offer better financial deals, I could find no down side to just going ahead and publishing an e bookm, a kindle edition and even a CD before I seriously think about agents or traditional publishers.

    Books are nice, but being read is better!

    Finally, as a recycler and person who is concerned about global warming I seriously think that we need to address the amount of trees we cut down for paper. While I need paper to draw and paint water colors, do I really need to have my books printed? This is a legitimate question as my book includes art and calibration can differ from monitor to monitor. A printed book gives one more quality control over color and contrast.

    I have bought and downloaded a number of booklets and books over the web, am used to reading and writing through my computers.

    Although mega bookstores seem to be overtaking book stores’ sales, Amazon and online niche retailers have also takes a chunk of the market.

    I think that whether one likes it or not not only will more books be created as e books, Kindle editions, on CDs or for other electronic distribution, more writers will move away from traditional publishing also.

    Certainly the world of publishing and book selling as we know it is radically changing.

    Although I cherish many of my books, and always will, I know that I “own” them more in my heart and mind than I ever can otherwise, even when they are on my shelf.

    Judy Rey Wasserman

  24. this is just to say

    that I
    a young punk
    at twenty-five
    Love Books

    and which
    wrinkled and worn
    you dismiss
    so easily

    Forgive me
    they are
    in themselves.

  25. Searchability matters a lot to me. In academic situations (school, college) it is essential to cite text – it is not a matter of “quoting at” people. We have to be able to back up our statements.

    Minuscule size also matters a lot, as I live in a small place and am likely to have to live in an even smaller one. Most of my books will probably have to go soon (no, not Here Comes Everybody, I will keep that).

    Digital is the way to go, as far as I am concerned – except for special books that I went to a lot of trouble to get and would never let go. These are mostly art books (comics to fine art). I can’t see that market disappearing in a hurry.

    Primalchaos, thanks for that link – I feel so vindicated, yet at the same time I see that I need to raise my game. Mind you, there are ways to mark digital text and I use those as much as I use pencils and highlighters in hardcopy books.

  26. Be careful not to mistake Gleick’s point – he doesn’t seem to be saying that the only future for distributing text for pleasure-reading is via books. That would be nuts. I think he’s saying that the only way for publishers to survive as publishers is to make good books.

    The newspaper comparison is interesting, but it doesn’t quite work: publishers and newspapers face different competition on the internet. You’re right that newspapers had to choose between news and paper, but by choosing news, they go online in a field where there isn’t much real competition – sure there are bloggers, but they don’t have the reporting infrastructure that newspapers have so they can’t provide the same experience for readers. But publishers are in a different situation: the internet is FULL of great (and terrible) stories and essays so people who just want to read something interesting can fulfill that desire in a heartbeat. They don’t need publishing houses making stories and essays available because they already are.

    So publishers probably can’t survive by taking their business online. That means that short of turning their printing presses into pants presses (sorry, couldn’t think of a better metaphor for total business retooling), their only means of survival is to make really good books.

    Finally, you’re dead wrong that young people don’t love books. Maybe we hang out with different crowds, but I know many, many young people (hip young people, too – not just fuddy duddies!) who absolutely cherish books – the ideas they contain, but also the physical objects.

  27. Here’s an interesting little essay I ran across by accident while writing a piece about the op-ed and this response for TeleRead:

    Circa 2003, so a bit outdated as far as Internet Time goes—but nonetheless interesting to contrast to the Op-Ed this post is about. The piece talks about the “Picard Syndrome,” which states that people would much rather buy print books than e-books because they perceive an added value in the physical nature of the print book.

  28. I do 90% of my pleasure reading in a bubble bath, so I’ll never buy any such gizmo. Electronic devices and bathtubs don’t mix.

  29. It’s both funny AND poignant to hear people defending why they won’t have anything to sell on eBay one day.

  30. So I think Mr. Gleick is confusing publishers with printers. It’s the latter industry that is truly threatened by new media — there will be a place for publishers as long as there are writers. I actually think printers might do well to heed Gleick’s advice.

    Glad to see you here at Boing Boing, Clay. Two great tastes that taste great together!

  31. You can have my “dead tree” book when you can pry it from my cold dead hand.


  32. There are 7000-odd books in our home-library, and it all started with about a thousand of our own. We had the idea of opening a privately public library, open to all, and books just keep coming in. I love it: on a hot summer’s day i’ll just amble in, pick up a random book and discover vast new areas of consciousness.
    That happens on my computer too, but there is a difference: stuff gets lost and forgotten so much quicker in here.
    So i guess i’m getting old, since i do have a tendency to hoard and honor paper books, and most of all they never run out of batteries.

  33. People who spend a lot of time thinking about 0s and 1s have a habit of thinking in terms of Either Or. The inability to countenance both is their feet of Clay. So there’s at least a half-truth in what’s asserted here. A fella at work gave me his copy of Here Comes Everybody – he clearly valued the information in it above the physical object, and I feel much the same way about it – though I feel very differently about my copy of Ulysses and my Pan edition of The 39 Steps with the fabulous chase picture on the front – there are books and books. A digital file is fine for the functional and the ephemeral. A leather binding or some fine illustration adds to the poetic and artistic. Having a searchable digital copy of Ulysses would complement my hard copy and be pretty useful – though at the end of the day it in no way replaces it. The world is big enough for both. What value people ascribe to Digital versus Object and the relative cash they’re prepared to part with is down to each and Everybody.

  34. Another thought inspired by Clay’s post – For people who ‘don’t cherish physical containers’ young people can be remarkably materialistic and consumerist these digital days. A lot of store is set by having and consuming sheer quantity of stuff – tunes on your iPod, I liked that so I’ll like this then this then this, download to own (those thousands upon thousands of bytes), Pro-Evolution Soccer 5 6 7 8 and 9, more memory, more functionality, clip after clip after clip. If our young people are to survive in the long run to be old codgers like book lovers they’re going to have to drop this More thing. And think hard about what is truly of value.

  35. #10, Primal Chaos: I completely agree. I go through dozens and dozens of library books a year, some of which I subsequently want to own and reread, some of which I entirely forget.

    In some ways Gleick and Shirky’s essays seem as wrong-headed as each other: I’m thinking of
    “heavy, bulky, and unsearchable”
    using linguistic quirks like ‘book lover’ and ‘music lover’ as the basis of an argument

    Having just finished an Eng Lit degree, I can entirely see the value of searchable books, but look at a paperback and a kindle/sony and tell me there’s a significant difference.

    Yet, even at 22 yrs old, when I look at some of the re-issues Penguin’s producing at the moment, and those gorgeous sci fi classics with the round edges, I hunger to own those as objects.

  36. @grimshaw:

    Yes, electronic + paper is ideal. Electronic has the advantage of searchability plus multiple copies available; paper has the advantage that you can let people read it outside of the library without bringing up the dilemma of harm to the copyright holder or DRM.

    @anonymous #20:

    There’s something to be said for simple technologies, easily understood by humans, for their own sake.

    This, a hundred times. Multiple media of storage provide redundancy and electronic reading requires a significant amount of technological infrastructure– more places where things can go wrong.

  37. People are missing the point. Books are books and will remain books, while the market will move forward.

    I was an author of tech books, and I read books. BUT my habits have changed.

    1) I still buy books, but less.
    2) Books that I buy I do not want as ebooks.
    3) Most of my information I get from online.

    When I buy a book I buy it to learn some basic theory or concept or just fun. When I want information on how to do X then I use google and presto there will be an answer somewhere.

    Google and the search engine business has changed how I process information. And publishers cannot compete against that. Will I ever read an ebook? Maybe, but frankly probably not.

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