Publishers' shibboleths vs the future of publishing

Paul Di Filippo sent me this editorial by Richard Nash, founder of Soft Skull Press (publishers of the Get Your War on books): "Why Publishing Cannot Be Saved (As It Is)." It's a ass-kicking take on the hackneyed cliches of those who discuss the future of the publishing industry ("Twitter/DRM/Facebook/copyright law will save us!") and is worth reading for this incredibly smart thing alone: "books are orders of magnitude more demanding of our minds than any other media."
The question increasingly arises in today's media: can publishing be saved? No. It cannot and should not. There are plenty of non-profit publishers that exist to create and distribute the un-economic content. For-profit publishing should not be saved -- it should figure out new business models, ones that offer services that both readers and writers want and are happy to pay for. We cannot wait for a deus ex machina to descend. (In other words, neither MySpace, nor Twitter, nor price-fixing, nor some new piracy-inducing extension of copyright law will save publishing -- we simply need to start doing business better.)

What are those services? It's premature to state definitively, but we need to start with the conversation, so that we can listen to what the readers want. Clearly the reading group is the best thing that happened to publishing in the past 30 years -- while reading is solitary, talking about books is social. Given that books are orders of magnitude more demanding of our minds than any other media, they are commensurately better reflections of our minds and identities than other media. We publishers should be servicing readers' desire to communicate about themselves with peers, offering books as the basis for connecting.

We're also going to have to recognize that reading increasingly is writing -- readers are writing back in all sorts of ways, commenting on books, re-mixing books as in fan fiction, or creating from scratch, and publishers, rather than barring this activity, or hiding from it, need to embrace it and find ways to serve it.

Why Publishing Cannot Be Saved (As It Is)


  1. There was a recent discussion of this over at Making Light, and I said there the same thing I’m about to say here:

    *Publish works online DRM-free
    *Scale up the luxury of publications with NIN/Radiohead/Amanda Palmer-style releases that include quality prints, t-shirts, podcasts, art, recipe cards, whatever
    *Do more all-ages appearances during the promotion cycle

    TL;DR: TopSpin for writers.

  2. Seems like he’s saying that, because readers are both writers AND talkers now, publishing needs to adapt.

    Haven’t those two things always been true?

    People have always met to discuss books. People have always written down their thoughts about books, in journals, essays, other books, and now online.

    Seems to me, publishing books is one thing. What people do with them is, and always will be, another.

    Writing down my thoughts about books, or sharing them with others, isn’t something I want any publisher involved in. How could they be?

    Sitting alone, or with others, and ruminating on a book isn’t a “service” and can never be sold.

    If publishing is failing, it isn’t because they aren’t adapting to these “new” developments.

    Are we sure it’s failing at all?

  3. I think you should read down into the comments after the (linked) article.
    It gets comprehensively demolished in almost every post. I’m usually with you on copyright etc, but this is a poorly thought through piece that’s all questions and no trousers.

  4. Can we declare a ban on posts that quote some random self-declared authority who tells us the shocking message that the publishing industry is dying due to new technologies, and that “new business models” are needed, but offers no actual new business models? I mean, isn’t Clay Shirky making enough of a living playing Chicken Little? How many more do we need? How about some real suggestions and solutions instead of yet another dire warning?

  5. I consider myself a pretty serious reader. Average about 3 books per week ranging over just about every genre and subject. I wouldn’t pay a thin goddamn dime for some sort of “re-mixed” fan fiction.

    You’re a publisher and want my money? Publish well written original material. Want me to check your book out of the library or simply speed-read it at a Borders? Offer an “modernized/updated” version of a better book written 70+ years ago, or compilations of material I could just as easily find in another (free) format elsewhere.

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