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)