Coming to Grips with the "Unthinkable" in Publishing

While much of the Twitter chatter this past weekend was about the annual South by Southwest festival and conference, there was quite a bit of “retweeting” of links to a post by Clay Shirky:

During the wrenching transition to print, experiments were only revealed in retrospect to be turning points. Aldus Manutius, the Venetian printer and publisher, invented the smaller octavo volume along with italic type. What seemed like a minor change — take a book and shrink it — was in retrospect a key innovation in the democratization of the printed word. As books became cheaper, more portable, and therefore more desirable, they expanded the market for all publishers, heightening the value of literacy still further.

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing. (Luther and the Church both insisted, for years, that whatever else happened, no one was talking about a schism.) Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify.

And so it is today. When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

There are fewer and fewer people who can convincingly tell such a lie.

I’ll second Tim O’Reilly’s reaction to the piece:

This is a piece that anyone concerned with the future of publishing simply MUST read.

It’s a long post, but well worth a close read (and re-read). Though Clay’s talking about newspapers, much of what he has to say applies to book publishing in particular, as well as media in general.

More on Shirky’s post from Mark Bertils (@mdash) over at

Journalism is the act. Newspapers are the artifact. The infrastructure around the artifact is imploding, never to be replaced.

tags: , , , , , ,