Clay Shirky on the Future of Publishing

Jacob Grier commented on my previous post, and mentioned Clay Shirky — of whom, I have to say, I’d never heard. (But I don’t get out much…) Anyway, I strolled around the web until I found what Jacob was referring to, and it’s worth reading. And I agree with Shirky’s comment about the future of publishing:

I think the big revolution is going to be print on demand. Imagine only having one browsing copy of every book in a bookstore. You could say “Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers looks good”, and out pops a brand new copy. Why does a bookstore or a publisher have to be in the shipping and warehousing business?

As both a reader and a writer, I’ve thought about this a lot, particularly in terms of e-books (which I favor): I like to browse among the bookshelves, but if there’s no physical object anymore, how do we “browse” as we do now in bookstores and libraries?

Not saying it can’t be done; I’m just not sure HOW it will be done. And I’m not sure we can expect the publishers to provide that one copy, unless and until the publishers re-think the idea of a “book.” One of a publisher’s biggest costs is the initial print run; the cost of printing goes down the more copies the publisher prints. So if there’s a switch to e-books, or mainly e-books, how will, say, Barnes & Noble provide “samples” of available books?

More to the point, would B&N even survive? (My bet: probably not.)

n any case, although I love the idea of e-books, it’s clear that we’re a long way off from figuring out the logistics of such a system. (Well, no surprise there! No one’s yet come up with a truly viable e-reader. The Kindle comes close, but I still think Steve Jobs will come up with something better.) All part of the great web of uncertainty that is 21st century life.

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