Clay Shirky on Authorship, Wiki novels, and the Future of Publishing

In Guest Contributors by Guest Contributor


BookExpo America starts today and we invite you to come back frequently throughout the day for news, views and opinion. Tomorrow, we’ll provide you with a PDF of our print edition, but to kick things off today, we off a Q&A interview with media guru Clay Shirky.

Shirky teaches New Media at New York University; he is the author of Here Comes Everybody and the new book, Cognitive Surplus, which will be published on June 10 by Penguin Press. He’ll will be speaking today at BEA as part of the 7x20x21 presentation, 3:00 p.m in The Javits Center, Room 1E13

The interview was conduced by Todd Sattersten.

PP: You begin Cognitive Surplus, writing about the Gutenberg press, but offer a more nuanced view of the changes it wrought beyond the usual, “Everyone got smarter.”

CS: I think the key takeaway from that is that abundance breaks more things than scarcity does. Price tends to regulate scarcity pretty well, but in the case of abundance, the price goes to zero.

Before the Gutenberg press, you could simply make a living by knowing how to read and write. And after the arrival of the press, literacy became a skill every citizen had to internalize. To the point where government has taken on, at enormous expense, the job of teaching every child that skill. And while there are exceptions, reading and writing has gotten so important that you can’t now make a living at it. So, it is a curious paradox that something has become so important and so universal, that it drops out of the economic system that we have known in the past.

PP: But it took a long time for the Gutenberg press to have an effect.

CS: Yes, at first, the presses where used to print indulgences for the Catholic Church [certificates you could buy to get you time off spent in Purgatory]. Then there were the Gutenberg Bibles, and for the first 40 years it looked like this technology was going to just strengthen the existing system.

And it was only when there were enough Bibles available in every important language and Martin Luther could have a set of ideas in direct opposition to the Catholic church, that the printing press began to work in direct opposition to the Catholic Church and their dominance of public discourse.

Today, when electronic media came along, it looked for a long time that the ultimate beneficiaries of this change were going to be the people who had mastered the media landscape. It was going to be newspapers, the music business and so on. But it has turned out, as it is increasingly obvious to everyone, with a medium as global, social, ubiquitous and cheap as this one, it can’t be supported by people who mastered the craft back when years began with a ‘1’.

PP: Where does that leave the role of the author?

CS: The author is traditionally someone who has been vetted by a publishing house and someone who make money from their work one way or another. While a writer is someone who writes. That distinction is going away.

We may need to think of the idea of an author as an accident, albeit a successful and long lived one, that was held in place by production. As long as publishing was expensive someone had to take a risk. And as long as someone had to take the risk, somebody had to pass judgment as to whether someone had something worth saying in public or not.

When publishing ceases to be expensive, no one has to ask whether something is worth saying in public, anyone can say anything to everyone at any time they like and frequently do. That means the old world where the publisher was the anointer of quality and the shaper of public opinion is starting to give way to a world where the filters are applied after something is published, not before.

PP: Which must mean there are implications for self-publishing?

CS: We experience the world of books as this well-groomed environment, but years ago, I tried an experiment that generated an ISBN completely at random and then looked it up. To the 90th percentile, they are books like The Handbook of Chemical Glassware or My Trip through Western Minnesota. It is not the stuff you see down in the local Barnes and Noble. We are already in a world where most books are incomprehensible to most people –- whether that be content comprehension or the question “why would anyone publish that?” — but we don’t notice that anymore.

What has happened with the web is that there is so much content that we have broken all the old filters. And for now, we are experiencing it as the completely overburdened and chaotic environment that it is. But that doesn’t mean people should stop publishing online. It just means that we need better filters. Because in fact, the over-publishing of content has been a normal problem since the invention of the printing press. It’s just that we had ways of ignoring things we didn’t care about. The problem isn’t getting people to shut up, the problem is creating filters to help people find their way to things they want.

PP: Another point of nuance in your book is how interactions on the internet will change.

CS: We have been in the business of aggregating information for the past 20 years, it works great and it changes society.

And it is not going to get harder to write an Amazon review or ‘Like’ your favorite independent movie on Facebook [so there is only going to be more individual opinion].

Now the question is coordination, where a group of people has to get together to make something. If you have ever looked in on a open source program, those are an incredibly difficult, contentious collaborative environments, very argumentative, because it is not enough for you to say one thing and for me to say something else and agree to disagree. You can’t agree to disagree because you have to tell the programming compiler one thing. Things get harder and you create something you can’t create any other way.

PP: This sort of intense collaboration again seems to change the definition of the author if we apply this idea to book publishing.

CS: Early on, there are always successes with new innovations. Wikis are an example. You think, “This is going to change everything,” but then everyone tries to use the new on everything and some things work and other don’t.

Every wiki novel ever invented has done nothing but produce unreadable dreck. One of the things that doesn’t work well on wikis is authorship of fiction. And that is a place where a single storyteller, a single idea, and a single voice, dramatically outperforms the group. So what we are seeing isn’t a wholesale replacement of “we used to use individuals and now we use groups.”

What we are seeing instead is a resorting out of roles and tasks in society. So a bunch of stuff that used to be done by individuals is now being done by groups, when groups can do it better. But we are actually also going to learn something important about individual activity. Individual activity is going to show up where it is needed most and where it is most effective, not just because it is the default option.

What Wikipedia showed is if you get group involvement, you do much better on a whole host of important axises. But that intuition can’t be applied to the novel. What was true for one mode of writing isn’t true for another mode of writing. What we end up learning by remanding lots of old individual behaviors to groups is where it works, we learn the places where individuals really matter the most rather than getting involved in some wholesale replacement.

DISCUSS: What types of books are best served by collaboration and crowdsourcing?

VISIT: Clay Shirky’s blog.

About the Author

Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.