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WARBeat the Reaper: A NovelThe Hellhound of Wall Street: How Ferdinand Pecora's Investigation of the Great Crash Forever Changed American FinanceThe Evolution of Bruno LittlemoreThe Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man, Red HarvestGlengarry Glen Ross

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The Shirky Principle

I came across an interesting interview with Clay Shirky in a recent issue of Publishers Weekly. He is considered “one of the digital age’s great thinkers” according to the Parul Sehgal, author of the piece, and I have to admit that the ideas expressed by Mr. Shirky prompted me to add his books to my list. Here is an excerpt from Sehgal’s introduction:

So prominent is Shirky in the zeitgeist of the digital world, he even has his own principle. In April of this year, Wired’s Kevin Kelly turned a Shirky quote—“Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution”—into “the Shirky Principle,” in deference to the simple, yet powerful observation.

“It reminded me of the clarity of the Peter Principle, which says that a person in an organization will be promoted to the level of their incompetence, at which point their past achievements will prevent them from being fired, but their incompetence at this new level will prevent them from being promoted again,” Kelly explained. “The Shirky Principle declares that complex solutions, like a company, or an industry, can become so dedicated to the problem they are the solution to, that often they inadvertently perpetuate the problem.”

For the publishing world, the Shirky Principle certainly warrants examination. But while he resists being labeled a utopian, Shirky is unquestionably optimistic about the power of the Internet to make things better. That’s because the Internet, he says, will liberate us from a decades-long addiction to sitcoms and other forms of passive entertainment. More and more people are now “donating” their free time to create and engage with each other on an unprecedented scale—resulting in the “cognitive surplus” about which he writes. Efforts include the fun and frivolous—such as the Internet phenomenon LOLcats—as well as life-saving innovations, such as, a Web solution that allows Kenyans to report crime.

To what end we apply the Internet medium is now Shirky’s main preoccupation—as it is for publishing—especially now that our leisure time is, as Shirky puts it, a “global resource.” With just 1% of the hours we spend watching TV, he notes, people created Wikipedia, a bank of collective and constantly updated and corrected knowledge.

While the entire interview is worth a look, this was my favorite observation from Mr. Shirky:

CS:The greatest thing going for the publishing industry is that they’ve seen what has happened to the music industry; they’ve seen it happen to the magazine people. They’re watching it happen to the movie people right now; they’ve seen it happen to the software people. They’ve seen Blockbusters close, they’ve seen Virgin Records close. They’ve seen GameStops close. And they’re saying—not us, because we have these [taps book].

PW: Where does that come from—complacency, anxiety?

CS: Some of it is anxiety. Some of it’s the brilliant Upton Sinclair observation: “It’s hard to make a man understand something if his livelihood depends on him not understanding it.” From the laying on of hands of [Italian printer] Aldus Manutius on down, publishing has always been this way. This is a medium where a change to glue-based paperback binding constituted a revolution. But the interesting clash for me isn’t between Apple, Amazon, and Macmillan. The interesting clash to me is between you and say, Sonny Mehta. I can only name two publishers—Sonny Mehta and my own. You’re both in the same industry, but from his point of view if he can just hold it together 10 more years, he’s fine. He can retire. But you know that if you stay in the book industry 30 more years, there’s no way that things will be anything like today. Sonny Mehta’s incentive is to postpone—even if it makes things worse—the moment of shock to right after he retires. But you don’t have that option. I’m interested in young writers and editors entering a system that is plainly structured around the vestiges of a world fast draining away.

You can read the full interview here.

Clay Shirky is the author of several books. I plan to start with the two most recent, published by The Penguin Press, one of the best around:

I’m going to check them out, and perhaps you’ll find them worthwhile as well. And now to the discussion. As always, I’m very interested in hearing what you think.

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9 comments to The Shirky Principle

  • Lots to ponder. If Clay is right, publishing is going to change radically. I guess it already is.

    • Chris Kepner

      Absolutely, Greg. There is no question that the emergence of eBooks represents a paradigm shift in the publishing industry. Some say its implications will be as consequential as the advent of movable type, and others claim it will be even more so. I just finished reading Jason Epstein’s book, and I highly recommend checking it out in order to get a better understanding of where this all came from (and where it’s going.) It’s a quick read (less than 200 pages) but extremely informative.

  • Ray Fuentez

    Hi Chris,
    Great read! Frightening in some respects because all of us are going to get caught unprepared for some aspect or other — no one can predict every change that is heading our way. A writer friend sent me an mp3 recording of a lecture given by Seth Godin to a group of publishers in New York a short time ago in which he explores many of the these points. His conclusion seems to be that pulishers as they exist today are inevitably on their way to extinction. Only his conclusion is also that this will be a boon for the author who starts now to identify what Godin calls a “tribe” to whom his writing will be directed. It is a short but fascinating lecture. If you would like I can include a link to it in my next comment.
    Warm regards, Ray

    • Chris Kepner

      Thanks, Ray…please do include the link. I’d like to hear that lecture, and I imagine others would be interested as well.

      Yes, things are changing. Yes, change can be scary. The most important thing you can do as a writer, though, is to keep producing your own work. It’s important to be aware of what’s happening in the industry, but I think it’s a mistake to let it affect how you write.

  • Rob

    The music industry seems like the natural place for publisher’s to look when pondering the impact of technological advancements on the publishing industry. Indeed, the access to the medium is identical (i.e., downloads). In the music industry, however, an artist’s fans still have the outlet of the live gig. At a concert, fans can experience their favorite artists and commune with like-minded fans. Without the book store, where will fans go? What will they do? Does it even matter? Will book tours become a thing of the past with publicists focusing all of their energy on television and the Internet? Or will publicists book stops at coffee shops with wifi? I think the shift to bookless publishing is inevitable, but I wonder what the peripheral consequences of the shift will be? Your thoughts?

  • Rob


    Also, will authors sign your Kindle? That would suck.

    I guess they’ll have to sign your first-born’s forehead.

  • Ray Fuentez

    Hi Chris,
    Following up on this discussion I am including the following link to a Seth Godin talk: I hope others will enjoy it as much as I did.
    Warm regards,

  • Rob


    Thanks for posting the link. That was definitely worth listening to.

    Kind regards,


  • Andrew

    I think that people will always want real books, like special edition DVDs or BluRays, people want more, something tangible, palpable, something they can display.

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