Thinking the unthinkable

This blog entry by Clay Shirky, “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable,” was floating around Twitter all day today, and I just can’t get it out of my head.  I’ll post some of the quotes that I’m really fixated on, though you really owe it to yourself to read the whole thing.

“The problem newspapers face isn’t that they didn’t see the internet coming. They not only saw it miles off, they figured out early on that they needed a plan to deal with it, and during the early 90s they came up with not just one plan but several.”


“Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know ‘If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?’ To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.”


“The hard question Eisenstein’s book asks is ‘How did we get from the world before the printing press to the world after it? What was the revolution itself like?’

Chaotic, as it turns out. The Bible was translated into local languages; was this an educational boon or the work of the devil? Erotic novels appeared, prompting the same set of questions. Copies of Aristotle and Galen circulated widely, but direct encounter with the relevant texts revealed that the two sources clashed, tarnishing faith in the Ancients. As novelty spread, old institutions seemed exhausted while new ones seemed untrustworthy; as a result, people almost literally didn’t know what to think. If you can’t trust Aristotle, who can you trust?

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, expanding the market for all publishers, which heightened 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.”


“Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.”


Shirky is very clearly talking about newspapers and journalism here, but I have to say, some of these quotes cleanly struck me as things that we might be saying about books someday soonish.  

In particular, in the first quote I selected, I’m struck by the truth that newspapers did, in fact, see change a-comin’, and they spent a lot of time thinking about how to deal with it, and they failed anyway.  This reminds me a lot of the conversations the book industry is having within itself right now—how much do we charge for e-books? should TPBs have a simultaneous release with HCs? are large advances totally and completely insane, or are they just a necessary-evil level of insane? &tc.  We know things are going to change and for the most part, we’re trying to figure out what we need to change in order to keep the jobs we love.  But this quote makes me wonder: are we so busy devilling with the details that we’re not considering that our jobs as we know them now might not exist someday?  Perhaps we’re not considering that trade paperback originals may not be the full answer—the full answer might involve a wholesale change in how booksellers, editors, writers, and other book people do their jobs.  Keep in mind that I’m in my twenties.  If I stay in bookselling until retirement age, whatever that’s going to be after Social Security nosedives, that’s at least four more decades.  I can’t even concieve of what the book industry will look like in one decade, let alone four.  Will it include the opportunity to make a living selling books to other people?  What sort of changes will I have had to make to get there?  What things can’t I see from my seat inside the inside of books?

Shirky: “Society doesn’t need papers.  What we need is journalism.”

Would it be too much of a stretch to say:

“Society doesn’t need books.  What we need are stories.”

Books have been around longer than newspapers, and I personally don’t think they’ll go away soon, or ever.  (For proof I offer up the sheer joy on a kid’s face when you hand them a new book.)  But reading Shirky’s entry did make me think that, if even for a little bit, I need to sit with the notion that books are not, in fact, crucial to existence.  This is nearly impossible to fathom, especially living in New York, where everyone I meet is connected to books in some way, I read twice as much, and I’m pretty sure there’s something in the water that is causing me to have dreams related to the publishing industry every night.  However, it might be the sort of thinking I need to open my mind to the possibilities that could keep my job around, in one form or another.  

The world has proven it doesn’t need newspapers. Will it do the same thing to books?


3 comments so far

  1. bpb92 on

    And I thought Patricia Polacco was exaggerating when she wrote Aunt Chip and the Great Triple Creek Dam Affair. Envision a world without books, a world where stories come in digital form or return to oral tradition. Then picture the collapse of electricity. Where, then, will be the record of civilization?

  2. Rich on

    Thanks for writing this, Stephanie. I’ve been worrying about this for ages but haven’t found a way to write about it that wasn’t depressing.

    Basically, for the first 10 years of my life in bookselling I was guided by the idea that I would eventually open my own store. I’ve tried to learn everything I could about the book industry with that end in mind. About a year ago I realized that end may not be desirable nor achievable in the future (@ least not if I want to be able to support my family). So while I’m not giving up or changing careers, I find I am trying to reimagine my future career in bookselling. Should I diversify into freelance marketing & publicity, try to become a professional blogger or is it time to dust off some of my incomplete manuscripts and try to become a published author myself? I don’t know what the next steps in my own career should be anymore, which is why I’m blogging and paying more attention to new trends in the industry than ever before.

    Like in news, I know new business models will arise. As you say, stories are not going away, just intermediaries. Which is why it’s not enough for bookstores to simply be the local spot to buy books anymore. People want so much more than a book, people want to be engaged, valued and feel part of a network – it’s why people move to picturesque villages in Tuscany, why they enjoy AMZN’s customer reviews “personalized” recommendations, and why tourists make a beeline to local bookstores in search of directions or recommendations for the best restaurants in town.

    I hope you and I are still booksellers in 40 years, but I no longer have a firm sense of what “being a bookseller” will mean at that point, nor how to get there. It’s actually an exciting aspect of the industry right now, but one that is making me think long and hard about investing in my own store anytime soon.

  3. […] Books Important — or Just Stories? By bpb92 Just read a blog by my fellow bookseller, Bookavore , based on another blog by Clay Shirky. Bookavore wonders if  “Society doesn’t need books. […]

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