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Publishing Is the New Literacy: 3 Things Writers Must Know

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Since the release of Clay Shirky's newest book, Cognitive Surplus, a flurry of interviews with him have appeared.

It's become cliche to say that we're now experiencing the biggest change for reading & writing since Gutenberg, but it's the truth. And it's why you see such visceral debate on the topics of self-publishing/e-publishing, e-books, and whether we (and our children) losing our ability to read, write, and focus—or even be creative!

The best sound bite from Shirky right now: "Publishing is the new literacy." Whereas the technology of the printing press and movable type allowed reading and writing to flourish, today's technology transforms the profession of publishing into the new literacy. As Shirky says in Here Comes Everybody:

In a world where publishing is effortless, the decision to publish something isn’t terribly momentous. Just as movable type raised the value of being able to read and write even as it destroyed the scribal tradition, globally free publishing is making public speech and action more valuable, even as its absolute abundance diminishes the specialness of professional publishing. For a generation that is growing up without the scarcity that made publishing such a serious-minded pursuit, the written word has no special value in and of itself.

I've been spending a lot of time with Shirky's books lately, and so far I think these 3 ideas are key for writers to understand.

1. Yes, there is more bad writing than ever. There's a lot of crap circulating. It's true.

But stop right there. Don't put a value judgment on it. This is simply the world we now live in. You can't change it; no one can stop the new systems allowing this. Shirky once referenced Bill Burroughs: "If a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing badly." I agree.

2. While you can readily find success stories of self-published authors, it's still hard to gain visibility, or be above average. Publishing may be easier and open to everyone, but it's not necessarily easier to compete or get the attention of influential people, or even everyday readers. It still takes effort, creativity, and persistence. You have to operate at a sophisticated level.

3. There is a supply/demand imbalance.
There are far more ways to entertain and inform ourselves—and produce more of our own stuff—than ever before. (Think of this scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark—this is what publishing warehouses look like.)

This surplus affects what you can charge for information/content, and it also means that every writer should consider what they do or specialize in that holds the highest scarcity, personalization, or value in the market. (Think about Cory Doctorow's experiment.)

And bonus #4: It is a time to experiment, and a time to fail.

Read some of the best & recent articles so far on Shirky's ideas:

Chanel Cleeton: On Reader Enthusiasm Conjuring Novel Ideas

Chanel Cleeton: On Reader Enthusiasm Conjuring Novel Ideas

Author Chanel Cleeton discusses how reader curiosity led her to write her new historical fiction novel, Our Last Days in Barcelona.

Writer's Digest Interview | Marlon James Quote

The Writer's Digest Interview: Marlon James

Booker Prize–winning author Marlon James talks about mythology and world-building in his character-driven epic Moon Witch, Spider King, the second book in his Dark Star Trilogy in this interview from the March/April 2022 issue of Writer's Digest.

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WD Presents: New Podcast Episode, a Chance at Publication, and More!

This week, we're excited to announce our newest podcast episode, your chance to be published, and more!

David Adams Cleveland: On Truth Revealing Itself in Historical Fiction

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Award-winning novelist David Adams Cleveland discusses the timeliness of his new novel, Gods of Deception.

Lisa Jewell | Writer's Digest Interview Quote

The WD Interview: Lisa Jewell

The New York Times-bestselling British author discusses creating thrilling plot twists and developing characters in her 19th novel, The Night She Disappeared, in this interview from the Jan/Feb 2022 issue of Writer's Digest.

5 Tips for Successfully Pitching Literary Agents in Person (That Worked for Me at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference)

5 Tips for Successfully Pitching Literary Agents in Person (That Worked for Me at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference)

Author Anat Deracine found her agent at Writer’s Digest Annual Conference. Now she’s sharing what she’s learned to help other writers become authors. Here are her 5 tips for successfully pitching literary agents in person.

Tips for Reading Poetry in Front of an Audience

8 Tips for Reading Your Poetry in Front of an Audience

Poet's Market editor and published poet Robert Lee Brewer shares eight tips for reading your poetry in front of an audience.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Strength Lost

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Strength Lost

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, let a character lose their powers.

Sharon Short | Point of View Quote 1

Managing Point of View: Mythbusting

In the first of this three-part series, novelist and WD columnist Sharon Short breaks down 7 of the most common myths about choosing which POV is right for your story.