Publishing Is the New Literacy: 3 Things Writers Must Know

Publish date:
Image placeholder title

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:

How to Approach Friends and Family About Your Memoir

How to Approach Friends and Family About Your Memoir

No one can decide whether showing your memoir to loved ones before it goes to press is the right choice for you. However, if you're planning to approach your friends and family about it, let memoirist Ronit Plank give you 3 tips for doing so.

Emily Henry: On Writing the Second Book

Emily Henry: On Writing the Second Book

Romance author Emily Henry describes the ups and downs of writing your second book, using her experiences writing her latest release, People We Meet on Vacation.

The Plot, by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Who Really Owns a Story?

Jean Hanff Korelitz, author of The Plot, on artistic appropriation and adaptations.

Abate vs. Bait vs. Bate (Grammar Rules)

Abate vs. Bait vs. Bate (Grammar Rules)

Learn the differences of abate, bait, and bate on with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.

Sarah Pinsker: On Reviving the Set-Aside Story

Sarah Pinsker: On Reviving the Set-Aside Story

Award-winning novelist Sarah Pinsker discusses how she picked up and put down a story over many years which would eventually become her latest release, We Are Satellites.

Mary Alice Monroe: On Writing the Family Saga

Mary Alice Monroe: On Writing the Family Saga

Award-winning author Mary Alice Monroe discusses what it's like to draft a series that spans generations and storylines.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: Final Competition Deadline, Short Story Virtual Conference, and more!

This week, we’re excited to announce the Self-Published Book Awards deadline for 2021, details on the upcoming Short Story Virtual Conference, and more!

John B. Thompson | Book Wars

John B. Thompson: On Researching Changes in the Book Publishing Industry

John B. Thompson, author of the new book Book Wars, shares the research that went into his account of how the digital revolution changed publishing for readers and writers.