I come from the geek tribe, and I've been writing about the Internet in various forums on the Internet since the early '90s. As a result, I'm often asked why I wrote Here Comes Everybody—my recent book about how social tools like the Web and mobile phones are transforming society—now, 15 years after plunging into the online world. The answer is simple: I didn't just want to write a book, I wanted to work with a publisher.

A book isn't just a collection of 80,000 words on paper. A blogger can build that up in a few months. A book is a collection of words that have been obsessed over by people other than the writer. That's what a publisher does, and that process helps a book become a focal point for a conversation or an argument.

There was a recent Notre Dame study about the speed with which Internet-borne news finds its audience, and, unsurprisingly, it's fast; the average story reaches half its total audience in about 36 hours. Books, which are slow media, aren't like that.

Books, good ones at least, can create and sustain social capital. They do this by delivering a kind of value economists call “solidarity goods”—things that become more valuable when others consume them. This can be about the creation of cultural touchstones; sometimes it's Franny and Zooey, sometimes it's Fear of Flying. This can be about having a deep conversation about changes in current society, whether the Beauty Myth or The Future of Democracy. And because they are slow media, they can sustain this capital for years and, in some happy cases, for generations.

These three functions—helping a book focus a conversation, creating social capital and doing both at large scale and long term—are the essential functions of a publisher. They are about an encounter with the reader, and about making long-form written work that matters enough to survive in an era of 36-hour cycles.

As all media goes digital, the only real calamity that could befall publishers would be for them to abandon those values, which is why it's so surprising that many seem to be planning just that.

I was at BookExpo America this June, an event I'd never attended before, and clearly one of the places the publishing industry talks to itself about the future. I was astonished to hear the buzz among publishers about the search for authors who already have a “platform,” a ready group of potential readers the author can market to directly. If I was Lulu or XLibris or any of the other print-on-demand businesses, I would be paying people to go to publishing conferences to make precisely this argument, because that line of thinking plays to Lulu's strengths and a traditional publisher's weaknesses.

Publishers can no longer rely on production or distribution as special capabilities, thanks to a variety of technologies, from PayPal and Amazon to the Espresso and the Kindle. Publishers also can't out-web the Web; a “quickie” book still takes eons in Internet time. To stay in business, publishers must do something besides fronting the cost of printing and distribution, and the most important thing they can do is tell a reader, “You've never heard of this author, but you should give this book a read,” and have the reader trust them.

For publishers to matter, they will have to matter to readers. This seems almost tautological, but it's instructive to see how little the music business learned that lesson. Record labels that meant something, like Blue Note or Ryko, gave way to labels that were simply holding companies meaningless to the average fan, like Universal or EMI. When digital distribution came along, the loyalty wasn't to the labels, just to bands.

The business model for long-form writing is up in the air, and every possibility is going to be tried in the coming years—ad-supported books, sponsored books, serialization, user-underwriting and more. But behind them all will lie the same questions for publishers: How do we continue to matter? How do we produce writing good enough to merit readers, and direct readers toward that writing? Any publisher that can't answer those questions will become just another print-on-demand service, and a sluggish but expensive one at that.

Author Information
Clay Shirky is the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (Penguin Press), and teaches, writes and consults widely on the social and economic effects of the Internet.