I have received, obviously from the library, Cognitive Surplus from the much-loved Mr. CLAY SHIRKY. Why does this book exist? The system demanded it.
The book qua book makes Clay Shirky more entrenched, also richer. It makes the publisher seem like a purveyor of brave new ideas that had actually been worked out long before in a medium it is loath to acknowledge. This case, like others before, reveals structural deficiencies on the nonfiction-book industry.
Shirky’s cognitive-surplus concept has been more than adequately explained online. You knew all about it even before he explained it in the intelligentsia-ratified environment of the TED conference. The concept isn’t so intricate it requires 213 pages of explication (with, as expected, poor copy quality and half-assed typography). The concept does not comprise that much content. But there is a fallacy at work that good ideas need to be expanded.
A resemblance to the Peter Principle is surely coincidental, but the Commentariat Publishing Lifecycle follows this path:
- A semifamous commentator issues an interesting idea, usually via blog post. (Publisher: Self.)
- It spreads to the point that one of a vanishing few magazines, like the Atlantic Monthly, commissions a thinkpiece that “expands on” the idea. (Publisher: Struggling mid-sized house; foundation.)
- The idea has thus been ratified to the midlevel of the intellectual discourse.
- The article does not acknowledge that the idea originated on the Web.
- The commentator, now more than semifamous, may then be invited to further “expand on” his idea in a printed book, for which he will be paid an advance and possibly royalties. (Publisher: Multinational conglomerate.)
- The idea has thus becomes ratified to the permanent canon.
- The book passingly acknowledges the article as the genesis of the book.
This process pretends to be evolutionary or benignly incremental but smacks more of the purgatory of greatest hits, in which semipopular bands are doomed to play hour-long sets in one-horse towns to dwindling crowds who showed up to hear the hit single and have no patience for anything else.
The progression from blog post to magazine article to printed book becomes a form of velvet handcuffs for the freelance intellectual, who is forced to nursemaid the same idea, now well beyond its training-wheels stage, just when he should be coming up with new ideas. (Or already has – and, if he’s published them, those new ideas are eclipsed by the old idea or are taken as proof that the intellectual has only as many really good ideas as he has books.)
A book takes a year or two out of your life and generally costs you. Why would a public intellectual agree to write one?
Even for a writer with a good business outside the book trade (like, presumably, Shirky), a single book advance makes for a reasonable down payment on a house or a tidy college fund for a child. Or it just makes you richer.
The book stays on shelves – somewhere – for the rest of your life and then some. It becomes a tangible record of your achievement.
Last but not least, the whole process is an arms race of flattery, in which people with more and more power and influence make you one offer after another you can’t refuse.
Who gets left behind in this process, which, in true power-law fashion, benefits people who are already famous and well-remunerated, like Clay Shirky, Nick Carr, Andrew Keen, and Jeff Jarvis? I could name a category or two of losers in this game.
Instead, I will mention that Carr long ago recommended I gin up one of my ideas to a form that a magazine like the Atlantic would publish. I’d be doing that just to grease the wheels of the publishing industry, which has proven to me to be inept, ignorant of its own generations-old protocols, brusque, disingenuous, mendacious (in one case to my face), dismissive, riven by fear, and broadly deserving of its own demise.
But should authors who aren’t established names have to go down with the ship?
Should Shirky, Carr, Keen, or Jarvis turn down their next book offer? Should, or why should, their next books exist?