Clay Shirky, the well-known professor at the renowned Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, in a recent interview gave this summation of the publishing industry:

"Publishing is not evolving. Publishing is going away. Because the word “publishing” means a cadre of professionals who are taking on the incredible difficulty and complexity and expense of making something public. That’s not a job anymore. That’s a button. There’s a button that says “publish,” and when you press it, it’s done."

You’ve probably heard similar sentiments, though not so succinctly expressed. You may even have had similar thoughts yourself. But is Shirky right?

Conflating the business of publishing with the mechanics of publishing obscures the larger issue of how publishers add value. The one thing that all publishers historically brought to the table and the one thing that secured their role and assured their success was access to an audience.

Traditionally, magazine and newspaper publishers laboriously assembled audiences to which they could sell content, or against which they could sell advertising. Large book publishers for many years held a chokehold on retail book distribution. Broadcast media worked the same way, aided by licensing rules that limited competition. To access an audience, you had to work through a media company.

With the Internet, those walls came tumbling down. Now, everybody has their own audiences through blogs, Twitter and Facebook. Things have swung so far that book publishers now favor authors who have sizable pre-existing audiences of their own. Yes, it’s now BYOA – Bring Your Own Audience. Perhaps more ominously, advertisers are actively working to build their own audiences, and increasingly, are creating their own content as well.

As a consequence, publishers have to look beyond their distribution role to remain viable in this brave new world of information. The good news is that’s there are lots of ways to go. First, publishers have strong brands that are trusted and neutral. That’s a huge asset that can be leveraged. Second, publishers know their audiences. Does the person with 10,000 Twitter followers really know anything about those people? The answer is no, and that makes the BYOA inherently less valuable. Third, publishers can consistently generate quality content, something that is essential to maintaining an audience, and that is a lot harder than it sounds. Fourth, whether it is advertising or paid products, publishers know how to sell against an audience. Not easy or simple.

Bottom line: publishing is changing. The market sinecures many of us enjoyed for so long have eroded. The secrets to success in this new environment are to: a) get a lot smarter about the audience you do have in order to better monetize it (a/k/a audience development), and b) think about how you can help others build and monetize their own audiences (a/k/a marketing services). As an industry, we have to shift our focus from being the pipe to being the pipe-fitter.