Book Review: Michael Bhaskar. The Content Machine: Towards a Theory of Publishing from the Printing Press to the Digital Network
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Michael Bhaskar, The Content Machine: Towards a Theory of Publishing from the Printing Press to the Digital Network. New York: Anthem Press, 2013. $19.95 Paperback.
“Above all,” argues Michael Bhaskar, “creating the New Publisher and meeting the digital challenge is not a business problem but a conceptual one” (ch. 6). As this claim and as the book’s subtitle suggest, The Content Machine ambitiously sets out to offer a kind of prolegomenon to a “theory of publishing” and to offer some hints about what to expect from the publisher of the future. As someone very much in the middle of university press practice, I’m initially excited by and skeptical about the ambition here. After all, publishing is a fairly old, complicated activity, which is notoriously idiosyncratic and context-bound, with a history of immunity to tidy explanations. A theory of publishing seems ever prone to over-simplicity (and alignment with a certain set of circumstances) or over-complication (and generalization to the point of little practical use). In other words, I was set up to be hard on this book. The Content Machine surprises me, however, in its sophisticated approach to what most interested readers would agree is an exceptionally daunting task. The book is detail-rich but capacious in its selection of examples and its synthesis of what the author argues are the essential elements tying together publishing circumstances that many might consider discrete or incompatible.
I don’t think Bhaskar can be accused of over-simplifying. Informed by the history of publishing, by the current (and currently under-theorized) scholarly and trade conversation around publishing media, and by an eclectic mix of theoretical approaches familiar to most readers in the scholarly humanities and social sciences (Marx, Bourdieu, Latour, Goffman, McLuhan, etc.), The Content Machine manages first and foremost to refine a dynamic theoretical vocabulary for reflecting on (and ultimately, one hopes, transforming) “the publisher function.” Transforming this function is obligatory from Bhaskar’s point of view (and I’m convinced) because, as we are never allowed to forget, the digitally networked era has introduced a new and daunting set of challenges to publishing models of recent generations and because transformation in the face of technological change is one of the historical constants in the story of publishing. As Bhaskar succinctly describes the situation, the aforementioned challenges “are publishing challenges, not challenges to publishing. That is a key distinction. Throughout history, publishers, like any enterprise, have faced, overcome and been strengthened by any number of obstacles” (ch. 2).
In order to effect transformation wisely, I would again agree, a community of practice benefits from a shared set of well-articulated theoretical models and terminology—a clear sense of “what we’re talking about when we talk about publishing.” This is also a “conceptual challenge,” and it may seem obvious enough, but anyone who has tried to participate in a conversation about this with more than three people knows how messy it can get. It makes sense, therefore, that a significant portion of this relatively short book is dedicated to peeling away what isn’t essential to a definition of publishing. This process, again, caused me initial concern, as I felt we were wading into very well-known (and potentially very tedious) territory. Again, my concerns faded quickly as I found Bhaskar’s treatment of familiar problematics to be refreshingly well-reasoned and well-argued. Because he’s a good writer and one who can maintain narrative momentum while demonstrating significant erudition, Bhaskar’s “background” chapters play a real, instrumental role in his argument. “Omissions” can be deadly for a project like this, but so can supererogation. The Content Machine walks the line remarkably well.
So, what, according to Bhaskar, is essential to a categorical definition of publishing, and what does his germinal “theory of publishing” look like? The answers to these questions are interdependent. We must, according to Bhaskar, treat publishing “as a comprehensible, continuous, but nonetheless changing system,” and he proceeds to identify and disqualify various modular pieces of the system as potential contenders for essentialness. In the end, we are left with content, market making, making public, and an element of risk that is “perhaps, not necessarily, but commonly, financial” (ch. 1). The core of the theoretical apparatus is a nested set of concepts: first, “content,” which is further subdivided into “frames,” and “models”; and second, “the network of publishing,” which is further subdivided into “filtering” and “amplification.”
Bhaskar prefers the notion of “frames” as a way of thinking about mediation’s formal role in the expression and reception of content, and he specifically prefers it to the common metaphor of publications as “containers.” “Frames,” as Bhaskar explains, more effectively captures the range of “experiential features” tied up with various different kinds of mediation (including “the penumbra of preconceptions, prejudices, expectations, and complexes of personality and ideology subjectively brought to bear when cultural phenomena are encountered” (ch. 3). “Frames,” Bhaskar stresses, “allow us to view digital and analogue media on a spectrum rather than unbridgeable islands, to see how ... highly divergent forms of published material all require delivery systems but how those systems present works in differing ways . . . The way we view a work is intrinsically part of that work” (ch. 3). Significantly, Bhaskar argues that content is not a stable substance but that it is also the “impressions” of the work shaped by multiple parts of any publishing endeavor (including editorial work, obviously, but also including formats, packaging, and audience building): “The continuum on which they lie is the frame” (ch. 3). Bhaskar’s touchstone example for this spectrum is the First Folio of Shakespeare which rapidly moved from an information container to a “symbol for the wider edifice of English Letters.” Its value is ultimately bound up not in the content of the plays, which are widely available elsewhere. Instead, its value “as an object [has been] dependent on perceptual shifts about Shakespeare, literature and taste, whereby the First Folio [became] reconfigured as the original, thus more authentic” (ch. 3).
Bhaskar’s notion of “models” is meant to address the motivations behind content production and dissemination. He rejects “motivation” as overly narrow and personalized, arguing that “models . . . guide our actions, with both explanatory, predictive, and through those, causal efficacy” (ch. 3). Publishing models are often “business models,” but as Bhaskar notes, the history of publisher motivations is full of highly complex mixtures of priorities (political, aesthetic, and religious motivations are almost as common as the profit motive). The most common model in recent and present-day publishing, of course, is focused on business: these models “are used to create surplus capital from the potential of amplified products to create efficiencies based on decreasing marginal costs” (ch. 5). As Bhaskar notes, however, this particular model is only one of many in the long history of publishing. Drawing on Bourdieu, he further notes that the model is complicated in the present by incentives to accrue cultural capital (a habitual feature for academic publishers). Inevitably, a model must be coordinated to generate the greatest “value” (variously defined) at the lowest possible cost. A model also always entails risk, insofar as value may not be achieved, or not at a tolerable cost. Bhaskar encourages a proliferation of models, opining that “more models allow more points of view, more ways of thinking and more ways of existing. This freedom creates a better chance of innovative and different work coming through” (ch. 5). Succinctly put, framing and modelling supply the “how and the why of publishing” (ch. 6).
The activities indicated by Bhaskar’s other essential terminological dyad (“filtering and amplification”) are continually interpenetrating the activities indicated by the first dyad (“framing and modelling”): “Filtering and amplification occur through frames according to models” (ch. 6). Filtering is a broad, more inclusive term for the gate-keeping and selection functions often associated with acquisition editors, a function that is always shaped and even determined by the prevailing publishing model, and often shaped, in turn, by variable factors, including “timing, commercial terms, accident, current inventory, the author, the state of the backlist or how the editor felt on a particular day” (ch. 6). Bhaskar anticipates a shift away from “selection,” as such, in emergent digital publishing circumstances and a shift towards “other intermediary forms.” He offers Facebook’s deliberate filtering strategies and behind-the-scenes editorializing as a bellwether for new kinds of filtering. At the same time, he acknowledges that the role of professional expertise is likely to persist insofar as “filtering or selection are still necessary to highlight what readers should read” in a world where scarcity of attention has displaced scarcity of materials (ch. 6). Here, “filtering” begins to dovetail with “amplification,” by which Bhaskar means to extend the common understanding of publishing as the act of “making public.” The purpose of amplification in the “content flow” is all about getting exposure for that content: “if ‘making public’ is intangible to the point of uselessness, amplification is a definite, traceable process with results that are all too tangible in the increased consumption or awareness of a given work” (ch. 6).
No one needs Bhaskar to remind us that the digital era has violently splintered traditional publishing’s long-venerated position in the process of cultural production, but his characterization of the publishing world’s reaction these traumas is instructive. The pace of “disintermediation” has been especially difficult for operations with high overhead and slow-moving systems to respond to. Likewise, ambivalence over the value proposition has backed publishers into a series of half measures: “while publishers have built an uneasy accommodation with digital, they have ceded huge ground in the provision of content to new actors, partly because of a failure to invest in digital growth when no one read ebooks, the Internet was for geeks and monetising digital was a distant fantasy. Fear of cannibalising existing sales governed a conservative and, from one perspective, entirely rational approach” (ch. 6). If the first step in creating the “new publisher” is the articulation of some theoretical commonplaces for examining what publishing is and has always really been about, the next is deploying those ideas to fashion viable “models” for continuing this core work in a way that can sustain itself in a digital environment, exploit digital affordances to accomplish unprecedented innovation, and reclaim some pride of place in the public sphere.
Bhaskar winds down his argument with attention to likely futures and gives significant credence to open access publishing as the most plausible future for academic publishing:
Free content is becoming the norm in academic communications; academics, at least, want information to be free. It won’t eradicate prestigious names like Harvard and Chicago. However, it’s already forcing publishers with serious overheads to re-examine their business and content models. When a host of new entrants can survive on tiny or non-existent APCs then most players with financial drag face a stark choice: either adapt to OA or become uncompetitive and unappealing to authors (ch. 6).
He encourages publishers to focus on being “amplifiers of content” rather than “makers of books,” and stresses the increasing amplificatory importance of good metadata, the strategic need for cooperation between small publishers as a “means of withstanding novel pressures,” and the exigency of smarter data collection and experimentation. All of these elements funnel into “harnessing attention” as an inexorable priority: “those who can gather and create attention are the new bankers of an attention economy” (ch. 6).
Interestingly, librarians are good at creating metadata and at helping users exploit that metadata to find good content. Much has been made of the degree to which moving scholarly publishing into the library is (or isn’t) a logical thing to do, given the library’s engagement with the complete scholarly communication cycle. Less emphasis has been put on librarians’ role as amplifiers of content and harnessers of attention. Less attention has also been put on the library’s strengths in data-driven experimentation and re-invention. If Bhaskar is right about the future of publishing (and I think he is), his is in many ways an argument in favor of the library as the basecamp for the new scholarly publisher. At least one viable “model” (and one of very few) for the future of scholarship is one that is service driven rather than product driven. This does not preclude sophisticated quality control mechanisms (e.g., peer-review), but it should help remind us that such mechanisms are not ends in themselves. Rather, they are systems of service designed to help users do something they need to do. Need, as Bhaskar repeatedly points out, is the locus of value.
Aaron McCollough (http://aaronmccollough.com/) is the editorial director for Michigan Publishing, which includes the University of Michigan Press. He is responsible for the editorial vision of the organization and the quality of the products it publishes. McCollough is also currently an acquiring editor for the Press in Cultural Studies and Literature.
McCollough is a librarian and was formerly the subject specialist and liaison librarian for English Language and Literature as well as Comparative Literature. He holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Michigan and an MFA in creative writing from the Iowa Writers Workshop. He is the author of five books of poems, most recently Underlight (from Ugly Duckling Presse in Brooklyn). Along with Karla Kelsey he is co-publisher of SplitLevel Texts (http://splitleveltexts.com/), which publishes two trans-genre literary titles a year.