Twenty Years Into IT: “Online Publishing: Threat or Menace?” Revisited
Skip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
This work is protected by copyright and may be linked to without seeking permission. Permission must be received for subsequent distribution in print or electronically. Please contact email@example.com for more information. :
For more information, read Michigan Publishing's access and usage policy.
In 1993, online publishing appeared like the doorway into a new world of instant global communication. But today it appears that the hypertext links in early web publications served as holes in a sieve through which has leaked, during the last two decades, the book publishing industry as we knew it. When the Journal of Electronic Publishing asked me to update "Online Publishing: Threat or Menace?," a paper I presented in 1993 and published in 1994, my mind travelled back to the dawn of the Internet, when computers were heavy, expensive, and hard to use, and cellular phones were suitcase-sized affairs toted by the likes of James Bond. Even intrepid “dot command cowboys” needed clunky modems to connect their computers to the Internet. In those pre-spam days, I knew everyone on the FROM line of each email, and when the computer voice called out “You’ve got mail!” I raced to my machine in anticipation.
We were pioneers, delighting in the unexplored possibilities in this infinite technology garden. We were discovering a new world, one made accessible by the HTTP protocol and the World Wide Web. I shared that1993 panel at the Online Publishing Conference in Pittsburgh with Tim Berners-Lee. He had invented the World Wide Web in 1989 not to change the world, but so that he could get his work done and communicate effectively with other physicists. He zipped through slide after slide, eager to introduce the non-tech world to his invention, the beginnings of a human/machine interface with profound implications. We joked over a beer afterwards about how you can recognize pioneers because of the arrows in their backs. But there was more elation than pain in those early days. A sense of a new beginning. We knew we were on to something, and made our business decisions by trying to “skate to where the puck is going to be,” according to the ice hockey adage coined by Wayne Gretzky. And in an environment of internetworked thinking machines that today continues to expand exponentially in terms of breadth, complexity, and rate of change, skating that fast becomes a superhuman task.
Some grasped the profundity of change even in the early 1990s, when we still viewed computers as stand-alone machines, independent from their owners. I remember a meeting at MIT Press when we were arguing about whether author Gregory Rawlins was allowed to post the ASCII files of his new Press book “Slaves of a New Machine” online for free. The publisher argued that this would cannibalize print sales. Gregory laughed and promised to post the files anyway and contribute to the new online contentsphere, in the spirit of collaboration essential to a healthy Web. Then, during our friendly argument, in rushed publisher Frank Urbanowski, who addressed us with urgency: “I had this dream last night that woke me up and I couldn’t get back to sleep because it was so startling. The dream was about e-publishing, about this online stuff, and it was shocking, absolutely shocking, because everything was so...different, so fundamentally other. It disturbed me so much.” Though Frank did not elaborate on his vision, in this “Threat or Menace” update, I’ll take a look at how some of my own 1993 statements and predictions–most of which seemed like science fiction at the time–have played out. We will see how indeed, thanks to the Internet, people and machines have morphed into something significantly “other” than what we were 20 years ago, and we will begin to explore the role for tomorrow’s publishing industry in this new global electronic landscape.
First, Some Context...
In the early 1990s, the Internet “Wild West” was largely publisher-free, and populated by engineers and geeks, academics and government folk. I came upon the Internet serendipitously, because my company Open Book Systems (OBS) produced computer books, one being John Quarterman’s “The Matrix,” the first book about the Internet. OBS got wind of this network of networks when it was still brand new, saw its potential, met and published some of the people who were building it, and in effect became an Internet evangelist to the publishing and education industries. This happened right after the mini-publishing tech revolution of the 1980s involving desktop publishing, which had caused my book packaging company first to expand into a 24/7 shop cranking out thousands of pages a month on PCs, then to shrink to a team of two employees once publishers grabbed this new tech tiller and either brought the typesetting and production work in-house or sent it offshore (paying pennies on the dollar). The prospect of Internet publishing brought fresh wind to our sails; it seemed there was no other direction in which to proceed at that time.
Those pioneering days of e-publishing revolved around proprietary programming; we were beginning to prototype and deploy what would become a global e-publishing universe. Carl Malamud set up Internet Radio; Brewster Kahle pioneered the Wide Area Information Server (WAIS) that served as a massive indexing system for the web, and then founded the Internet Archive with its Way Back Machine, which aims to archive the entire Internet(today, in addition to the Way Back Machine, the Internet Archive focuses on digitizing all the books of Twentieth Century, titles threatened to obscurity because of copyright laws that cannot keep up with the overwhelming tide rush online). In a conversation during an October 2015 visit to the Internet Archive, Brewster Kahle noted that without this effort, most of the books published in the Twentieth Century will “go dark” for our children and grandchildren because of copyright entanglements for all books outside of the public domain. Kahle’s vision for the Internet Archive involves recreating in digits the great Library of Alexandria in Egypt, which, until it burned down over two thousand years ago, housed all the recorded knowledge of the known civilized world at the time. Back when the Library of Alexandria was built, unlike in our age of info-glut, it was possible to compile a library containing comprehensive knowledge in all subject major areas.
In 1993, today’s publishing giants like Microsoft and Adobe had minimal presence online; in fact, Netizens strove mightily to remain independent from such corporate giants and preferred developing their own free programs such as Peter Deutsch’s Ghostscript, a postscript and PDF interpreter, and Apache’s Open Office, which still today offers a collaboratively developed, free alternative to Microsoft Office. On this early Internet infrastructure, OBS began applying code to ideas that would improve publishing; the Internet with its Open Source tools afforded an infinite sandbox in which to invent the future. HyperText Markup Language (HTML) provided a simple if crude and exceptionally powerful markup language for browser-based display, liberating us from the device- and display-dependent screens and readers like the Sony Data Discman, which had been all that was available for e-publishing output up until that time. Using Open Source tools, OBS challenged publishers to go beyond merely offering the obvious: static display of print pages online.
Content could live and breathe! We designed, built, hosted, and maintained publishers’ sites from our Rockport, Mass., offices, powered by the first T1 line in town. We built multi-language web sites, and developed for resale search engines, content management systems, enterprise-wide calendars, online offices and classrooms. One scholarly journal publishing system we built in the mid-90s included paper submission functionality, peer-review capability, typesetting, and archiving functionality. For one journal article about medical marijuana in 1995, by Harvard’s Lester Grinspoon, we built a “nav wheel” so that readers could set their preferences to “anti” “pro” or “omni,” and therewith determine what hyperlinks they saw in the controversial article. Our work attracted developers and web workers from around the world – students and engineers came to work at OBS from Japan, Romania, England, Spain, Russia, Holland, Germany, Bulgaria, and from Rockport High School.
One of our 1994 publisher clients wanted to make money publishing on the web; he wasn’t satisfied with using the Internet for marketing purposes alone, like other publishers. He wanted to do his job better, faster, and less expensively using Internet technology. So we built the first Internet-based online Continuing Education (CE) testing system for his audience of nurses; this included credit card clearing, a testing interface, auto grading, and email delivery of a certificate for successfully completed tests. This program was so successful that the publisher ultimately brought the whole operation in-house and set up an independent, multi-million dollar online testing department. In August 2014, Forbes magazine noted that “online learning, also known as e-learning, is booming. Market research firm Global Industry Analysts projects it will reach $107 Billion in 2015.” The content integrated into or accessed through Learning Management Systems (LMSs) may start out contained in a book, but now may take on formats quite different from books as the content is disaggregated, chunked, tagged, linked, stored and otherwise recombined and changed. Obviously, we did not aim for this massive sea change with our nursing CE tests in 1994; we were caught up in the heady business of coding ideas — and in enabling our client publisher to make money by rendering content kinetic and devising new business models for sale of books online.
Open Book Systems (OBS) achieved many online publishing "firsts" during these years. In January 1993, The Wall Street Journal declared:
Coming soon to a PC nearby: a bookstore without shelves, selling books without paper. At the Online BookStore, PC users will be able to browse through books on their PCs... This isn’t the first on-line service to make books available electronically... but Online says it will be the first to offer current titles in a way that compensates authors and publishers... 'This has the potential to change the way we all do business,’ says Keith Wollman, senior editor at Addison-Wesley.
A few weeks later (February 1, 1993), Publishers Weekly heralded “OnLine BookStore to Deliver Full Text Books,” noting, “the future has arrived for electronic delivery of books... Online BookStore on Internet, the first service to deliver full text and graphic files of books from Internet to ordinary desktop PC users.” Publishers moved online with trepidation, fearing the genie (their copyrighted content) would escape the bottle (the containers of physical books) and that their business based on per-copy sales of paper books would change or disappear. How right they were!
In “Online Publishing: Threat or Menace?” I explored how the advent of the Internet and the evolution of publishing technology posed a threat to traditional publishing processes and products while simultaneously expanding opportunities and capabilities. After twenty years of walking this razor’s edge, I would like to explore some of these 1993 observations and predictions as they relate to today’s publishing landscape.
(from "Threat or Menace," 1993) “...The result of course is the continued merging not only of the disciplines within the traditional publishing company, but the evolution of publishing companies themselves into information companies, bringing together the media of books, records, films, in an effort to create, still, a centralized organization buying and licensing intellectual property... Instead of selling tangible products, the online publisher is licensing access to literature, information, and popular culture... The evolving, enhanced ebook: Beyond offering supplements in the form of digitized voice and graphics files, the online book might ultimately serve as a data stream, protean, updated regularly...”
It is unclear whether traditional publishing companies are going to own this new online publishing empire or not, as control of the content delivery to the end user falls to enterprises outside of the traditional publishers, such as Learning Management Systems (LMSs), upstream aggregators like EBSCO, new players such as Amazon, or entertainment concerns like Disney. By clinging to arcane and essentially paper-based copyright laws and rights protection schemes such as Adobe’s Creative Suite, that are anathema to the open structure of the Web, and by fearing to innovate beyond per-copy, reader-pay models, book publishers may be ensuring their own obsolescence, ceding control of what Winston Churchill called “the empires of the mind” to non-publisher entities. There are some signs that publishers may remain at the tiller: Academic and Science, Technology, and Medical (STM) publishers experiment with Open Access business models while publishing start-ups like Vox (a curator and distributor of grassroots content across branded communities), Buzzfeed (curating and delivering current content, much of it graphic and video based), and Fusion (delivering current news and entertainment by integrating tweets, video and graphics and text) introduce new models for content creation and distribution. However, none of these new publishing models solves the problems of how to bring long-form content online, nor do they appear to accommodate the current paralysis vis-à-vis copyrighted works (the library of the Twentieth Century), or address the archiving and digital access and preservation challenges we face today, after five centuries of book content have been created by traditional publishers.
The Song That Never Ends
(from "Threat or Menace," 1993) "Evolution into an information empire also means that a book, like a web site, is never done, never ‘goes to bed,’ and the book becomes an ongoing project for both author and publisher. This loss of traditional, product-based collateral changes profoundly both the fundamental business and creative relationships in the publishing value chain, among author, reader, publisher, upstream aggregators and downstream subsidiary rights users...”
Our device-centric world, plagued by incompatibility, seems to be heading rapidly to interoperable convergence of all media in the cloud. The publishing industry’s per-copy and view-only subscription business models may need radical adjusting, as those models do not treat content as a protean asset whose value floats and changes over time–as it is used or consumed, as it is thought about in blogs, added to by the author, cited by other authors (STM content already derives its value through citation indices), is concatenated, abstracted, re-aggregated and resold. Content trapped behind archaic copyright conventions, in digital rights management (DRM) dungeons, or inside proprietary devices is doomed to silence and loss.
Even cloud-based content that moves in only one direction, towards the reader, harkens back to early print-centric, one-way paper “devices” like the daily newspaper that in the 1900s came out three times a day, trying to keep up with the breaking news. One-way movement of content cannot survive in a breathing universe. Content that is housed outside of an information architecture that allows for access and change – architecture that allows the content to be read and thought about – will likely go extinct. Today’s online contentsphere is available to us all the time and everywhere, in video and sound and words. Our modern publishing environment mimics, stores, merges with, enriches and begins to enable life itself, as when one “publishes” an open-heart surgery procedure. A multimedia publishing event that has no distinct beginning, middle, or end — a recorded performance rather than a publication.
Consider for example the role of news writers. It used to be that a reporter had to actually be on the scene in order to witness, observe, maybe participate, distill, process, record, and then communicate a news event, which, when published, was “over,” the paper went to bed and the reporter could move on to the next assignment. With cell phones, satellites, and drone technology, cameras are on and recording at all times. Nothing is final. All news junkies need to do is know when to pay attention to what, and then decide what if anything to do about it. What is the role of the reporter and the news publisher in this Orwellian scenario? Will the news desk of tomorrow offer us a console where we can select live news video and sound feeds from anywhere on the planet, or in the galaxy, and the option to pay extra for a human expert to interpret what we are witnessing in real time? Is this indeed a publishing service we are talking about, or some new kind of media mediator? Books recede into the rear view mirror: neat packages of long-form content, each with a beginning, middle, and end, they become ancient artifacts, for study by deep readers who have the capability of sustained attention to the printed word, perhaps a rare breed in the future.
(from "Threat or Menace," 1993) “The online version of [the book] "The Internet Companion" inspired purchases from countries and territories previously untouched by publisher Addison Wesley.”
The Internet has disintermediated publishers’ relationships with their global readers and begun to erase publishing “territories” altogether. Selling books overseas used to be a subsidiary rights specialty, requiring partnerships with overseas publishers, often involving a one-time business transaction. Now, by leveraging Translation Memory (TM), Print on Demand (POD) technology, and online credit card clearing, a publisher can reach anyone anywhere–in their own language!–almost immediately. Across the globe, publishers can maintain control of their content while managing customer relationships directly. New problems emerge regarding business models and compliance with ever-changing business laws such as collection and remission of sales and VAT taxes in countries across the planet.
Piracy and Gobbledygook
(from "Threat or Menace," 1993) “Encryption is another avenue actively being explored, one route we at the OBS have shunned to this point because we think it unduly complicates things. After all, once thousands of books are available online, how many people are going to hoard their own private ASCII libraries, filling up stacks of hard disks, just so they can "own" files which are available inexpensively online? And, really, if reader/pirates are intent on ripping off publishers and reselling those files, would it be worth their while to retypeset the ASCII files and print and distribute? If they were so bent on deception, it would be a lot easier to simply Xerox the printed book... Before getting all caught up in piracy issues, let's consider how digitized information and literature hold different values than their printed complements. Let's look at the readers and how they are using these online files. Think nonlinear; think interactive....”
At the American Association of University Presses (AAUP) annual meeting in spring 2015, Vint Cerf, Father of the Internet and now Chief Internet Evangelist for Google, noted that he encrypts all his email and advises everyone else to do so as well. This necessary precaution is new, he noted, for when he and his colleagues were building the Internet, they worked openly and in the clear because they wanted to get the network of networks to work. Now the pendulum has swung in the other direction, and we have to stop the bad guys from breaking in and destroying our work.
The DNA of Cluster Publishing
(from "Threat or Menace," 1993) “... Online cluster publishing might become popular, offering a collection of works on the same topic which will serve not as a static bookshelf, but an interactive, living resource... Freed from their physical incarnation, no longer bounded between hard covers, like DNA, books become recombine-able... Publishing on demand introduces the notion of the publisher as the keeper of the database... Publisher becomes “copyright central," offering the public custom-tailored books at a moment's notice. And the customer determines what's in the book.”
"Cluster publishing" today means publishers sell access to online "collections" of books, or coursepacks, made up of book slices or content chunks. O’Reilly’s Safari subscription program embodies this cluster publishing model, creating a “content dial tone” and enabling access to shelves of books rather than selling books as discrete products This is a business model offering ongoing access to content, and an ongoing income stream for the publisher, but, aside from the user metrics generated with use, this model appears to be unidirectional without yet accommodating the capability for content evolution and change.
The Long Tail
(from "Threat or Menace," 1993) “Publishers might consider weighting their lists differently and not putting so much emphasis on the front list, where books thrive or perish sometimes in a matter of weeks following their publication, depending on the shelf space accorded them in bookstores. What about that cookbook or gardening book published three years ago; why should those sales be flat? The expense of putting these books online would be far less than a whole reprint and marketing campaign, and could yield significant income for both authors and publishers.”
Indeed, POD allows publishers to easily re-publish backlist titles with minimal cost, generating new income streams from products that were previously not being leveraged, or lost altogether. But until publishers can move beyond print-centric, per-copy business models, and begin to focus more on alternative business models such as licensing, subscriptions, integrating content into LMSs, and exploitation of sub rights, the long tail alone may not suffice to make up for losses in print sales.
Metadata (data about data)
(from "Threat or Menace," 1993)“A publisher can offer its titles in an enriched context, supplemented by catalogue copy, reviews, blurbs, unbounded by the constraints of time and print dollars. The reader wins from an enriched browsing environment...”
Today, metadata can be more important and of more value than the data it describes. Digital publishers can now manage their metadata as a “single source of truth,” using software which captures and houses not only descriptive metadata such as price, author names, and ISBN, but also semantic data such as key words and phrases and taxonomies that enable interoperability of content chunks while enhancing findability online. Metadata management can thrive in cloud-based workflows where it can be harvested at every step of the content creation, production, publishing, and reading process. Collaboratively generated as a byproduct of the publishing and reading work itself, metadata moves us away from old product-based workflows, where single individuals managed descriptive metadata on Excel sheets housed on their desktops. Modern Internet publishing systems thrive in an open and collaborative environment. Metadata, like the content it describes, needs to live in an environment where it can change as content evolves.
Going Viral and the Meritocracy of Mind
(from "Threat or Menace," 1993) “Word travels incredibly fast on the net, and the online books that thrive will have to rely on recommendations and word of mouth on the net. A meritocracy of ideas may emerge. Advertising may not play the big role it does in printed books; the glitz and the packaging may be supplanted by an emphasis on content.”
On optimistic days, we may think that, if all earthlings had equal and open access to the Web, a true meritocracy of mind could emerge. But even those living in a well-managed meritocracy cannot drink from a fire hose. The meritocracy of mind is not a free-for-all where all enjoy the open mic. The new publishing paradigm may take the shape of a mediated information community, valuing the most precious commodity of all – the attention of the reader. If a meritocracy of mind arising from today’s contentsphere is to result in anything more than a 21st century “Tower of Babble,” created and recreated every second like a movie in fast forward, contributed to by billions of device-devoted thumb clickers, then our publishing industry needs to reinvent and revitalize itself with new editorial capabilities to find, curate, refine, publish, archive, and reuse multimedia content.
Talking about smartphones before they even existed in their current incarnations, no less dominated our culture as they do today:
(from "Threat or Menace," 1993) “...William S. Burroughs, prophet, poet and drug addict, saw ahead to our present dilemma. ‘The study of thinking machines,’ he wrote in Naked Lunch, ‘teaches us more about the brain than we can learn by introspective methods. Western man is externalizing himself in the form of gadgets... The C-charged brain is a berserk pinball machine, flashing blue and pink lights in electric orgasm. C pleasure could be felt by a thinking machine, the first stirring of hideous insect life.’
One analogous manifestation of that insect life is today’s GPS, which, when turned on, dims our own brain’s capability to know its own terrestrial location, rendering the world as flat as a screen so we can no longer distinguish east from west. Insect-like, we buzz about, our smartphones a-pinging; we are stimulated by being connected, are regaled with communications from many people and systems as we thumb and swipe our colorful plastic pocket devices, unaware perhaps of the human being sitting opposite us on the train. Earbuds in, we forget how to converse, how to sing, how to remember a poem or a phone number. The machine gets smarter, absorbing and reconnecting the bits of our lives, all the personal information we willingly or unwittingly surrender for the sake of convenience and so we can “get stuff done.” Whether deliberately posted on Facebook, or inadvertently permissioned in an iPhone setting, second by second, we now publish who we are, what we are doing, with whom, what we think, where we live, what the world sounds and looks like to us. In the vast sea of data resulting from this harvesting of human actions, in the massive Google servers sunk in and cooled by the melting Polar ice cap, the insect runs its queries and algorithms and becomes better able to predict the future, to control its creator, man.
Convergence in the Cloud
(from "Threat or Menace," 1993): “How to erase the incompatibilities among hardware, software, and our own personal wetware — what will flatten out and eliminate those barriers, those delimiters of separateness — time and space? I'm not speculating about machines to be invented sometime soon. I'm suggesting linking together online and plugging into the biggest collective machine ever invented. It's plain vanilla, cross-platform ASCII. It's here. It's now. This is the Internet... there's the hypertext book that makes you and the way you read part of the book itself. Your unique version is digitized, recorded, and thus immediately transferable to your neighbor in a way impossible when we were all solo armchair readers. The technology enables us to get inside each other's heads on an unprecedented mass scale.”
Today’s move to the cloud effectively achieves this Xanadu, a device-independent collaborative thinking and creating environment, infinite in size. And it’s no longer about ASCII, plain, flat display, but XML (and its superset SGML) that rules, as a standards-based tagging system that enables content to interoperate and grow and evolve in new ways that involve the recorded reading environment – and the reader, as in the case of LMSs.
Twenty years ago, there were big database publishers like Lexis/Nexis that lawyers subscribed to; such subscription database models have become increasingly important. And collaboration is greatly enhanced in the cloud; content creation no longer has to be the purview of one individual author struggling in a document jungle of version control hell. In Google Docs, for example, there is no SAVE button, and many authors can collaborate on one idea space or publication in real time, essentially liberating the content from the document format altogether and into the ether realm of ideas. We step further away from copies, from individual authors controlling individual files. The convergence involves then not only the content, but also the authors and readers converge as well, in a digital schoolroom/stage that is still in the process of being invented, and is almost guaranteed to make us truly “other,” as predicted by MIT’s Frank Urbanowski back in 1993.
(from "Threat or Menace," 1993) “... But as we introduce for-pay information services online, the most pressing concern to authors and publishers seems to be loss of control, letting the genie out of the bottle and never realizing any income from work released in online form...”
Today’s Open Access (OA) publishing in fact takes this prediction a step further, by instituting author-pay fees; many scholarly OA journals now charge their authors between $500 and $2,500 to publish in their peer-reviewed journals. So it is not just having their content available for free, but having to pay for the privilege of getting published that becomes an issue for today’s online authors.
Digital Rights Management (DRM)
(from "Threat or Menace," 1993 ) “...Perhaps one could program one's personal knowbots to search out text strings or whole articles from one's own copyrighted prose and report back where it's being used and for what. The idea smacks of Thought Police, but in an environment where the immediate working currency is original thought, something along these lines might well evolve...”
Whole businesses are evolving in the digital watermark space, randomly inserting these watermarks at a cost of just pennies per book; some digital watermark companies like Performance Systems International also sell “thought police” services to publishers, searching out, identifying, and even pursuing and prosecuting infringers. Such DRM activities appear to throw sticks into the wheels of the Web, for DRM-protected content is not easily interoperable, is not built to grow and evolve with other content as it is used. Instead of encouraging collaboration, DRM tends to criminalize it. We saw what can happen to copyright infringers back when the music industry imploded, primarily around peer-to-peer technology and specifically Napster. The music industry launched and sometimes won outsized lawsuits against students and other individuals for downloading free songs. Napster was shut down, but peer-to-peer persists and will continue to do so as long as every client can be a server, as long as the net has holes in it through which to breathe. It is incumbent on book publishers to learn from their colleagues in the music industry and adopt new approaches to content generation, publication, maintenance, archiving, and ongoing valuation that encourage rather than discourage free use.
Complementarity of print and online
(from "Threat or Menace," 1993) “...We believe that these releases will also complement the printed versions of the authors’ works and serve to spur sales of the printed books. It just doesn't seem likely that people will want to sit and scroll through hundreds pages of text as a linear reading experience. Anyone sampling an online book who really wants to read the book in a traditional manner will probably just go and order the book...”
This comment didn’t accommodate the success of the Kindle or Nook, but given the opacity of Amazon’s sales reporting, their exploitation of publishers’ content, and predatory pricing practices designed to drive sales of their own Kindle device, it’s difficult to determine if this 1993 observation is correct. We need to take into consideration the fact that once it has been sliced, diced, re-aggregated and pushed through a new interface like an LMS, the long-form content (aka book) with its linear reading interface may be threatened with extinction anyway. Online, and particularly through LMSs, the user responds to questions in the LMS and accesses new chunks of content based on what was learned. Online, shorter is better, so much so that even newspapers display their content in heading bursts much akin to what one sees on a cell phone. In other words, print formats seem to be adapting into online formats and displays, rather than vice versa, suggesting what may turn out to be profound change in our reading and capabilities for abstract thought.
(from "Threat or Menace," 1993) “...immediate books on almost any popular passing fad or personality enjoying his fifteen minutes in the limelight... Now, if the Internet is decentralized, and costs are minimal for online publication, what role then remains for publishers? Can't anyone put online the unpublished memoirs of Uncle Joe? Of course he can, but that doesn't mean anyone will read it...”
The surge in self-published books and content argues for the perseverance, in a new form, of the traditional publishing industry value-adds, primarily editorial in nature, of selection, refinement, marketing, monitoring, and archiving. Absent some new form of publisher to fill the void, how can one reader possibly select what is true and accurate, what content one ought to pay attention to?
Digital Literacy/Digital Darkness
(from "Threat or Menace," 1993) “...electronic codification might preserve our own culture, perhaps in fact reincarnating the oral tradition....”
Literacy: The ability to read and write. Unless we take action to preserve not only data, but the applications and environments on which the data runs–in other words, unless we properly archive and/or continuously update our entire publishing environmen–then we may well be headed for an age of “digital darkness” (a term I first heard from Vint Cerf in 2015) when not just the data itself, but any component of the environment that hosts, delivers, and renders our data accessible to us becomes obsolete, which is happening at a faster and faster pace. Such digital darkness could become dire in the face of our society’s collective loss of print literacy. Our digital native children and grandchildren may be screen literate, but they may become strangers to the long-form book, which requires sustained attention and ability to concentrate in order to read and understand. But as music is preserved in YouTube, perhaps there is promise for the publishers of tomorrow,in republishing a new kind of oral tradition that has morphed into the new, smartphone-powered “video tradition.”
A May 2015 Cisco Systems white paper, “Visual Networking Index: Forecast and Methodology, 2014-2019” projects that by the year 2019, 90% of the content on the web will be video. Words appear to be shrinking in importance! Might books then become mere metadata for videos? If we communicate in Facebook posts and tweet photos with some “lol” metadata attached – are we literate? Handwriting is not taught anymore. Letter writing is becoming a lost art. Self-correcting, thumb-driven phones encourage one to send a picture of a heart rather than find the words to express the amorous sentiment. It seems like we are becoming more isolated even as we converge into the online hive, and perhaps through video-enabled oral traditions new publishers will enable our culture to survive into a new type of collective being.
The danger of lost literacy on theInternet became apparent early. On November 22, 1993, Publishers Weekly noted:
...but one thing is for sure: Book publishers need to be involved, if only to assure that the information superhighway is not just a vast video-on-demand shopping mall. As all forms of other media are zooming along the superhighway, according to Fillmore, publishers are responsible for keeping alive the works upon which the past five centuries of Western civilization have been built. ‘Publishers, as major content holders, need to get on the bus,’ she warns. ‘The capability of not using words is right around the corner. If we as a culture don’t preserve our words, then there goes our abstract thought.’
Sea Change in Publishing
(from "Threat or Menace," 1993) "... Increased speed and volume have led to high job turnover, a blurring of disciplines. Our computerized tools allow the editor to become a typist, a designer and a typesetter; the designer becomes a software junkie, a graphic artist, a prepress house...”
Back in 1993, there was a real publishing “house.” For example, I started my career at Little, Brown and Co. in 1976 at 34 Beacon Street in Boston, the old Cabot Mansion. All of us had clearly defined jobs, worked 9-5, and had our corporate status conferred by physical trappings like the kind of typewriter used (only women had electric typewriters – men’s were manual), lamp (men had floor lamps, women had desk lamps), or the rug (editors had Oriental rugs). Management all worked on the second floor, and men had to wear a suit and tie to enter there. Bookshelves abounded, and the waiting room contained a complete library of 100 years of the company’s books.
Desktop computers didn’t exist, nor did cellphones or email. There were no faxes, no passwords, and there was one Xerox machine for the entire company. Credit cards were relatively new and few young professionals had one. Manuscript submissions arrived as typescripts, sometimes as handwritten manuscripts, and editing was conducted with a blue pencil. Trade books took nine months to gestate from manuscript into bound book, and they were published twice a year, as spring and fall lists. Many authors made a living from writing books, living off of advances and royalties.
In today’s publishing house, by comparison, everyone has a computer and a cell phone; many work from home or remotely, communicating virtually. Bookshelves are less important than, say, an adaptable cell phone charger, in today’s publishing office. Online content management systems have converted a more leisurely and thoughtful editorial process into a metrics-rich, bottom-line-driven endeavor, while the Internet has lowered or eliminated the barriers to entry to the industry itself. Suddenly, everyone is a publisher. Radical market redefinition, together with increasing competition from nontraditional and self-publishers, cause publishers to retool what they are selling, from paper books into all things “e.” To understand what’s happening, let’s look behind the outward face – the products of an industry undergoing profound and inalterable change – to see how jobs throughout the industry have changed radically or disappeared altogether during the Internet revolution.
Receptionist and switchboard operator. Status: Replaced by a door with a lock code and a phone tree.
File Clerk. Status: Gone. In the days of cloud storage, once initial scanning of legacy paper files has been done, the files organized, and each company employee trained in the workflow of where to place what file and when, this job no longer exists. Oversight of the company archive becomes a new information technology or knowledge management position.
Secretary. Status: Threatened with extinction. Desktop computers with spell checkers, formatting capability, and file storage capacity have largely assumed the secretary role. Now, almost everyone can type and manage their own files, and email has replaced physical mail and tangible manuscripts; every worker handles their own phone calls.
Typesetting industry. Status: Largely extinct. Since the day of Gutenberg and moveable type, typesetters have served publishers. In the 1980s with the advent of desktop publishing, every PC or Mac typist became a potential typesetter, a death knell to an industry which provided significant quality control to book publishers during the carefully staged production processes, from galleys to pages, mechanicals to blues, each stage overseen by a proofreader. Even the knowledge and language about what this quality control process entailed has become arcane, along with the former tools of this tactile trade – rubber cement, T squares, mechanical boards and white-out.
As content developers assume a more diverse suite of output options, traditional typesetting tasks (specifically, tagging) seep upward to earlier stages in the production chain. For example, copyeditors are called on to tag heads as well as body fonts such as italics; editors and authors may enter metatags for keywords and concepts that might be reapplied by the indexer or Search Engine Optimization (SEO) specialist. The suggestion that publishers are content developers enraged publishers in 1993. Publishers Weekly (November 22, 1993) noted that:
...Harper’s Janet Wikler says she gets annoyed when technology executives lump publishers into a category they call ‘content providers.’ ‘The term “content provider” is extremely offensive to us,’ Wikler says. ‘Many technology companies don’t understand that we do more than provide content.’ Publishers are the ones who gauge what the public wants to read, Wikler explains. And book editors are the ones who try to add context to material and arrange the material in a sensible sequence and layout ... ‘the navigational architecture belongs just as much to us as it does to the technology companies,’ she says.
Printer. Status: Radically altered. POD is redefining the industry, eliminating significant barriers of entry to publishing by eradicating what used to be one of the most risk-intensive and financially challenging aspects of being a publisher – deciding on the size of print runs and paying for printing, inventory, and storage of printed books. Guesstimating how many of any given book to print was a challenge every time out, requiring close collaboration of the editor, marketing director, manufacturing buyer and management. POD allows publishers to only print books as customers order and pay for them, effectively eliminating this problem entirely.
Acquisition Editor (and Substantive Editor and Line Editor). Status: Vital to the publisher, with tasks and workflow radically altered. Acquisition editors select tomorrow’s content for tomorrow's market – they are the lifeblood of the industry. The workflows have changed radically since 1993, however. Today, manuscripts are attached files in email, rather than paper manuscripts appearing on the doorstep in distinctive agents’ boxes (literary agents being themselves a filter). Today, often the acquisition editor is not the same person who collaborates with the author to edit and ready the book for production. Where the acquisition editor used to put pencil to paper and edit the books they acquired, these days, that level of edit is usually farmed out to freelancers or managed by the authors themselves. Increasing use of “book doctors” and otherwise outsourcing the editorial function further diminish the core strength and brand of traditional trade publishers.
Sales and Marketing. Status: Radically altered. Each publisher used to field a team of salesmen, reaching out to a strong and diverse bookstore population to build personal relationships among wholesalers and retailers and inform two-way communication channels between the market and the publishers. The chains (Barnes and Noble, Walden, Dalton, most now defunct) began to change this two-way communication channel in the 1960s and 1970s, with the chains becoming the tail that wagged the publishing dog by controlling publishing activities through their aggressive buying (and returning) behavior. Trade publishing is the only industry that sells its products on a returnable basis, meaning the bookstore is essentially a consignment operation, which business arrangement can work only in an environment of good faith, trust, and two-way communication – a faint memory in the age of Amazon, which sells 30-40% of every trade publisher’s list. In today's Amazonian business arrangements, the publisher has likely lost control of its pricing and contact with its customers. Though there are generally no returns on “e” products, their price is so diminished in many cases that the returns problem pales by comparison. Online, a publisher’s sales and marketing efforts are less people- and relationship-centric and increasingly more “passive,” becoming part of the editorial workflows (metatagging and taxonomy building during copyediting and indexing phases, for example) with social media efforts to increase findability of content as opposed to employees selling books face to face. Sales and marketing become more the purview of careful and consistent content management than discrete human efforts within a well defined producer-to-bookstore market chain. Social media efforts also entail disaggregation and clustering or interlinking of content.
Copyeditor and Proofreader. Status: Vital value-add for publishers, though these specialties have largely ceased to exist within a single department in-house, and the work now falls to freelancers who work for many different companies, further weakening the individual publishers. Though computerized spell checkers, thesauri, self-correct features and style sheets can make a copyeditor’s job easier, there remains a strong need for literate humans to participate editorially and add value to an author’s manuscript. Publishers would do well to shore up their editorial departments, strengthen their brands and distinguish their content as high-quality, refined and true, and aimed at a particular readership, distinguishing it from the glut of unexamined, self-published content.
Indexer. Status: Increasing value; morphing into metatagger and thesaurus developer. In the unpublished “The Art of Indexing,” Gordon Brumm described a book’s index as analogous to the infrastructure beneath a house. This information or idea infrastructure achieves a new permanence, accessibility and value in an environment of internetworked content. The resulting metadata and taxonomies open up the potential for semantic tagging, which renders content more fungible, ready to be sliced, diced, recombined...and found.
Graphic Design. Status: Radically changed. As the days of print-only book design draw to a close, today’s content designer needs to develop skills in print, graphic, web and, most importantly, information design, which involves an understanding of the content’s meaning or semantics, which in turn informs both information architecture and display.
Subsidiary rights specialists and permissions editors. Status: Growing significantly in importance. These used to be rather subsidiary positions within the company which have gone through significant change, even complete redefinition, thanks to the Internet. Subrights used to be defined by clear distinctions between industries (such as TV, movies, even hardcover and paperback books) and boundaries around sales territories. Thanks to off-the-shelf translation memory programs that supplement machine translation capacity, and POD, a publisher can now sell directly to a customer in, say, Estonia, delivering content in his native language within days of a book’s purchase. Given such immediate disintermediation of the traditional production and sales chain, it may be incumbent upon publishers to remove the “sub” from “subrights” and beef up their licensing and permissions departments with a stronger focus on licensing and content re-aggregation and reuse.
We can look forward and see that successful online publishers are already beginning to emerge, and many now extinct jobs are supplanted by new ones, such as:
- Social Media expert
- Project Manager with a stronger role in multimedia content
- Taxonomist/metadata manager
- Multimedia specialist and videographer
- Translation Memory manager
- Accessibility editor
- IT, Security and Standards specialist
- Knowledge Manager
- Information Architect
- DRM and Copyright protection expert
- Learning Management Resources editor
- Subsidiary rights editor
- Rights and permissions editor
- Business Model Consultant
While there may be overlaps with some of the 20th century publishing jobs described above, we are seeing a fundamental industry shift which points to a different and more evolved industry than the one we knew in 1993, when I noted that
...we'll discover some ways we might make sense of, and dollars from, the consensual hallucination of our electronic age... the online book might ultimately serve as a data stream, protean, updated regularly, so readers keep returning to get the most recent information or contribution. Tax and investment guides, software manuals, medical reference, drug books, current events books, anything that should be kept up to date is a prime candidate for online, ongoing publication.
But the question remains: will it be today’s traditional publishing industry that steps up and provides this service, offering customized access to granular information that is available in both print and multimedia electronic formats? If so, this new kind of publishing will not involve protecting 20th century static content assets so much as it will require extending and enhancing the traditional editorial strengths of selecting and refining content for particular audience groups, enabling readers to rely on that content as true, along with the development of new business models for contained and disaggregated content–business models that accommodate international and multi-language content management and licensing. Tomorrow’s Internet publishing business will see an online system where content values change and float, one that deploys new and unprecedented user-gets-paid business models along with the traditional user-pays models, depending on the state and rate of change of both poles of the equation, reader and content. Liberated from its containers, living and breathing, content may then begin to assume the form not of an insect, as William Burroughs put it, but an angel, as we humans, together with our machines, approach the capability to publish together at the speed of thought.
Laura Fillmore has been redefining traditional publishing in the digital space since 1982. She is the founder and president of Open Book Systems, Inc., a publishing services company based in Rockport, MA and publisher for Protean Press.