This essay originally appeared in Issue No. 1 of Contents Magazine.
What is it that we do now?
This question was posed to me by the digital editor of a longstanding print magazine. It came at the end of a discussion that ranged from tablet apps and workflows to business models and markup, in which we agreed that everyone needed to learn and adapt, but no one quite knew what we were doing next. It’s a challenging question for two reasons: what we do is in flux, and so is who “we” are.
If the “we” is publishers, we’re not only talking about cardigan-wearing copyeditors and door-to-door book salesmen anymore. Some of us are still slinging hardcovers while others build fanzines around novels authored on cell phones. Still others work within the rubric of publishing without always adopting its name: on company blogs, local news sites, online magazines, niche presses, Kickstarted-book projects, limited-edition newspapers, and more. Publishing’s tent is bigger and more inclusive than at any time before.
And just as our tent is expanding, so too are our ideas about what we do. A complete description of our work would begin to define what it is that makes this our tent: What brought us all here? What are we hoping to achieve? Of all the assumptions and ideas we’ve dragged in with us, which are the babies and which the bathwater?
There are two key ingredients to a successful community: a place to gather, and things to talk about. Publishers provide things to talk about, in the form of content, whose principle byproduct has always been discussion. But for most of publishing’s history, the place was far from our reach. You had to board a plane or train, or put real miles on your car, to reach the people reading your work, and you simply couldn’t get to them all. You couldn’t build the kind of rapport that happens when you see someone every so often, and chat about what they thought of that last book, or ask after their kids. The distance between publishers, authors, and readers was meaningful and far.
But the web changed all that; we are now separated by no more than the few pixels of a submit button. Our readers can reach us just as easily as we can reach them. And they do, in ways as varied as blog comments, reviews, discussion forums, bookmark services, Facebook groups, and in the earnest and loving reports of typos and other errors.
And that brings us to our first bucket of bathwater: we can no longer think of publishing as a broadcast medium. It isn’t, not anymore. The web requires that we listen and converse as much as (if not more than) we ship. In fact, we cannot assume that publishing of any kind is a distinct activity from belonging to a community. Part of the job of a publisher today is to facilitate discussion—and that means being a part of it. It means that we publish for people, not to them.
This is just as important when what you’re selling isn’t the content itself, but a service or product tangential to it. At Typekit, a large part of our success can be attributed to a publishing strategy that focuses on content that makes us all smarter: we share how we do things at Typekit and what we’ve learned from them, and we commission other writers to share what they know. An ancillary business case can be made for much of that content, but ultimately the question we ask ourselves is how we can make our community better; and we can answer that question confidently because we are ourselves a part of it.
Likewise, in 1997, Jeffrey Zeldman and Brian M. Platz co-founded a mailing list to advocate for the burgeoning web standards movement. Designers and developers themselves, they started A List Apart because they recognized the need. More than a decade later, A Book Apart published its first book, HTML5 for Web Designers, and within hours sold thousands of copies—despite not belonging to any of the major book distributors. There is a direct line from that original mailing list to the launch of a new and successful publishing house (as well as events and agencies). The business model is a consequence of supporting the community—it’s a happy byproduct, not a means unto itself.
Of course, supporting a community is hard work, and it isn’t cheap. It’s expensive not only in time, but in spirit: you have to care about your readers. You have to stay up late wondering how you can make their days better. But the result is that you are beholden not to a particular platform, or even a certain kind of business, but to your people. And the more in touch you are with those people, the more likely you are to publish content (or sell a service, or build a product) they not only need, but love. Broadcast may be the bathwater, but community is the baby we didn’t used to have.
Of course, once you gather your community together, you need to keep them in the room with you. You do not do this by leveraging social media, or making content “sticky,” or in any number of other cynical, trendy ways that seek to exploit a group of people instead of supporting them. Rather, you keep your people close by crafting narratives around the values they hold dear—and the best way to do this is to embrace the value of the editor.
Something about the nature of digital content seems to give us permission to slack off editorially. Digital formats are routinely marked by slapdash editing and nonexistent proofreading—a sign of how little anyone cares. Many online publications rearrange content based on the needs of machines rather than people. As the web forces us to speed up our publishing process, editing is often the first thing to be thrown out.
Moreover, there are several kinds of editing, and each deserves its place. Acquisitions editing brings authors and titles together in ways that makes the collective value of the work greater than any single piece. Development editing ensures that each work is the best it can be—that the author can reach the reader as she intends. Least cared for but often most valuable is copyediting, which looks after the myriad details that make the text pleasurable. All of which is old news, but it’s babies all the way down.
Yet the work of the editor has changed. The same principles are at play, but the contexts in which we publish are new. Publishing in a dynamic format requires a different editorial workflow and approach than publishing in a static one. And therein lies a lot of bathwater: concern for only one context (say, the desktop) without care for others (a phone or tablet); software that imposes the needs of print on natively digital content; and publishing cycles that presume content comes to an end after it’s published.
To start, publishing across multiple platforms is not simply a matter of converting a file: what works in one context may not work in another. Whereas before we needed to be concerned with how the ink adhered to the paper, now we have to consider what happens to the text when it appears on a phone, or a TV, or is read aloud by a screenreader. And that means we have to understand how a computer interprets the text.
Content people are fond of leaving the code to the geeks while we debate the merits of the Oxford comma, but there is a difference between programming and markup. HTML, whose own name comes from the editor’s act of “marking up” a text, is an element of the text itself—a machine- and human-readable expression of the text’s underlying semantic structure. This is a language that we can and must speak, because it not only determines how the text looks but what it means.
Which brings us to more bathwater: WYSIWYG-style document editors that ignore the principles of semantic markup or prevent us from engaging with the text completely deserve a path down the drain. We need to adopt the mindset that markup—HTML, in particular—is part of our job, and we need to demand tools that let us do it.
As an added benefit, editing content natively means we need not be at the mercy of the pub date: that moment at which content becomes calcified. Instead of publishing we can deploy, iteratively and continuously—taking advantage of what the web does best. A story may begin as a single article, advance in a discussion thread, expand outward to other publications as an argument evolves, and then develop into a documentation or resource. It may be revised and updated, reframed in light of responses or new events, or retired if its work is done. In this way, publishing transforms from a single moment to a sustained process that sees the text through from generation to revision and release, and onward to a long and varied life.
Once born, the text is no longer alone in the world. We’ve been collecting texts and reorganizing them into something new almost as long as we’ve been putting ink to paper. But the act of anthologizing has started to come into its own on the web, a product of the abundance of content and our own newfound power to interact with it.
The word “anthology” may seem a bit musty, but let’s rescue it from the bathwater if we can. The traditional apparatus of an anthology is instructive: an introduction defines the themes and methods behind the selection; headnotes place each work inside this larger plan; glosses and annotations explicate and contextualize. But while the anthologies’ roots are in literary forms, its application to other texts are clear.
As an example, Mother Jones has taken to publishing explainer articles that, well, explain a particular news story; the articles are continuously updated while the story progresses—so that a reader can enter at any point in the traditional news cycle and still understand what’s going on. The articles are crudely integrated—they don’t neatly fit into the editorial or design systems in place around them—but their value to the reader even in this early form is clear.
Above all, the explainer articles frame the story in the way the reader thinks about it, not the way the newsroom does. That’s good, user-centered design—something we’ve been preaching on the web for a while, but which is only just now starting to infiltrate publishing’s space. And it speaks to one of the ways we have to start thinking about our work, which is that we’re not only releasing content into the world, but engaging with the many ways in which it is consumed.
Plus there is simply more of it—more content, from more directions, competing for our reader’s attention spans (which stubbornly refuse to expand). Good anthologizing helps your readers locate your work in the context of others, as well as navigate an abundance of ideas when time is short but knowledge essential. And it raises everyone’s worth in the process, by acknowledging that no work can survive on its own.
As with most things, there is a right way and a wrong way to do it: SEO-addled “curation” that simply gathers up content on a trending topic adds little value for readers; what’s needed is context and analysis—a narrative that threads different pieces of content together, forming a whole much greater than the sum of the parts. Just as you edit your list, you need to edit the world around you.
Let’s come back to that question of what we do. Publishers used to be gatekeepers, keeping the horde of mediocre content at bay, while supporting and improving the very best. And for the last century or so, that has more or less worked, mostly because the expense of being a publisher made the gate too high for just anyone to climb.
Now that’s changed. We are all just pennies and a click away from publishing anything, and all the new arrivals have pockets full of chutzpah, not cash.
All of which is exciting, because it means there are more people willing and able to experiment, more people in a position to try new things—perhaps succeeding, perhaps not—but in either case sharing what they learned. And whether we’re working on fanfiction or dataviz or old-fashioned chapbooks, there is one community to which we all belong: each other. And that means I can’t answer this question alone; we have to answer it together.
Tell me: what is it that you do?