The Journey to the World of Digital Publication: Not Every Stop is the Destination
Publishing is an ever-changing form of sharing information and ideas with wide audiences. There are numerous new ways for authors and creators to publish their content and get it to the public, but this sense of the word “publish” may not be the same as that of the word used in connection to hard-copy books, novels, magazines, and newspapers. The shift that is occurring which takes the population from print literacy to digital is opening up the way in which writers publish their content, but this publishing is not necessarily the same as publication.
It is difficult to discuss the idea of publication without an understanding of what it currently means and refers to. The definition moves and changes with the creation and innovation of new mediums and ways of sharing information. However, the most apt description might also be the most abstract:
Publication is not the sale of books, per se; it’s not the pursuit of beauty or the creation of a record or an archive. It’s not simply a tool for transmitting information; publication is a political strategy, the creation of a public. (Stadler, 2010)
In the above quotation, Matthew Stadler describes publication as “the creation of a public” rather than the assumed creation or sale of a book. This comment is a direct result of the shift from print literacy to digital literacy which is still taking place. Publication, to many, no longer conforms to the tight box in which it has stayed for the past half of a millennium. A new definition, such as the above, is needed to encapsulate all of the new facets of publishing and publication. Stadler also states that “digital distribution and affordable print-on-demand technologies are now a fact of publishing” (2010). There is no room for anachronism in publication; those wishing to give and share information must accept that digital is quickly becoming the prevailing media. Novel releases which once focused on cover art and book tours have grown to include e-books, author blogs, YouTube videos, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts. Perhaps growth is not the correct word for the changes which are taking place in publishing because digital distribution is past being added to hard-copies; it has begun replacing them. The public being created with each block of content—be it story, textbook, memoir, etc.—is much larger and more global than the publics of the past and marketing forms must keep up. The idea of the physical book is dimming as even the language it once lent to internet is being revoked: “The next step is clear: to drop the pretense of creating ‘pages’ of content at all and start making semantically structured chunks of (mostly) text that can be assembled, taken apart, and reassembled as needed” (Kissane, 2012). As the above quotation states, the pretense of mimicking books is growing irrelevant for the creators and managers of internet content. Publication is no longer restricted to all things book.
It is challenging to determine where the various platforms for content-creation—creative writing, personal journaling, reporting news, etc.—fit into the idea of publication. Stadler suggests that “[publication] should be cheap, non-exclusive, and easy to do” (2010). Blogging fits this description nicely. Websites like Tumblr, BlogSpot, WordPress, etc. exist for those who would like to have a free space for writing; sites such as these exemplify “cheap, non-exclusive, and easy to do”. Anyone with an email address, the information to share, and time to do it can be a blogger.
E-books, too, are somewhat simple to publish, judging by the number of self-published novels available through Amazon.ca and Chapters.ca. “The rise of desk-top publishing software and the internet in the late twentieth century, and widespread ebook [sic] publishing in the twenty-first, has enabled an explosion of self-publishing” (Murray & Squires, 2012). This platform allows authors and writers to bypass the publishing houses and ensure their books make it to the public. Some retailers, such as Amazon, have stepped into the publishing business in order to catch these self-publishing authors and, first, help them publish and, second, give them a place to sell their stories and content (Murray & Squires, 2012).
These two platforms for expression, blogs and e-books, are the focus, here, as both are less and less like the platforms of the past. E-books may keep up the pretense of being a book, but with ability to connect to comments and notes made by other readers, search specific words or phrases, and jump chapters, the gap between e-books and their paper predecessor is growing.
The question, then, is how are blogging and e-book self-publishing publication? If “[authors] no longer require a publisher to produce books”, then are they still publishing (Murray & Squires, 2012)? Some would say no, these platforms do not constitute publishing (or they do not, at the very least, constitute authorship): “The world has been used to bludgeon you into dumb shit. To put great stories on the shelf to build slideshows. To give up on quality and focus on quantity” (Madrigal, 2013). The worry that the content is suffering at the hands of the presentation is a considerable concern to those who have observed a number of industries give up quality for quantity. The following comment from the digital editor of The Atlantic magazine sums up the apprehension of the people creating the content: “while the best stuff tends to do far, far better than average, it is not always the best stuff that hits virally” (Madrigal, 2013). Popularity does not always follow good writing; it may, unfortunately, follow a song called “Friday” by a less-than-talented young woman.
The real problem may be in the assumption that quality must be a part of publication. There are publishing houses with teams of educated people working together to make already-good books great; the idea is that there is something elite or special about authors who are published. However, with the complete lack of exclusivity inherent to blogs and self-published e-books (and the internet, as a whole), the standard to which hard-copy books were held for so long may not be so important to the new forms of publication “[and] while the value of ‘content’ bottoms out, it’s clear where capital sees the real value in digital media — in the ownership of the platform” (Lamb, 2013). It would appear that with many sites, this last statement is definitely true: writing is exposure, but hosting is money.
It is one thing, though, to determine that blogging is publication, but the readers, the ones for whom all of this is done, may feel differently about the actual experience of reading a book versus reading a published work:
…we do lose…the legacy that comes with the artifact. That is, the inheritance of items that bear the evidence of the human hand and the inspiration that comes from such encounters. My comments on a blog post will not fade, but they do not carry the emotion of my father’s scribbles and wobbly underlines in the copies from his college library. (Nadel, 2011)
In the above excerpt, Ryan Nadel states that there is a variance between comments on a blog and comments in a book. So, for him, blogging may not be publishing in the same way that books are. This sentiment illustrates where he is in his shift from print literacy to digital literacy and it is likely the same place as many people who were born before digital literacy was really a thing. It is too early to determine how people like Nadel view e-books in comparison to their offline counterparts, but it is clear that human connection is a criterion of publication for many readers.
Conclusions and Questions Moving Forward
The next five to ten years will be interesting for those observing the shift from print to digital literacy. The physical book may become what Nadel calls it, an artifact. In the meantime, the thing on which to focus will be how blogs and e-books fair in the industry of publication. The estimation that e-books will flourish and blogs will become even more commonplace—like an extension of a Facebook status—could be very true or completely wrong. Publication is on the cusp of change; in some ways, it is already rambling forward, trying to find balance, but, in other ways, it is hanging on by its teeth, fighting the inevitable shift.