Four roles for publishers: staying relevant when you are no longer a gatekeeper

Bookbuilders of Boston,
a nonprofit membership organization for publishing professionals, held
a panel on June 11 about open publishing. It attracted an usually
large number of attendees–about 60–revealing the curiosity its
members have toward the potential changes created by this movement.

I was one of the panelists, along with managers from MIT Press and
Harvard University Press. In addition to a discussion of the core
topic of open publishing–that is, distributing documents free of
charge, often under a license that permits free alteration and
distribution–I laid out a larger vision that places the publisher in
a context where contributors hold conversations online and share large
amounts of material freely among themselves. That vision is the
center of the following remarks.

When trade publishers are invited to speak, we seem to be expected to
follow a certain script. We must stress the importance of finding new
ways to distribute and market our material online. We have to point
out that only 15% of a book’s cost goes to shipping and printing. We
champion the importance of supporting authors financially, shed a tear
or two for our sister industry, journalism, and so on.

When staff from O’Reilly Media are invited to speak, we defy
expectations by throwing out all of that stuff, talking instead about
the excitement exploring new technologies that can change people’s
lives, about working together to educate each other, about how sharing
information in communities can help us all grow. This is the open
source movement in a nutshell, as it were.

Tonight I’ll take a somewhat in-between position: I’ll talk about
business models, but from the standpoint of open online content.

The bedrock principle in this environment is that the publisher is no
longer a gatekeeper. Anything can go online to be linked to, rated,
berated, or anything else people want to do with it. Since we are no
longer gatekeepers, publishers have to focus on how we add quality.

Sound nice–but that puts us in a real quandary, because the elements
of quality we have seized on so proudly over the decades no longer
matter as much. We have to recognize the new environment we’re in and
find new meaning for ourselves.

This is a classic application of the principles from The
Innovator’s Dilemma
, the classic book by Clayton M. Christensen,
where he talks about changes caused by disruptive technologies. In our
case, disruptive social norms are just as important.

In many areas of publishing–including certainly my own, computer
books–there are enormous resources of free online material and
innumerable forums where individuals can quickly and conveniently post
their own observations. Much of the material can be edited and
redisplayed instantly, particularly on wikis. That is the context in
which we have to define the publisher’s new roles.

I won’t discuss marketing in this talk because I’m not a marketing
person and because the rules are changing so fast that I’m afraid of
making any predictions about what works. Focusing instead on content
production, I’ve divided the roles publishers play in adding quality
into four parts. For each one, I’ll discuss how we’re affected by the
presence of so much online material.

Proofing for grammar, syntax, and consistency of usage

Publishers spend a lot of time making documents look professional and
enforcing standards. We’re obsessed with getting every comma and
semi-colon right, ensuring that capitalization is consistent, and so

I think this as a valuable contribution to quality. Sometimes someone
reading an article will stop and as me, “Here’s an abbreviation
spelled two different ways–does it refer to the same thing or two
different things?” And sometimes I’ll read a sentence that’s missing a
word, and have to go over it two or three times to see how the parts
fit together. Proofreading can resolve real problems in comprehension.

But many modern readers don’t value proofreading, because it comes at
a cost. This cost, of course, is the extra time proofreading adds to
publication. The modern reader would rather have the document right
now, so he can get his tweet out before his colleague does. First
tweet wins.

Proofreading is also like cleaning the Aegean Stables. I’ve found
myself in the situation where I edit a whole book and get it looking
really professional, then find that someone goes in the files the next
day to make some updates–and there goes all my hard work.

But publishers can still offer professional proofreading. The time
this is useful is when an organization needs a professional looking
document–for instance, when it wants to print an online book in order
to show off the organization’s capabilities to a potential client. In
the same situation where you take off your T-shirt and don a
pants-suit, you want a professional-looking text. And publishers may
be able to get revenue in such situations.


A more significant contribution publishers make to quality is
fact-checking. Many newspapers and magazines hire staff to do it;
technical journals and book publishers such as O’Reilly pay outside
experts a few hundred or couple thousand dollars to perform the same

Few authors and readers online hold the view expressed by a

blogger in last Sunday’s New York Times

who said, “Getting it right is expensive. Getting it first is cheap.”
But there is an attitude among responsible bloggers–which I adopt
myself–that if you’ve gathered enough of the facts to propound a
valid opinion, you can go ahead and put the opinion out for debate. If
other people see errors or have evidence that weakens your argument,
they can cite them in comments. If you write a wiki, they can edit it.
In any case, you’re encouraged to express yourself so long as you’re
sure you’re heading in the right direction.

This approach is more limited than many of its adherents think,
though. In the computer field I work in, especially, a lot of online
participants hold to an essential philosophy of logical positivism.
They believe that if enough facts are brought to bear and enough
people comment, we will all converge on the truth. If this were the
case, most of the articles in Wikipedia would be perfect by now.

But if course this is not the case, because new information, new
opinions, new interpretations get added all the time, and with them
new errors are introduced as well.

So there may be a role for publishing professionals in fact checking.
It will probably not be a large part of our work, though because in
the Internet age fact checking is a lot easier than it used to be.
Just don’t rely on Wikipedia.

Editing unclear and ambiguous passages

This task is probably where publishers create the most value, and
where they can make some of their biggest contributions to Internet
content. I find it sad when I read a document by someone who is
clearly brilliant and knows his material well, and come across a
passage that doesn’t make sense because no editor said, “You have to
work on this.”

And every editor knows the work involved in making text comprehensible
by ripping up paragraphs, rearranging points in the proper order,
introducing connecting or transitional material, and even adding facts
that the author took for granted but that the editor knows have to be
explicitly told to the reader.

I’ve noticed that the give and take of modern online media compensates
even for poorly argued text. If someone doesn’t understand a point,
she can just post a question. The author can come back to cover it in
more detail, and after a couple rounds of discussion they work out the
meaning. Other people can join in to offer explanations.

Still, I look at these exchanges and think, “A lot of people could
have saved a lot of time if someone had just edited the document.”
And some projects are recognizing the value of having an expert eye
look over a document, something few amateurs know how or take time to

Integrating facets of a large-scale text

We all know the difference between reading an anthology of diverse
articles for different audiences, written from different points of
view in different tones of voice, and reading a 250-page book so well
integrated that you start on page 1 and can’t put it down till you
reach the end. Achieving this quality is where publishers shine, and
I haven’t found any process or mechanism in collaborative, online
document production that can carry it off.

But even this has diminished value in the Internet world, because
hardly anyone reads a 250-page book at once. No one has time. If we
read chunks of a few thousand words at a time, we could just as well
read documents the way they usually appear on the Internet: many small
contributions by different people scattered among different web sites.
(This very article, topping 1,500 words, is about as long a text as
most people would tolerate.)

That doesn’t mean the problem of integration has disappeared; it has
just shifted. Now the public needs help finding their way among the
different documents. Hints are needed as to what to read first, where
to go when they encounter a new concept they need to learn, and how to
harmonize documents that use different terms or approach a problem
from different angles.

I think publishers can play a major role helping to organize content
culled from around the Internet. But the process is a lot different
from organizing material into a book. It requires a new online tools
and a type of different interaction between experts and those tools.
I will leave you with a pointer to an

article I wrote proposing some tools
and another pointer to my

collection of articles about community educational efforts

In summary, publishers still have roles to play when we are no longer
gatekeepers. But we have to renew our relevance in environments where
enormous amounts of information are put online by different
participants, with ample facilities for commenting and linking. These
new technologies and norms force us to look at every area where we
traditionally boast of adding quality, and to find new ways to apply
our skills.

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