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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.

tags: , , , , , , , ,

Comments: 40

  1. let’s talk about your 4 points, one at a time, ok?

    > proofing

    do you mean catching sentences like this one?:
    > talking instead about the excitement exploring
    > new technologies that can change people’s lives

    i think you likely meant “the excitement of exploring”…

    so you didn’t have to have a publisher who would
    provide proofing for you, you got it from a reader.

    so all an author has to do is put their work in front of
    some readers who have volunteered to do proofing —
    perhaps as a sign of their fanhood for the author —
    and that work can be proofed up to a fairly high level.


  2. add proofing:
    > It requires a new online tools


  3. Clever argument, bowerbird–and I’ll definitely leave my typos in the article along with your comments on the site, so readers can ponder how much a proofread requires a professional copy-editor. I don’t have the experience to argue that a professional could do better than crowdsourcing by readers, but I remain convinced that the lat two aspects of quality can be provided better by professionals.

  4. > but I remain convinced that the lat two aspects

    c’mon now, andy, it’s like you’re not even trying…

    or should i say “its like your not even trying…”? ;+)


    p.s. i’ll get to those last two. right after i rip your
    “fact-checking” point into a million little pieces… :+)

  5. Simply put: publishers can stay relevant if they are also “authors” (in some way) of the works they publish.

    Example: conceiving a collective work and deciding the participation of the different contributors.

    For #1, #2, #3 I’m not sure you need a publisher: you only need better tools, you can use a web 2.0 approach (bowerbird) if you have a fan base of some sort (a “tribe”), or you can buy freelance services.

  6. All comments above demonstrate why and how the use of professional copyediting may enhance a discussion. An essential attribute for content access you may actually purchase.

    A writer needs an editor, like an athlete needs a good coach, to help improve their performance.

  7. Nice article (and great talk for BBB). FWIW, I divide “Editing unclear and ambiguous passages” into two quite distinct pieces: (1) clarification of poorly worded materials, and (2) true development work that includes considerations of pedagogy (such as pacing, prerequisites needed for each idea, anticipation of questions from a typical reader, etc.) and logical structure. The latter can really be seen as helping the author create a better manuscript in the first place, and that seems to me to be a real value-add for a publisher. It reassures readers (“This will be worth my time because it’s obviously been thought out”) and attracts authors (“I will use this publisher to get to a beter final product”).

  8. Max Sernat de Beaujac

    Occupational editing is a very tedious and complicated series of tasks. A professional developmental or copy editor surely won’t edit any byte for free unless very very motivated. What would be the incentives for quality crowd-proofing/fact checking/coaching if not money? just the glory of it?

  9. Editors have it rough. Whenever someone hears you’re an editor they’re twice as likely to point out the typos in your work. This whole post has become very meta as a result.

    But seriously, thanks for the talk. I think you make a lot of good points. One thing I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is that a lot of people on the Internet conflate the ease of posting information w/ the ease of conveying information. Clearly to any trained editor these are not the same thing, and I think there is real value publishers can add in this realm as you point out. The question is how to do that while still being “part of the conversation” and how to do that and still be profitable. Perhaps part of the problem is that good editing is almost invisible. Good design stands out; a reader of a well-edited piece will do what they were intended to do, focus on the content and not on GUM, organization, or factual errors.

  10. “Aegean Stables”? Your Herculean editor should’ve let you know that those are the Augean Stables.

  11. > Whenever someone hears you’re an editor they’re
    > twice as likely to point out the typos in your work.

    i’m fact-checking your comment, tardiff, and i wonder
    if you have a source for that “twice as likely” statistic?


    well, then we’ll have to change it to “more likely” and
    hope that we can squeeze that by the legal review…

    it’s a cute point; i’d hate to lose it to the lawyers. ;+)


    however, as i’m sure is quite apparent to most people
    — including andy — my notes about his typos were
    definitely _not_ “meta”, but addressed the very _meat_
    of his arguments, by showing — in a concrete way —
    that his lack of a “publisher” for this post did _not_
    mean that it was doomed to live forever with typos.

    your readers — assuming you have any — will find
    any typos relatively quickly, and — if you want —
    will inform you about them so that you can fix ’em.

    and if you don’t have any readers, well then i guess
    typos in your work don’t really matter a bit, do they?


    p.s. besides, anyone who is really listening can hear
    tons of complaints about e-books being released by
    big publishers today that have scads of typos in ’em.

  12. max said:
    > What would be the incentives for
    > quality crowd-proofing/fact checking/coaching
    > if not money? just the glory of it?

    indeed. why would anyone do anything at all except for money?


  13. The survival of textbook publishers will depend on them leveraging the most important difference between entertainment and education. Entertainment just has to be, well, entertaining. Educational content has to be complete and accurate. Who has the editorial team to guarantee that what an author wrote is correct? Textbook publishers. Who has the production team to create a successful user interface for educational content, regardless of the delivery medium? Textbook publishers.
    What’s keeping them from making the shift? Most of their revenue still comes from the sale of ink-on-paper books. But that revenue stream will dry up as surely as it did for the music business. Publishers have the ability to beat the rebels at their own game, but only by changing their business model to one that reflects the real value they add by guaranteeing that content is correct and user-friendly.
    [From a comment I wrote on Susan Piver’s February 11, 2009 blog post http://www.susanpiver.com/wordpress/2009/02/11/publishers-dont-do-what-the-music-business-did/%5D

  14. ok, now we’ll take on point #3, which is _editing_.

    first, i’m glad andy admits up-front that “the give and take”
    of online discourse can “compensate” for lack of editing…

    in return, i’m willing to grant that all writers need editing.

    however, some writers need editing much less than others.

    editing is not something incompatible with writing per se.
    for many writers, most writing is rewriting (a.k.a. editing).

    andy, for instance, has done a good job with this post of
    finding the internal thread and following it fairly closely,
    and his various copy-editing flaws have no bearing there.

    plus, even for writers who do indeed need a lot of editing,
    it’s not like they can’t hire an editor. heck, given how the
    publishing houses are laying off people, you can probably
    find a high-quality editor who’d love to have you hire them.

    but even with editing, it’s not as if you can’t get _excellent_
    feedback from ordinary readers if you actively solicit them.

    unclear or ambiguous passage? they will tell you about it.
    assuming knowledge not in existence? they’ll say “what?”

    now, in some cases, they won’t have the wisdom to know
    how to fix the problems. but they will sure point ’em out!

    o’reilly knows this. that’s why they’ve put up experiments
    letting the public give feedback on books being written…
    (and i’m sure you know other publishers who’ve done it.)

    but this isn’t something that authors can’t do themselves.

    and — as the range of experiments have shown clearly —
    authors find that feedback to be overwhelmingly useful…

    which means the smart authors _will_ do it, more and more.

    > “A lot of people could have saved a lot of time
    > if someone had just edited the document.”

    editing is extremely important.

    but publishers do not
    have a lock on editing.


  15. Max Sernat de Beaujac

    Editing is not (only) a matter of careful reading or rewriting or giving feedback: it’s the unwelcoming craft of keeping a work at a distance while, as editor Jim Thomsen said, “passionately giving a shit”. Before millions of invisible eyes made it unrewarding, one had once to learn it, practice it, and dedicate to it.

  16. Bowerbird, I agree that opening up the publishing process increases the chances of catching errors, but you ignore my point that this is essentially a distraction. The amount of space spent discussing the typos in Andy’s post far outweighs any substantive discussion of his main points, except insofar as proofing is one of his points, but in fact seems to be the point where he sees the most diminished value from publishers.

    So we’ve spent the most time discussing the least important point. I think most authors would rather have readers discuss the meat of their argument rather than be distracted by typos, and thus proofreading still is of value, even if diminished value.

    “and — as the range of experiments have shown clearly —
    authors find that feedback to be overwhelmingly useful…which means the smart authors _will_ do it, more and more.”

    Ok, where’s your source for this, since you’re so concerned w/ fact-checking? Publishers do not have a lock on editing, but they do have an expertise in editing that I do not see being wholly replaced by the crowd. The crowd might be able to replace #s 1 and 2 on Andy’s list (though in an “authoritative document” you would not necessarily want the crowd to have to perform this role), but in my experience most people do not have the skill or the time to do #s 3 and 4.

  17. The folks debating over reader-edited e-publishing mostly assume that authors and readers are intellectual peers, i.e., educated adults. An important role of publishing (and the cornerstone of the industry’s revenues) is education. It’s a big enough market segment to warrant its own debate.
    Textbook authors and readers aren’t intellectual peers, especially in the K-12 market. Those readers (students) are supposed to be learning facts and language skills, not compensating for authors’ ignorance of the same.
    Textbook publishers traditionally shouldered the accountability for the correctness of what got published. Those who argue that publishers are no longer needed in this role must answer to parents and taxpayers when they say: “We pay for schools where our children learn correct information and skills. Who do we hold accountable if what they learn isn’t correct?”
    If you take the publisher out of the loop, where does the buck stop? The parents? The classroom teacher? The local school district?
    Who protects your children from learning world history from someone who denies the Holocaust? That job is too important for crowdsourcing. Let’s not take the publishers off the job until we’re certain that someone else will do it.

  18. PublishingMojo: Your comments about textbooks are a good direction to explore, and they remind me that the recent announcement in California about digital, open textbooks came up at the same forum where I delivered the remarks in this blog. Unfortunately, forum attendees didn’t know much about the California announcement, and neither did other people I asked. When more details are announced, that would be a good topic for TOC.

  19. max said:
    > Before millions of invisible eyes made it unrewarding,
    > one had once to learn it, practice it, and dedicate to it.

    editing hasn’t been made “unrewarding”, not by a long shot.

    indeed, its importance will soon be magnified in importance,
    rather than relegated to its prior status of taken-for-granted,
    since the well-polished material will float to the top of the pile.

    good writers know with certainty the importance of editing…

    but there’s another dynamic at work here too. writing is a skill,
    such that the more you do it, the better you become at it, and
    blogging is giving lots of people lots of practice at writing, so
    they’re getting better and better, and have less need for editing.

    like i said, everyone needs an editor, but some need it less.


    tardiff said:
    > we’ve spent the most time discussing the least important point.

    i’m discussing the points in order. i expect to discuss each one
    to the degree that it needs to be discussed. as for everyone else,
    including you, you are free to discuss what you think is important.

    > I think most authors would rather have readers
    > discuss the meat of their argument rather than
    > be distracted by typos, and thus proofreading
    > still is of value, even if diminished value.

    you’re arguing both sides of your own argument there.

    let me know how you think it turns out… :+)

    this is not complicated. good authors use spellcheck.
    then they have some alpha-readers check for errors of
    the type that andy made at first — missing words, etc.
    (these things are traditionally caught by copy-editors.)

    then beta-readers comment on larger-scale problems,
    such as sections that need to be rearranged, and so on.
    (these issues are traditionally addressed by editors.)

    by the time the work goes out to your full set of readers,
    all of these problems should have been addressed nicely.

    > where’s your source for this,
    > since you’re so concerned w/ fact-checking?

    first of all, see how fact-checking gets done in cyberspace?
    you’re called to provide supporting evidence for your claims.

    almost all of the recent cases of publishing-house failures
    in regard to fact-checking have originated from cyberspace.

    so, to act like the publishing-houses do this thing _right_,
    and cyberspace does it _wrong_, is to get it bass-ackwards.

    now, as to your specific question, it’s very easy to find authors
    who say they benefited from involving readers in the process
    — just find the experiments where authors have tried it out!
    most of the ones who have tried it have gotten good results.

    if you don’t know where those experiments are, you have not
    done your homework, and you shouldn’t be asking me to do it.
    nonetheless, since i’m friendly, i’m happy to give you a pointer:
    try the if:book people at the institute for the future of the book;
    they’ve done 3 such experiments, and also developed a plug-in
    called comment-express that other places have been using too.

    you should also take a good look at pragmatic publishers…
    they’ve been running a “books in beta” program for a while.

    and 37signals has a book that grew out of their blog posts,
    and i’m sure they’d tell you their audience helped shape that.

    not every experiment goes so well… the “failures” generally
    revolve around authors who don’t seem to get any feedback,
    either because they don’t have core audience they can go to,
    or because the book is straightforward enough that readers
    don’t have anything to suggest in terms of making it better.

    but if an author does gets feedback, it’s usually worthwhile…


  20. been waiting for someone else to point this out, but i guess…

    bad> It attracted an usually large number of attendees
    new> It attracted an unusually large number of attendees


  21. again, waiting for someone else to jump in and help show
    that crowdsourcing your copy-editing can work all right,
    but if i’m the only one who’s gonna play the game, fine…

    bad> someone reading an article will stop and as me
    new> someone reading an article will stop and ask me


  22. bad> but if an author does gets feedback, it’s usually worthwhile…
    new> but if an author does get feedback, it’s usually worthwhile…

    You’re it.

  23. mojo said:
    > You’re it.

    excellent! thank you very much! :+)


    p.s. in case anyone is wondering,
    andy e-mailed me that he would
    leave his typos uncorrected here
    (even though he could fix them),
    as a demonstration of user fixes.
    of course, us comment-makers
    can’t edit our posts on this board.
    but even if i could, i would leave it,
    as a similar gesture toward the point.
    it is doing someone a favor when you
    point out there typos online, so they
    can correct them. especially with
    something like project gutenberg,
    it marches their e-texts to perfection.

  24. i said:
    bad> when you point out there typos online
    new> when you point out their typos online

    i’m it. :+)


  25. Andy, I notice you read the NYT article about Michael Arrington’s TechCrunch, but neglected Arrington’s allegations of Damon Darlin’s dishonesty and claim that between “Getting it right is expensive” and “Getting it right is cheap,” there were, according to Arrington, “three paragraphs of dialogue.”

    I’d be more encouraged about trade publishers’ place in editing internet content if you wouldn’t treat the Times like gospel. Arrington’s refutation of the image Darlin painted of him went up on TC ten days before you posted this, and four days before you spoke at the event in Boston. Why didn’t you bother to read the content you position yourself to edit?

  26. My own typos, my own need for an editor:

    “I notice you read” = “I notice you’ve read”

    “Getting it right is cheap” = “Getting it first is cheap”

  27. Peter: I think in hindsight you’re right. The question of what bloggers do is not central to the points in my article, and I didn’t research the Times quote as thoroughly as I would research, say a topic I’m covering in a book. I was making a rhetorical point, and you’ll notice the point I was making was that the quote was not representative of online publications.

    So I don’t think I did any harm, but I wish I had time to do in-depth research on this citation. It would have been more fair. But I’m sure there are other areas that deserve more depth, too.

    Thanks for bringing this up: a confirmation of what we’ve all been saying on this comment thread about the value of comments.

  28. ok, i think i’ve handled point #3 sufficiently…
    but if anyone disagrees, they can specify why.

    that leaves us with point #4 — harmonization
    of the contributions of multiple authors under
    the unifying perspective of a single voice…

    again here, i think andy has covered the yin
    and the yang quite well.

    and i think i even agree, for the most part,
    with his conclusion that this is something
    that can’t be accomplished by “the crowd”.

    where i would question him, however, is
    in how common this type of situation is…

    when i think of “joint authorship”, i think of
    wikipedia. there, however, the n.p.o.v. need
    helps to assure a consistent tone to the work;
    people know how a dictionary is “supposed”
    to sound, so they write to that internal sound.

    otherwise, i don’t see a lot of collaborative
    authoring going on out there in the world…

    there is some — and andy is studying it —
    but (perhaps because he _is_ looking at it)
    i think he might be overstating its frequency.

    in my view, anyway, part of what a book “is”
    is the unique voice of a specific individual…

    and this is perhaps where i diverge from andy
    the most, but in the same vein as points #1-3.

    specifically, i don’t see this “unification” of
    various voices as something a _publisher_
    is solely qualified to do. no, on the contrary,
    i think this is something that an “author” does.
    or, even more accurately, something that a
    “compilation editor” would do, or might do…

    but again, i think compilations are uncommon.

    and in spite of the fact that cyberspace makes
    it much easier to produce compilations, i think
    we are unlikely to see a big increase in them…

    that’s because i think that the singular vision
    of an individual human being is a big part of
    the appeal of a book. collaborative authorship is
    less likely to produce the bright shining thread
    that we see running through an excellent book…


  29. Matt Assay at the Open Road made a similar point to Andy’s 4th point, but he is referring to interface design. http://news.cnet.com/8301-13505_3-10274039-16.html

    I hope to elaborate more on this later, but I think their may be some similarities between a interface design and publishing content.

  30. PublishingMojo

    >I think their may be some similarities between a interface design

    Should be: I think there may be some similarities between an interface design

  31. mojo said:
    > Should be:
    > I think there may be some similarities between an interface design


    i’d say this:
    > I think there may be some similarities between interface design


  32. Good thought piece.

    I wanted to expand one obvious point that bears repeating.

    If a technical book has an inaccuracy, it can mislead readers or worse, cause readers to spend unnecessary time trying to debug. I know an Oreilly book has a better editorial process behind plus errata on their website (just in case). That has value to me.

    I can’t afford to spend my learning time trying to figure out what the author meant to say.

    I agree that correcting ambiguity is also a major win. I often jump to the wrong conclusion about a technology because of a poorly worded paragraph.

    By the way, despite the grammatical corrections on this post, blog comments almost never give constructive editorial feedback. I have a story site where I beg readers for editorial feedback (especially on grammar/punctuation/spelling). I get lots of readers and even feedback, but almost nothing in the way of grammar/spelling/punctuation. I have learned to make do without it.

    Wikis tend to be more conducive to the grammar/spelling police. One reason is that random readers don’t have specific roles. The chain of command at a newspaper or publishing house is used to assigning certain people to give certain kinds of feedback. I actually think a CMS can enforce these kinds of roles too, but the cost of free is that you have to try harder to motivate people.

  33. Publishers do two things that are very difficult for the individual:

    1) They can get an author’s work into brick & mortar stores. In a way, that’s related to…

    2) Marketing, which involves sending copies to reviewers at every mid- and large-size newspaper and those magazines whose readers might be interested in the book, and sending the author out on book tours. For those of us who aren’t comfortable with self-promotion, that’s valuable.

    Having found way too many typos and glitches in published works (paper), I consider copy-editing as necessary but not sufficient. As Bowerbird pointed out, there are plenty of editors who need work right now — but you have to give enough of a damn about your writing to make the editor really work at finding those last few typos. 🙂

    I agree with Andy Oram, 1500 words is a big blog post. I’m serializing a novel on my blog, and try to keep each episode to 1000 words or less (formatted as blog posts from the future). There are a few longer posts, especially early-on, but I was learning as I went.

  34. and when you, as an editor, fail to do your job correctly,
    your new worry in this digital age is that the audience
    might just step in and highlight your inadequacies…

    even if — perhaps _especially_if_ — you’re the new york times.

    > http://www.metafilter.com/83061/Ruins-of-the-Second-Gilded-Age#comment


  35. farfetched said:
    > Publishers do two things that are
    > very difficult for the individual:
    > 1) They can get an author’s work into brick & mortar stores.
    > 2) Marketing

    first, it’s great to get feedback from someone who is doing it…

    as to the two things you have found it difficult to do yourself,
    you’ll take heart that both of ’em are increasingly irrelevant…

    > 1) They can get an author’s work into brick & mortar stores.

    aside from one giant left standing (probably barnes & noble)
    the brick-and-mortar stores are on their _very_ last legs,
    especially in terms of breaking new books by new authors…

    there will be paper-book book-stores in the future, yes, but
    they’ll be more akin to specialty/collector/antique stores now.
    (and old-or-rare-or-special p.o.d. books will be nice artifacts,
    as valuable — if not more so — than anything mass-produced.)

    independent authors will lead the way to e-books as foremost,
    and publishing houses will follow because they have no choice,
    being unable to create crowds big enough for large print-runs.
    (the academic presses are now in the process of giving up print,
    but the forces are the same wherever ink is being laid on paper.)

    > 2) Marketing

    collaborative filtering will make marketing totally superfluous…

    the material we will enjoy will be delivered to us _seamlessly,_
    without any search or effort on our part, virtually automatically.

    (you have to rate everything that comes your way, so the system
    comes to learn what you like, but that’s not a difficult job to do.)

    within a world like this, content that has to resort to “marketing”
    will be seen as pathetic, and desperate; that’ll be a kiss of death.


  36. Much of what are pointed out as services which publishers can provide are services currently provided by freelance editors as service for hire. Proofreading, fact-checking, and more intensive editorial shaping can easily be hired by the hour.

    In the discussion of the 4th point of publishing as a pointer-service, I read:
    “hardly anyone reads a 250-page book at once. No one has time…This very article, topping 1,500 words, is about as long a text as most people would tolerate.”

    This very sentence points to the real threat facing publishing, not one of digital competition as a different print medium but of the internet as an entertainment provider which is rapidly filling up the average person’s leisure hours. For books to exist, whether online or in print, there must be enough readers who would consider it worth their while to take the hours necessary to read a book.

    I would also like to say that I feel this point on the editorial services that a publisher can provide to individual authors is flawed in misunderstanding what publishing actually means to an author. Any individual can print a book using a vanity press. However, to have a book acquired by a publishing house validates the book as one that might hold the interest of a reading public. Is that a gatekeeper function? Yes. But to say that the internet rids publishers of that function is to assume that the general public no longer desires the service. On the contrary, when I have questioned many friends about the largest problem facing them in reading, they answered that they could not figure out what to read.

    The book industry and its many facets (publishing houses, reviewers, bookstores, etc.) also function as taste makers, as shapers of a public by interacting with that public on various levels, whether it be reacting to what the industry assumes the public wants or by putting out books that the industry assumes could be good for the public (or most often a combination of the two).

    While there are important books that would be published now by the standards of internet popularity (Shakespeare’s plays for instance), there are also many works that would not survive such sheer numbers crunching (Thoreau’s Walden Pond which so lacked for readers that the majority were bought by Thoreau himself). A lively public discourse is not bought about by merely offering the most popular work. Publishers take risks to invest in works that might be important to a category and hope to break even at least, and perhaps even make a profit. They hedge such works with books that could have more popular appeal. In this manner, many publishers have long worked to keep business alive even while helping crucial authors.

    In this brave new world where publishers are expected to be mere editorial shills (hired by the hour), the role of publisher in helping bring intellectual content to the notice of the public will end. Even while the internet pretends to eschew capitalism by the notion of “free”, the internet ultimately caters to capitalism with advertising and the notion that what matters to intellectual discourse are the texts with the largest number of users when what is shaped by the largest number of users is ad revenue.

  37. If a publisher seriously and consistently takes on these four roles, they will develop a reputation for publishing quality work. Though publishers are no longer gate-keepers, their selection of authors and their treatment of those authors’ work acts as an endorsement.

    I would argue that while O’Reilly is an innovative publisher, the reason I have more O’Reilly technical books on my shelf than any other publisher is because of their batting average in choosing material and consistency in working that material.

    That filtering and refining of information is worth real money (though it may sometimes be hard to extract that money when there’s material that seems “good enough” available for free).

  38. richard said:
    > Though publishers are no longer gate-keepers,
    > their selection of authors and their treatment of
    > those authors’ work acts as an endorsement.

    have you seen what the major publishers are “endorsing”
    these days? i’d say the scales have now been tipped, and
    _more_than_half_ of what they’re selling is just rubbish!

    but that’s immaterial. once we have collaborative filtering,
    that’s the only type of “endorsement” that we will need…


  39. Wikipedia is way better than any printed encyclopedia.

  40. I agree with “My Opinion” about the value of Wikipedia, even though it’s convenient to make fun of it sometimes. But once that’s said, there are a host of issues that have formed the basis of PhD theses and books. Such as what makes the encyclopedia format particularly suitable for crowdsourcing–the model doesn’t work as well for other types of content. And what kinds of custodial action and curation the site requires. (Believe me, there’s plenty of editing and policing on Wikipedia.) And how to fund such an operation–they suffer routine financial crises. Your statement is a good beginning to a conversation, not an end.