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Open-ended publishing

Digital content isn't defined by editions, so let's stop thinking that way.

TOC 2011All change begins with a thought. That’s why I’m big on mental shifts. If you start thinking a different way, you have the potential to adapt to that new mode. It takes enormous effort and commitment to manifest change, but that simple act of deciding to look at the world a little differently is always the catalyst.

I was reminded of this when I ran across my colleague Russell Jones’ recent comment on a company email list. Here’s what he wrote:

“Publishing,” in the past, was always tied to an event — printing the book. That’s no longer true. The “book” now consists of whatever content you provide for readers to download — and if you can update them automatically, that’s not even exactly true.

For example, you could create a book that updates constantly, a book that consists entirely of reader input, a book that is actually a series of links, a book that readers interact with, a book that grows over time, and, of course, book readers that collect their own metadata. Books that are applications, books that are interactive tours. Books where the ending (or the whole story) changes as people read them … There are no reprints. There may be editions, but in most cases, that’s not terribly useful to readers.

Everything has changed. The sky’s the limit.

[Note: This was published with Russell’s permission.]

Russell’s comment got me thinking about how a mental “change filter” applies to the content industries. It also made me want to share some of the questions I’ve been noodling on over the last few years. Specifically:

What if all content is on a continuum? What if there’s no end? What if there’s no finality anymore?

That’s a huge change from what most of us are used to. From early on, we’re trained to create editions: an essay, a book, a magazine, a newspaper, a movie, a game, etc. Those are projects with defined beginnings and endings.

But digital content doesn’t really exist in an edition-based world. It moves, it flows. It gets chunked up, mashed up, and recombined. It can be copied and pasted at will (whether you like it or not). It can be added to. It can be deleted from. It hibernates and reappears unexpectedly months or years later.

Just look at the revision history on a Wikipedia entry. Digital content is fluid.

What’s odd and interesting is that many content creators — even folks who truly understand digital — are stuck in editions. I fall into this trap all the time. Too often I see the world in terms of “posts” or “articles.” But by thinking that way, I’m leaving opportunity on the table. I’m limiting my creative output to a defined amount of content that’s poured into a defined container.

So that’s the set up. As you’ll see, my thoughts about open-ended publishing are nascent. I’m not entirely sure this process has long-term utility. Nor do I know if it’s viable as a business model. Nonetheless, here’s a few ideas on how open-ended publishing might play out.

Everything can be public

Under an open-ended model, notes, excerpts, links, and drafts can all be published online. Few people would care to access this content — heck, its disorganization could make it private while in public view — but it’s been my experience that pushing material into the public space changes it in an important way.

Public content holds the content creator accountable. This is why I dump all sorts of quotes and excerpts and half-baked ideas into my Tumblr. That’s my big bucket of slop: all the stuff that informs the posts I write and the interview questions I ask. I put it out there not because I think it has value to all (it doesn’t), but because public content makes me want to follow through.

I used to collect similar dribs and drabs in private Google documents. Despite good intentions, I never closed the loop on any of that stuff. It just sat there, locked in a doc no one will ever look at again. But publishing that same material publicly is like creating an alpha version for a future piece of content.

You’ll notice I wrote everything “can” be public. It doesn’t have to be. If there’s a competitive advantage connected to a particular insight or breakthrough, you might want to hold that back. That’s fine, but I’m of the mind that almost everything can and should be blithely tossed into the public space. After all, a stunning idea means little without great execution. (Note: Nuclear launch codes, secret herbs and spices, and private corporate data don’t apply here. Just so we’re clear.)

Go forward or back whenever you like

We’re so accustomed to sensing “the end.” We see that last paragraph or feel that last beat and we know, subconsciously, that the ride is almost over. Because of this, open-ended publishing feels weird — perhaps even wrong. But I think we need to fight through that.

A content creator can always reach a full-stop with their work. He or she could tie up loose ends and make their creation cohesive. But even in these cases, the “never say never” adage will always apply. If a related idea pops up, what’s to stop that same person from firing up the engine again? Or, if someone else wants to run with the same ball, why not? This is already common in the film industry, where franchise “reboots” are a norm (and given what we’ve seen from Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” films and JJ Abrams’ “Star Trek,” a reboot can be a very good thing).

The big takeaway here is that if content is open ended, creators can go forward or back whenever they like. Personally, I find that liberating.

Just start

The world is filled with people brimming with ideas. The world is not filled with people who will act on those ideas. Content creators are naturally scarce because writing, filming, and editing requires effort — often lots of effort. Some of us are blessed (or cursed) with a need to create. It’s a compulsion.

This section doesn’t apply to those people.

I don’t subscribe to the notion that all great material comes from borderline psychosis. “Writers have to write,” that’s true, but others have it in them to create interesting things as well. The key is to reduce the barriers to entry. When that happens, we’ll see two things:

  1. Ungodly amounts of hideous material.
  2. A small but vital percentage of beautiful stuff.

YouTube is the embodiment of this. Much of that content is very, very bad. But nestled amidst the shaky home videos and cringe-inducing “comedy,” you’ll find genuine voices and genuine talent.

But YouTube is using technology to lower the barriers of content creation and distribution. What I’m proposing is a barrier-busting mindset.

The key is this: Instead of pushing the notion that all material of merit must only appear after countless revisions, we could instead just start. Just publish it. Just write it. Just put it out there. Let it become a thing instead of an idea. Since this content is open ended, you can always revise the material, or rework it, or completely alter its intent. The most important thing you can do is begin. (This is why NaNoWriMo is a fantastic project.)

“Publishing without boundaries” is the theme of TOC 2011, being held Feb. 14-16 in New York City. Save 15% on registration with the code TOC11RAD.

Expectations and platforms

I know it sounds like I’m suggesting that all content should become stream of consciousness blather. But that’s not true.

I’m an editor. I value clarity, and I know clarity is only achieved through structure and revision. (This post, for example, was reworked and then reworked again.) I also see quality as a competitive advantage. Because there’s so much bad stuff out there, committing to the good stuff sets you apart.

As such, open-ended publishing needs to mesh expectations with platforms. That’s why I dump my random gatherings on Tumblr, where the expectation — if there is one — is quite low. I would never post that material on Radar. But I would (and do) take the ideas and links that bubbled up in my Tumblr and use those as building blocks in Radar posts.


There’s a missing piece here, though. If Tumblr is where the ideas start and Radar is where they manifest in a better-formed way, then what do I do when a related idea or development pops up? Do I add to a pre-existing Radar post? Do I create an entirely new post? Or, do I use a separate platform for these “director’s cut” versions? I’m not sure about the execution, but abandoning a line of thought because there’s no home for it doesn’t sit well with me. A story with energy deserves to continue. And with all sorts of low-cost and easy-to-use digital platforms now at our disposal, there’s no reason it shouldn’t continue.

Your thoughts?

In a way, this is a meta post. I’m gathering the threads I’ve collected over years of working in, and thinking about, digital content. Those individual threads were already “published” in various places: Tumblr, blog posts focusing on adjacent topics, emails, tweets, etc. Now the threads have been partially bundled here on Radar (for good or bad). This story is on a continuum, and I imagine it’ll chug along in one form or another.

But is there anything to this idea? Does open-ended publishing make any practical sense? I welcome any comments, counter arguments, enhancements, or rebuttals.


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Comments: 16

  1. That is a big change. I like it though. People could be given the choice of subscribing at different levels. Subscribe at the beginning of a new book and follow the author as he researches every aspect of the subject. Maybe it starts in the author’s notebook and once it becomes a tangible project migrates into a dedicated project feed. Others can subscribe to the first-draft level and others to the product that is sold in traditional published form (I don’t think editions should completely go away, the author’s judgement on an edition would possibly be better than almost anyone else’s.)

    And being able to replay it all, that’s amazing.

    People could take a different fork to what the author did and add back into the overall project possibly allowing the author to merge those additions back into their “trunk.” (Thinking like code here.) GitHub style book writing. Send a pull request to the author saying “I found something really interesting about your subject that you missed, here it is.”

    Quite a change in how you “read” too. You don’t want to reread whole chapters just for a few changes but at the same time only reading the diff is going to lose some context and impact. The change itself needs splices to interleave it into the existing work.

  2. Living documents with major updates re-posted to your stream can be a good thing, but there needs to be a way for readers to find the new parts.

    Most news articles post updates at the bottom to make it simple to find the latest news. This can be counterproductive when the article title and initial premise were based on incomplete, conflicting intelligence. Giving people version control with colors highlighting additions and deletions, tags for major releases and side by side comparisons makes it faster and easier for your audience to benefit from your extra effort to produce a greater work.

  3. I love this idea!
    Wondering about how this might work as a mind map (or grouping of structured web pages) that is ever increasing in both simplicity and depth at the same time as the element is continuously explored?

    Guess this is how Wikipedia was built up…

    Challenging as a blank sheet, but better when you just start

  4. Excellent post.

    A lot of times we picture the author as the person who locks themselves in an attic for three months, and emerges with a manuscript. This is not the way it happens. The authors shares early drafts with friends, editors, and early readers. Based on that feedback, the manuscript is polished until it’s a ‘finished product’. Books today are already a collaborative process, why not throw open the doors and make it a public collaborative process as well?

  5. I’m starting to strongly favour wikis both for my own work and for collaboratively-produced material. They embody “release early”, work well with a grow-from-core writing process, enable collaboration (at selectable levels — from comments-only through anyone-can-edit), and provide useful features such as notify-on-update. When desired, the content can be (fairly) easily transformed into other formats.

  6. One short comment before I head off to work:
    From a “publisher’s” point of view, all the above may apply. From a “reader’s” point of view, I see value in having a defined version of content.

    Imagine a crime piece where the evidence changes while you read it 🙂 This has something to do with the length of the piece.
    There is also value in stability for the purpose of discussion like here in these comments.
    So, to me, there appears to be a continuum of how useful or useless the concept of an “edition” is. Project information, for example, needs to be current. Books, for example, should be largely stable in order not to dis-orient the reader.

    As a reader, I like the flow of Web-based comments, Twitter, Facebook etc. – and I also like the stability an edition of a book gives me. Volume needs to be considered (books vs. tweets), stability of the underlying topic needs to be considered (physics vs. politics), documentation character needs to be considered (history books vs. scratch notes).

    The good news is: now we have the choice. The catch is: we (authors/publishers/…) need to use it wisely in the name of our readers.

  7. I love thinking big about the task of publishing at the highest level, and it’s great and important to consider all of these options and their implications. In the context of technical book publishing, at some point there needs to be a discussion of incentives. Most of this article talks about producing content in general, but if we’re talking about “publishing” a “book,” incentives, both new and old, come into play. The phrase “a book that updates constantly” doesn’t say who updates the book or why.

    I’ve been working with my editor at O’Reilly on what a future-facing step for a book we’re doing would look like. A few immediate practicalities come to the surface:

    * Editions are ending states. The traditional economic model for editions incentivizes authors and publishers to finish, polish, and invest in production values for each edition. The model also incentivizes readers to purchase by promising indefinite access to one edition in exchange for a flat fee. If new or revised material would be valuable, all players are incentivized to reinvest, because new editions are treated as new projects.

    * Royalties are not the primary motivation for authors in most cases. This is especially true for tech book authors that are industry experts and make far more per hour in their day jobs than book royalties could offer. Passion for the subject is important. Bylines and self-promotion are important. Pride of completion is important. And all of these factors combined have to be enough to motivate talented authors to make huge personal sacrifices to complete projects.

    * Books are long-form content. Put it all online, add video, add interactivity, sell it by the minute or by the pound, but in the end the chief value of anything we might call a “book” is that it can explore a subject in greater detail and depth than anything shorter. By all means, we should consider other, shorter content types, and possibly new economic and development models to sustain them. But as someone who does continuous maintenance of shorter web content in my day job, I relish the opportunity to write books about the same subjects because I love to wield the form. Taking evenings and weekends away from my family to maintain a second set of online documentation is not as high on my list.

    Of course there are plenty of people who pour themselves into community-based continuously-written documentation (not to mention software) just for the love of making it happen, and there are certainly cases where this produces more and better stuff than traditional publishing. We’re also starting to see maturity in self-published shorter forms, on the continuum you suggest (e.g. Twitter to Tumblr to Radar to ?). We can and should enable these cases.

    For me, where this discussion meets traditional technical publishing is the changing demands of the market for books. Tech books play a drastically different role today than they did a mere decade ago, and that role continues to change. I feel I must evaluate what I love about books, and try to find those things in other forms, published in other ways, and, perhaps, for different reasons.

  8. Sounds like you might not have tripped across Neal Stephenson & co’s Mongoliad project (http://mongoliad.com/) where Stephenson along with Greg Bear and a host of other well-established artists are doing exactly this in the spec-fic realm. They’ve gone for the “own platform” approach.

  9. I saw the teaser for this article and was curious if you would get to fluidity as your descriptor. Right on!

    From the start of our civilization, our language and vocabulary has always been fluid. Storytelling was decidedly fluid. Written text brought more rigidity to our the storytelling, and Gutenberg’s press in the mid-1400s precipitated more rigidity.

    Electronic media has slowly been unraveling the 500-year run of rigidity in our storytelling. As you note, that unraveling has been accelerating.

  10. I missed your post earlier this week, but I’m happy to come back to it on a holiday 🙂 Nice work!

  11. mac, what i find amusing here is that other people
    — specifically including some commenters here —
    have taken these ideas further along than you did…

    but i guess if ideas are “fluid”, it doesn’t matter
    how many times you reinvent the wheel, does it?

    at any rate, please do let us know when you have
    recognized the multiple problems with this mode,
    and have come up with some possible _solutions_,
    after which you have realized the _later_ problems
    that will grow out of those solutions, and how you
    might address those _later_ problems, and _then_
    the conversation might start to become interesting.

    but right now, you’re about at layer #3 of a topic
    that has at least a dozen layers, and probably more.

    of course, given how superficial the t.o.c. blog has
    become lately, you’re still the deepest one there…


  12. “I just want to go home”

    This all sounds a mix of Cloud/WEB-SOAP/Wiki approach to the theory of the knowlegdement via… Chaos theory (math) and human communication via digital monsters like data centers and stuff… I just want my thought and data safe in a DVD-like at my home, just for… security. We can’ trust in humans, can we? Give me yours passwords then. Got my point?

  13. this is frankly nothing new. Look into the history of relational databases – we’ve been making useful, functional ‘editions’ out of streams and events for many, many years now. Transactional activity logging may be closer to what you’re looking for. Just leveraged over Cloud scope and scale – which of course is a non-trivial technical, policy and procedural challenge!

  14. The idea of all the content being on a continuum and thus producing endless streams of hardly structured information with small percentage of ‘beautiful stuff’ reminds me of “Funes the Memorious”, the short story by Jorge Luis Borges.

    There in the story was a guy who remembered literally everything happening around him, every tiny detail. The ‘gift’ gave birth to lots of queer theories of everything by the guy, none of which was any close to vitality. Not giving too much spoilers, the ending of the story is not so optimistic)

    So, let your piece of information be the alpha version, but not to repeat the ungleeful vale of Funes, be aware of not missing the moment when there is no clarity anymore despite all the structure and revision.

    P.S.: Luiz Rakkan, seems like Google might already know you passwords: http://xkcd.com/792/

  15. I guess the trick is how to find the gems among the crap.

    Or does that become a new job description for someone?

    Seems to me most people will just find and follow popular “curators” like Oprah.

    You find a few curators whose taste you like and follow them.

    Hmm. Why don’t I feel happy about this?

  16. Hi,

    I loved reading your post. Your ideas found tremendous resonance in stuff that I am super passionate about.

    I believe that the future of publishing is in micro-publishing in dynamic ways – much more open than simply through blogs. We live in an age, when more than ever, knowledge has expanded much beyond just the verbal to the visual and audible dimensions.

    Every individual today is a potential publisher of knowledge – curated from the social graph and enriched by his personal experiences.

    At bibkosh (http://www.bibkosh.com) we are trying to build something tht will enable micro personal publishing possible.

    The idea behind themes is that they are containers of all sorts of knowledge, and people who were either the source or the target of this knowledge.

    People can curate themes and then publish these themes as ebooks on the web (coming soon).

    Themes can keep growing / changing with each new interaction or experience.

    Personal publishing is the future and whats great about it is that its highly likely that it will be collaborative, allinclusive, it will be free of plagiarism of any sort and it will be ever-growing.