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The future of publishing is writable

Trends of smaller, easier, and more personal content signal a shift away from read-only publishing.

TOC 2011Publication of information obviously includes traditional media, such as books, newspapers, magazines, music, and video. But we can generalize considerably to include blogs, tagging (e.g., Delicious, Flickr), commenting systems, Twitter, Facebook, and Myspace.

From a biological point of view, publishing can expand to encompass all of human social signaling — both verbal and non-verbal — and include the myriad little acts of information production and consumption we all engage in.

Even seen from this outer limit of generality, it’s clear that digital is ushering in a rapid convergence in publishing. While some forms are born digital and online, others are being reinvented there as technological advance sets old media free. There is massive disruption — both behind and ahead of us — as the convergence continues.

Three convergence trends: smaller, easier, more personal

There are three convergence trends in publishing that are already apparent.

One clear long-term trend is that smaller pieces of information are being published. Considering just modern digital forms of publishing, there is a roughly chronological progression toward smaller publications: emails, Usenet postings, web pages, blog posts, blog comments, tweets, tags.

Traditional media are also being fractured into smaller pieces, particularly where the media packaging existed only to address physical quirks of the media or the act of publishing. To give one example: Popular music publishing centered on delivering albums. This was a by-product of physical equipment — LPs, CDs, and their players — which did not align particularly well with the more natural unit of popular musical output, the song. Given low-cost flexible alternatives, it’s no wonder that these forms of content are now jumping the packaging ship and going directly digital in pieces that make more sense. This leaves traditional publishers scratching their heads and clinging to increasingly irrelevant and anachronistic packaging methodologies — newspapers being another example — with attendant declining advertising possibilities. Clay Shirky has written and spoken with insight and eloquence on these changes (see here and here).

A second trend is a reduction in friction. As access to easy-to-use and inexpensive publishing technology increases, it becomes economically feasible to publish smaller and less valuable pieces of content. We have reached the point where anyone with access to the Internet can easily and cheaply publish trivial, tiny pieces of information — even single words.

The third trend is the rise of publishing personal information. Our inescapable sociability is driving us to shape the Internet into a mechanism for publishing information about ourselves.

These three trends — smaller, easier, more personal — provide a framework to examine the development of online information publishing.

The three trends and the future of books

Over the last few months, interesting discussion has arisen about the future of books and publishing. One provocative example is Hugh McGuire’s post “The line between book and Internet will disappear.” Let’s consider what the trends of smaller, easier, and more personal might tell us about Hugh’s topic: the future of books.

First, these trends reinforce Hugh’s claim that the line between book and Internet will disappear. The forces of convergence in publishing are surely strong enough to drag the book across that line. But more specifically, which of these trends will books succumb to? Which will books resist?

Books typically have an internal coherence that may prevent their traditional packaging from fracturing along more natural fault lines the way it does with newspapers, magazines and albums. But as the difficulties and costs of publishing continue to fall, and as methods for online billing evolve, publishers or authors may themselves opt to fracture book packaging for economic reasons. It was not long ago that novels were routinely published in serialized form. If it’s all digital, why not?

Because modern forms of publishing are giving end users a voice, it seems a safe bet that books will become living digital objects and that the traditional distinctions between author and reader, and between publisher and consumer, will blur considerably.

Conceptually, though perhaps not technologically, there’s a long way to go. Even the most avant-garde online services are only now contemplating this kind of future. I’m willing to bet that Hugh is also right that publishers’ products will have APIs. The API, provided that it allows users and applications to write, can be the vehicle by which a book is alive on the Internet, in the sense that it will allow the contribution of information to books, and make that information actionable.


Terry Jones will discuss the writable future of publishing at the next Tools of Change for Publishing Conference (Feb. 14-16, 2011). Save 15% on registration with the code TOC11RAD.


A world of writable containers

Looking at publishing from the broad perspective outlined above, with its clear general convergence and specific trends, I consider it inevitable that books and their publishers will be drawn into a digital future along the lines that Hugh predicts.

You can look at this more widely, though. Publishing will converge on the usage of underlying information storage that provides for a world of openly writable containers. You could, for example, build a Twitter-like system on such a basis, providing seamlessly for user annotations. At the other end of the spectrum, you could use this type of writable system to publish customizable living digital objects — writable containers — representing books (or anything else). VC Fred Wilson lends weight to the claim of convergence toward a more openly writable world in his blog post, “Giving every person a voice“:

If I look back at my core investment thesis over the past five years, it is this single idea, that everyone has a voice on the Internet, that is central to it. And as Ev [Williams] said, society has not fully realized what this means. But it’s getting there, quickly.

As Brian O’Leary noted in “Context first“, mental models and mindset changes are required. Shifting people from read-only thinking to imagining a computational world that is by-default writable is something I’ve been trying to pull off for years. (FluidDB, a database we’re building at Fluidinfo, is meant to explicitly prepare for the type of future Hugh envisions. Everything in FluidDB can be added to — tagged — by anyone or any application. )

Read-only containers of content are an inherently limiting form of media, whether physical or digital. APIs that provide controlled access to information are similarly limited. They prevent the accumulation of unanticipated or personalized contextual information.

From one perspective, arguing that this kind of convergence is inevitable may seem like a radical oversimplification or wishful thinking, but from another it seems deadly simple and obvious. In plainest terms, I believe the future of publishing is a writable one. One in which we step beyond the default of read-only publishing via traditional containers and APIs, to something that’s both natural and empowering: a world in which data itself becomes social, and in which we can personalize arbitrarily. In other words, a world in which we always have write permission.

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  • http://brianaford.info Briana Ford

    There’s so much you can write about online! Well, in general, but the tools that are readily available for people to publish their own content, they’re out there.

  • Paul Erb

    Brilliant and more than promising, especially the hope of a universal API. This development, if it can be realized, would parallel movable type. And what kind of Reformation that might lead to, we can barely imagine. Standardization of the API would be critical, as scaffolding to support actual uses of the data, instead of technical wrangling about getting to it.