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« Edit this Wired Article | Main | Wiki Wired Experiment »

September 2, 2006

Social Publishing

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Posted by Paul B Hartzog

I am always looking for connections and lately I have begun to see what I think is a promising trend in the publishing world that may just transform the industry for good.

First off, in his article “Science Fiction is the Only Literature People Care Enough About to Steal on the Internet” (in the July 2006 issue of Locus), Cory Doctorow writes:
Science fiction is the only literature people care enough about to steal on the Internet. It’s the only literature that regularly shows up, scanned and run through optical character recognition software and lovingly hand-edited on darknet newsgroups, Russian websites, IRC channels and elsewhere….

Some writers are using the Internet’s affinity for SF to great effect. I’ve released every one of my novels under Creative Commons licenses that encourage fans to share them freely and widely — even, in some cases, to remix them and to make new editions of them for use in the developing world. My first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, is in its sixth printing from Tor, and has been downloaded more than 650,000 times from my website, and an untold number of times from others’ websites….

I’ve discovered what many authors have also discovered: releasing electronic texts of books drives sales of the print editions. An SF writer’s biggest problem is obscurity, not piracy. Of all the people who chose not to spend their discretionary time and cash on our works today, the great bulk of them did so because they didn’t know they existed, not because someone handed them a free e-book version.
And then I ran across “Something for Future Hugo Finalists to Consider” on John Scalzi’s “whatever” blog:
I’m looking at the vote tallies for the Best Novel Hugo, and it turns out that Old Man’s War placed third on the final tally. Second place was Charlie Stross’ Accelerando, and first, of course, was Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin. Question: Is it coincidence that the novels that took win, place and show for the Hugo vote were also the books made freely available in electronic editions to LACon IV members (and in the case of Accelerando, to humanity at large)?

In the subsequent discussion, one comment, by Therese Norén, made the point that “a book that you’ve read is a book you can vote for.” She also points out that Robert Charles Wilson’s book “Spin” was blogged by Patrick Nielsen Hayden who encouraged people to read it and nominate if for the Hugo award, which it subsequently won.

On commentator however says that “The side benefit of course is that you will sell more books to the non-hugo-voting public who see the ‘Hugo Award Winner’ stamp on the next printing.” This claim, while possibly true, strikes me as similar to the claim that open-source software developers only contribute to collaborative production because they hope it will turn into actual monetary income someday. These types of claims, namely that self-elected sharing systems only persist as parasites on monetized systems, are all too frequent, and sadly myopic. Now, certainly publishers could tally community responses to electronic works and use that as a basis to decide what to publish on paper, but again, that style of thinking privileges the old-fashioned print world and fails to recognize the potential for electronic publishing to completely divorce itself from the older paradigm.

Besides, these are not DRM versions of these authors’ works. There is little attempt made to coerce or even cajole readers into purchasing the print copies. For example, Charles Stross, author of Accelerando, says on his website:
(We hope that if you enjoy the ebook you’ll consider buying a copy of one of the paper editions, but this is the only reminder you’ll get. I’m not into shareware with nag screens …)

What I am suggesting is happening is the reversal of traditional publishing, i.e. the transformation of the system in which authors create and distribute their work. In the old system, it is assumed that the publishing process acts as a quality control filter (see “The Myth of Quality Control”), but it ends up merely being a profit-capturing filter. The intially assumed axiom “good books sell” is transformed into the axiomatic “books that sell are good” and that resultant tautology rids the system of having to use any other criteria to assess whether or not the books are “good.” (“Good” of course begs the question “Good for what? Good for whom?”)

Conversely, in the new system, the works are made available, and it is up to the community-at-large to pass judgement on their quality. In the emerging system, authors create and distribute their work, and readers, individually and collectively, including fans as well as editors and peers, review, comment, rank, and tag, everything. This is already happening at sites like LibraryThing and BooksWeLike.

In his 1998 book Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace, James O’Donnell predicted:
Peer review and stamp of approval will come after the fact of distribution and will exist as a way of helping identify high-quality work and work of interest to specific audiences.

Moreover, in this light, the very definition of “publishing” is at stake as the word comes to mean the simultaneous distribution of content both offline and online. Consequently, the purpose of authorship is no longer one-way broadcast, but instead shifts towards two-way interaction. So it should come as no surprise that each chapter of Robert Frenay’s newly published book Pulse: The Coming Age of Systems and Machines Inspired by Living Things is being blogged via WWW (and RSS) to solicit reader involvement.

The rise of the great publishing houses of the twentieth-century provokes one to wonder if we are on the cusp of a new kind of publishing and with it a new kind of publishing company, namely, one that fosters community and matches writers to readers (many of whom are both anyway).

To return to Cory Doctorow’s Locus article:
The future is conversational…. The least substitutable good in the Internet era is the personal relationship.

In an interview with Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation we find:
MB: Exactly. Nobody but the individual concerned knows better the precise nature of the skills he can contribute; and his peers then validate his contribution. As such, it turns the old model on its head. There is no a priori selection, only ‘after the fact’. It is the model you see in citizen journalism and in projects like Wikipedia for example: Not select, then publish; but publish, then select.

That last line has a nice ring to it.

Comments (6) + TrackBacks (0) | Category:


1. Brian O' Hanlon on September 6, 2006 2:38 PM writes...

Well, on science fiction, my major attraction here was always Star Wars - either the paperback novels, the stories, or the big screen feature. Star Wars in my young days, happened to be both a favourite movie, and a favourite story. Both visual and imaginatively, I was so impressed.

We are perhaps, much too close to appreciate fully what is going on in the world now. But, I challenge anyone here to come up with a convincing explanation, for the terrible treatment of the star wars genre, in the latest installments. Practically, all of the strong elements of the original 70s/80s series was fumbled in the new series. All the characters you expect to find in a star wars piece, are only there as a shell, a card board cut out. The real depth of the characters, or even the presence of the characters is missing.

Every possible opportunity that star wars recent series, had to become star wars, was wasted. It became a competition, over what happens in the background. A competition for the best CG animated, visually spectacular background. To an extent where the characters, in the foreground all but are eliminated from the narrative.

Why is that? How could the new series, manage to be so 'unlike' the old genre. The closest thing, to a theory - because it seems to have stumped all the loyal star wars fans, to date - the only thing to a theory I can find, is in Thomas Friedman's book, The Flat World. If nothing else, the book provides the answer to why Star Wars genre is effectively lost. With all the bandwidth, the fibre optics, and the ray tracing, all we have now is a huge, lavish old-style Hollywood exuberance, in stage prop design - in CG, and no actors, no narative, no movie.

I find it strange, that as Hollywood attained the height of power in computer graphics, and out sourcing of CG prop building work, it also returned to the most primitive stages of its evolution, in actually making a movie worth watching. The recent installments of star wars, are not movies worth watching. They are just lavish experiments in how best to harness the flat world platform.

Brian O' Hanlon.

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2. Brian O' Hanlon on September 6, 2006 2:39 PM writes...

I mean, guys, Ted Nelson, was one of the first people to proclaim, that computer programming was movie making.

That is okay.

But what happens, when movie making, has now become programming?

Brian O' Hanlon.

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3. John on September 8, 2006 9:01 PM writes...

I'm not sure that the current system of reviewing, commenting, ranking, and tagging is really two-way interaction, at least not in a fully realized sense. While I agree that Web 2.0 technologies is making the process of reviewing, commenting, and ranking content after publication much more wide spread, more inclusive, and more interactive than in the past -- and this is a significant development, the interaction taking place is over a static object. What is happening is a discussion about a publication rather than an act of publication, at least as I understand it.

A fully realized form of two-way interactive social publishing requires, to my mind, not just the ability to review, comment, rank, and tag a publication but the ability to reshape that publication. And this is where the simultaneous distribution of content both online and off becomes a problem. Once something is published in print form, revising and republishing that work is no easy task. Only the most successful print publications are able to overcome the constraints of print necessary for revision and republishing, and, arguably, the most successful publications have the least to benefit from this new system, if for no other reason than that the current system already provides most of the benefits which could come from social publishing. (Yes, this new system can provide a text a wider audience, but all that might do is keep a text in print.

Sucess, especially with fiction, rarely leads to revision. (Stranger in a Strangeland is one of notable exception -- its overwhelming sucess eventually led to the inclusion of much material originally edited out of the novel. As cool as I think that novel is, I have always believed that it needed more edited out rather than more added in, and I know I'm not alone in thinking this.) In other words, I don't see print texts ever being involved in real social publishing. They can benefit immensely from social networking technologies and from being published online and offline at the same time, but that's not the same thing as true two-way interaction between the author-text and the reading public.

In this way, I see Collin Brooke's Rhetworks, Jeff Rice's Digital Detroit, and, especially John Miles Foley's Pathways Project, in which Foley plans to include online discussion as part of the publication, as being much more representative of the two-way interaction necessary for social publishing. All three, however, are intended for print publication at some point, at least in part, which again means that there will come a point in which the publications will inherent the inertia of print: once the three are published, further revision will be unlikely despite any ongoing process of reviewing, commenting, ranking, and tagging that might take place. It doesn't matter how much discussion takes place post publication, as print texts there won't likely be the kind of two-way communication with their readership that leads to revision. This is not a critique of these three projects or of print itself, but, rather, it is a comment on the media dynamics of print. (Personally, I hope that all three are sucessfull enough to warrent such revision if their respective authors choose to do so, but the constraints of print publishing, let alone academic print publishing, make this unlikely.)

On the other hand, a project that only exists in online form can engage in a real form of two-way social publication. The author can continually revise the text based upon the ongoing processes of reviewing, commenting, ranking, and tagging that takes place. But this too has its constraints. When, for instance, is a project done? Because we have the ability to revise our publications based upon reader feedback does not mean that we can or should do so. Under this model, it would be possible for an author to engage in an ongoing process of revision and, thereby, never moving on to a new project. There could even come a point when one could be critiqued for moving on to a new project rather than following through with an old one. I mention this not to be alarmist but to point out a constraint of social publishing since I have already discussed some of the constraints of print publication. But this is but just one option which social publishing makes possible.

If an author so chose, they could leave the revision up to readership themselves depending upon what kind of publication model and/or licensing the author decides upon. A wiki or wiki-like environment, for inistance, would allow for a whole host of social publishing options with readers, including the original author, not only reviewing, commenting, ranking, and tagging the text but rewriting it in response to the ongoing discussion. Or the author could publish the text under any number of the creative commons licenses which allow derivate works. (While an author could choose to apply such licenses to a print publication, the financial constraints inherent in print publication work against this becoming a wide-spread practice.)

Another option of social publishing that I haven't mentioned yet, and the one most viable for print publications, is for there to be a non-static online companion in which the author and/or the readership interacts in a true dialogic process. But this isn't a fully realized form of social publishing in the way the three options discussed above are. No matter how much dialog takes place, the print publication remains a static object unless, once again, its sucess is great enough for it to overcome the inertia inherent in print. Print can be dialogic, but it is a dialog founded on the permance and fixity of the text, and for this reason I believe that if our goal is social publishing rather than expanded dialog, we shouldn't be looking to the simultaneous distribution of content online and off but, rather, to online publication.

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4. Michael Mace on September 22, 2006 11:13 PM writes...

Nice article. I worked at SoftBook, one of the efforts several years ago to create an ebook publishing industry.

I'd like to recast Cory Doctorow's quote -- I think science fiction fans are the only people willing to read a full book on a computer screen. That's why they are the only ones pirating books. For everyone else -- meaning the vast majority of the world -- we need a very different hardware device in order to make e-books popular.

But it's incredibly hard to get that device established because the publishers won't make e-books available at reasonable prices, and unless there are a lot of books available people won't buy the devices. It's a nasty chicken and egg situation.

If you want to read more, I covered it on my blog here.

Bottom line: we need someone like Apple to jump-start the ebook industry. Otherwise it'll be a long, long wait.

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5. Dr. Robert C. Worstell on September 29, 2006 10:26 PM writes...

Simultaneous publishing isn't really two-way interaction. The head cook still controls what the associate chefs put in the pot. However, the reading public is still able to interact via the blog.

When you add POD publishing (ala and, it becomes incredibly rapid to correct errors, mistakes and misphrasings. Literally minutes to change the text or cover (or both) for the next hardcopy edition.

I've published several books, all in beta, in order to recieve and respond to reader feedback via the blog - which enables the reader to input concerns into hardcopy book. The valuable comments are acted on, with credit given to the reader who first suggests it. This is truly social publishing.

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6. Kiran Bettadapur on April 28, 2007 5:00 PM writes...

Profound post! But, it essentially talks about the future of textual media. One possibility is the future convergence of all media in online publishing.

We have developed Cylive ( as a platform keeping media-type agnostic publishing in mind.

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