Some Thoughts on the Future of Publishing

1 Commentby   |  02.12.10  |  Announcements

For more than a thousand years, books have been the primary medium for the exchange of academic information, and the act of writing a book has been seen as the chief indicator that one has achieved academic status. Indeed, the terms “author” and “authority” both come from the same Latin root (augere: to increase, originate, or promote), and they are seen as integrally linked to one another both within the academy and also in popular culture. To be an author is to have authority, and this has been both the cause and the result of the mechanisms of authorship being available only to a limited few due to the procedural complexities that surrounded publishing as a business.

With the advent first of desktop publishing in the late 1980s, of the Web in the early 1990s, and finally of Web 2.0 technologies in the late 1990s, the barriers to authorship have become increasingly eroded. This has led to significant concern on the part of both publishers and academics who have watched traditional notions of authorship and authority become unsettled by new participants. Indeed, the accessibility of both content-creation tools and of high-speed networking has enabled those who were traditionally outsiders not only to participate in publishing but even to threaten some parts of the industry with displacement. Newspapers, for example, face a complex mixture of challenges generated by the increase in distribution channels and the increase in those new participants who are publishing “news.”

As converged technologies like the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad become increasingly available, driving a desire for increased content and increased opportunities to participate in content-creation, the broader publishing industry and the academy will face challenges similar to those currently faced by newspapers. However, this does not necessarily mean that the newspapers’ fate awaits publishing in general. Rather, if both publishers and the academy can creatively understand the challenges and opportunities offered by technological change (and the accompanying cultural change it generates), we could see a flourishing of content, a dramatically increased audience for that content, and an unprecedented opportunity to benefit from the energy brought by an array of new participants.

Two key challenges have faced the publishing industry and the academy over the greatest part of the last five-hundred years: the narrow channels that provide access to qualified authors and the narrowly-defined genres which confine those authors’ intellectual labors. Ironically, these mirror the challenges that authors face as they attempt to break into publishing — narrowness of access and narrowness of genre. The complex economics of serious publishing and the rigorous requirements of academic integrity mean that only those authors vetted through an arduous procedure of proposals, marketing- or peer-review, and editing are allowed to participate, and the works they produce must fit into either article- or book-length formats. Driven by the particularities of print publishing, these limits have been unavoidable in the past.

Yet even within the narrow pool of vetted authors, new technologies of publication are beginning to lead to the emergence of new genres, and these in turn are driving authors to call for a reevaluation of what counts as productivity. Within the academy, the production of new media distributed through emerging digital channels — blogs, podcasts, movies, and digital collections — is causing many institutions, including ACU, to consider expanded definitions for academic productivity. Should a blog that presents technical information about one’s disciplinary explorations and discoveries count toward tenure? What if that blog is read and commented upon by fellow academics? What if that blog is read by more people than would have had access to the information in a traditional academic publication? As schools like Harvard, Stanford, and MIT increasingly participate in OpenCourseware, how should the academy view the intellectual work that academics at these schools and others produce?

Rather than fighting to maintain the structures necessitated by the complexities of physically producing publications, the publishing industry and the academy could both benefit from the influx of new participants and new genres that increased technological access is driving. With the advent of crowd-sourcing and with the increased social access offered by emerging communication technologies, talented authors who would have been overlooked in the traditional system can be discovered and nurtured, increasing the diversity of voices and the quality and quantity of content available to audiences. No longer bound by the break-even necessities of physical publication — printing, warehousing, and shipping — new genres can emerge involving mixed media, serial publication, non-standard-length publications, group-sourced or participatory publications, and niche-focused publications.

It is true that these changes will force a redefinition of expertise and a reevaluation of what it means to be both author and authority, and this is no small challenge. Yet such a redefinition offers enticing opportunities for the authors, publishers, and readers who are willing to undertake it. Immediately following the emergence of the printing press and the amazing increase in access that it generated, a flurry of creativity emerged in the West that set the stage for modernity as we know it. New voices, new authors, and new audiences emerged and flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries, giving us some of the world’s greatest masterpieces in theater, philosophy, fiction, political discourse, and science. The Protestant Reformation, the American revolution, and universal education all have their roots firmly planted in the revolution generated by Gutenberg’s press.

As a new form of “printing press” emerges in the form of converged technologies, it will be fascinating to observe the impact on art, science, learning, and culture.

This is what we’re inviting you to contemplate and explore. As academics at a university that is uniquely situated to explore the implications of new media and the new technologies that create them, what do you envision for the future of books, the future of academic publication, and the future of authors and authority?

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1 Comment

  1. Greg Smith
    11:46 am, 02.23.10

    Excellent post Bill. The E-Publishing strategies that have recently surfaced from many of the significant Textbook publishers scare me a bit. My hope is that Academia will use this new media to keep the publishers honest. Hopefully they focus on the opportunity and agree to partner rather then control. I do believe that tremendous opportunities exist for our graduates who have experience with these new media skills. Consider all of the existing print media that needs to adapt to these new technologies, probably a lot of jobs to be filled.

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