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

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
. 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 —
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

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


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