I just finished reading The Content Machine: Towards a Theory of Publishing from the Printing Press to the Digital Network, by Michael Bhaskar. It provides a great historical perspective on the publishing industry in order to give context to a framework that identifies the core system activities of publishing. I'm currently taking over a product development team in publishing and I found this book to be the perfect read at the perfect time.
The book accounts for several items that Bhaskar feels are necessary components of any unified model, including: what it means for something to be 'public', publishing as an act of mediation, divergent historical understandings and media forms, the relationship to content and 'market-making', and the relevance of publishing's past on its future. Selfishly, I'm going to just focus here on summarizing at a high level the major components of his model, since those are of most use to me right now in terms of helping me frame out my team's product development and publishing work. But I highly recommend reading the entire book -- it's a quick read that packs enormous insights.
The book opens with an ominous quote from social technologist Clay Shirky:
Publishing is not evolving. Publishing is going away. Because the word 'publishing' means a cadre of professionals who are taking on the incredible difficulty and complexity and expense of making something public. That's not a job anymore. That's a button. There's a button that says 'publish', and when you press it, it's done.
Things these days for publishers are both far more complex than that quote implies, yet also just that scary. But understanding what fundamentally comprises the act of publishing helps compartmentalize the complexity and reduce the fear factor -- to name just a few benefits of defining a theory of publishing. The four components associated with Bhaskar's theory are framing and models, and filtering and amplification. Together, these activities constitute the 'content machine'.
"Content is framed -- packaged for distribution and presented to an audience -- according to a model." Framing is all about the connection of publishing to content. And it's nice to see Bhaskar give reference to Brian O'Leary's thinking in that area. (Disclosure: O'Leary's Magellan Media Partners was instrumental in helping our Higher Ed group a Harvard Business Publishing craft a content transformation strategy.) For those who have not read Book: A Futurist's Manifesto, please do so -- and especially O'Leary's chapter on Context, Not Container.
Bhaskar agrees with O'Leary's criticism of the 'container model of publishing', "...whereby publishers fill 'containers', or books, with content, and then sell them. In digital settings, this model breaks down because traditional containers don't work in the freely moving world of browsers and code -- we need to start instead with content and its context...Put simply...what was a container industry should become a context industry." The publisher's job includes "actively managing the context of consumption."
Bhaskar's container is the 'frame'. He explains that "frames are as much about presenting content as containing it...[they] are distribution mechanisms, channels, and media." They are not just delivery systems, but "content's experiential mode" -- the realization of O'Leary's quest for "context". Content-frame pairs are how readers/users experience publishing output. Or as Bhaskur puts it: "Publishers are not just producers of books, but constructors of frames."
For those of us in academic technology, the frame is then the arena whereby we design and construct user and learning experiences. And it's the frame we distribute, which carries the frame-content pairing. Bhaskar notes that "...not only are frames media, but they actively create the experience of media", and that they are thus not only 'presentational', but 'receptional'.
Here's another Bhaskar take on the relationship between content, framing, and models: "We have here a context for publishing operations: to build a frame for content, according to a model." At another point he says that framing is the "how" and models are the "why". Models are meta-models -- manifestations of the motivational aspects of why people distribute content. "We cannot untangle content and model. Content aims to achieve things and is created and disseminated to achieve them; the content's model sets those aims."
The obvious model that comes to mind for many of us is the 'business model'. For-profit models are definitely explored, but so are other models. And the author explores very interesting territory around the cultural ties between models and societies, and hence publishing and society. Taken in this light, the exploration of models almost becomes an existential exploration of publishing's "why". Ultimately Bhaskar admits that "models are likely about making money and gaining cultural legitimacy at the same time."
Another great exploration within the context of models concerns the ideas of risk and value. Models are designed to realize value. And while the unpredictability that exists as models meet reality creates risks, so does the amplification (described below) increase value. The author explains that "because models ultimately are about value so they create risk as a by-product." He also uses value as a way to cross-reference how the system components work together: "Models aim to extract value from content by framing and amplifying. Filtering and amplification are both about adding value to content through framing."
This idea of how to best extract value and minimize risk is obviously top of mind for today's publishers, and Bhaskar concurs that changing models are the key to the very future of publishing itself. The further writing in the book around this subject is absolutely worth the cost alone -- I recommend a primary read for this sub-topic.
Bhaskar notes that filtering and amplification are activities at the 'heart of publishing'. They "resolve the question of what it means to make something public." Even in that Shirky quote, Bhaskar notes that the act of deciding what to publish via that iconic "Publish button" is itself an act of filtering.
"Filtering and amplification occur though frames according to models." Filtering goes beyond a 'selection emphasis' and toward a 'curation emphasis', and can be explained partly as the process by which people go through to determine 'what to frame'.
Amplification are those activities which ensure that "more copies of a work or product are distributed or consumed" than would otherwise be the case. This gets at the heart of "what it means to make something public." Bhaskar clarifies that "If filtering is governed by models, amplification occurs in and through frames and framing. Most of the time you don't simply frame content, but you frame in order to amplify."
And "if amplification occurs through framing, framing is made possible by technology." Bhaskar notes that frames and amplification are both social and technological. Again, this notion blends perfectly with the idea of the UX and LX 'design' aspects of framing being inexorably tied to the technical 'delivery' aspects of product rollout/distribution.
And Bhaskar notes that amplification "need not just be product-facing, striving for greater levels of unit production, but can be reception-facing, as in our own era when the strategies and technologies of market making or audience building start to take precedence over duplication and distribution." He later clarifies how amplification activities evolve in the digital age: "Amplification goes from producting and distributing units to harnessing attention...[it] has gone from a supply-side to a demand-side problem."
Bhaskar quotes Stephen Page as saying that publishers should become a 'creative interface between readers and writers'. This theory of publishing definitely allows us to start to make a bit more sense of what we do and why so we can achieve that goal. As publishers, we filter content according to a model, and then frame that content in order to amplify it. And we can refine those activities by exploring new perspectives and approaches like lean publishing. For me, this theory allows for a great perspective precisely so we can evolve aspects of how it manifests in our world and improve the system over time.