Staticness as a Symptom of an Unwell Book

In the past few years, I’ve been constructing a set of practices around knowledge production. Its been a Lego-like process. I add one brick, move it a bit, choose one of another colour and try and work out where it fits… It’s not so much a process of deconstruction of publishing as the construction of something else. Mainly because I don’t know enough about publishing to deconstruct it, so I have to start with what I know.
Sometimes, however, I realise just how odd that construction is. Usually, this occurs when I see an articulation of ‘how things are’ in ‘the real world’ and I realise… oops! I don’t at all relate to that or see the sense in it. That occurred recently with a discussion on the Read 2.0 list. Someone made a throwaway comment about how books might be changing and one day we might not think of them as static objects. A few comments followed about what the future of the book might be. I was left feeling very much on the outside in my Lego- constructed world. The only thing I could add to this conversation would have to pull apart the founding assumptions of the future ponderings – and I just didn’t know where to begin.

Books are mostly static objects in this world. You make them, ship them, consume them. Next. However, my experience with FLOSS Manuals is that this is exactly what we are trying to avoid. Since 2006, we have been avoiding staticness – rather the aim was, and is, to keep books alive. To a certain extent manuals about software present an obvious case where the value of ‘live’ books is evident. However, I don’t think that advantage is restricted to books about software. Books should be living entities and grow with time, expanding or contracting with input from many people.

So, staticness, through the lens of FLOSS Manuals and a ‘living book’ practice is actually a symptom of an ‘unwell’ book. A book that is not growing is a neglected work. It is left alone on the shelf to gather dust and die, where, by comparison, healthy books are attended to. They have growth spurts, or sometimes slower, prolonged periods of affection. They may fork, or become a central discussion, they might transit into other contexts entirely, or traverse languages. They are alive and more useful to us, vibrant and engaging. They also reveal the fundamental humanity behind the text… the living book as a conversation between living beings. A book, at its best, is a thriving community.

So, I have learned to look for staticness, and when I find it I literally get sad. I see this as a failed work, something that we were not able to diagnose, or failed to get to in time. At the same time, each failed work is a study and we have much to learn about how and why books die.

I think it’s important to learn to look for staticness as an early symptom of a failed book.

When Paper Fails

When all the activities and practices that we now call “publishing” exist in a networked environment, something radical changes – affecting creators, content, ownership, and trust. That might sound like the end of publishing as it is now, but it also sounds like the beginning of something exciting. And of course, it is argued that this future is already here, but, to paraphrase William Gibson, perhaps a little unevenly distributed.
Responses to these new challenges are already partly in motion inside the industry (e.g., the work Safari Books is doing with bibliographies connected to their ‘cloud library’) and outside (too many to mention but one example is the very interesting Open Oil book project) and as we move forward I firmly believe these futures will become increasingly present and their economics more mature.
Where does that leave the publishing business? Well, it might be better to ask yourself, ‘where does that leave business?’ Forget capital P, ‘Publishing’, for a moment. What are the skills necessary to survive here, what will you be doing, and what is the economy?
People are going to continue to require services that deliver and produce information. Finding ways to create information and finding someone to pay for it is the heart of the matter. That is not going to change anytime soon. The need for information won’t change, but how information is produced and delivered will change. In fact, I believe the demand for content is going to rise (it is already rising rapidly), and the demand will increasingly be for more individualised, customised content and it will need to be delivered faster, much faster than today.
So, what would the world look like when the walls that contain the publishing industry fail and spill their innards onto the web? Or to see the same question through the lens of Eric Raymond, what is the essential difference between the cathedral and the bazaar?
Let’s quickly look at the environment of this particular kind of “bazaar” – the web – for a few clues. The most important issue at play is that the web always appears to find a way to route around arbitrary constraints. People, processes, and information route their way around unnecessary blockages looking for and finding the most efficient and least resistant paths. So what would happen if publishing was immersed in that environment? What are the containers, the constructs of the publishing industry, that would be routed around and may break down and fail? Here, I want to explore four main issues pertinent to this discussion – Books, Ownership, Authors and Authority.
Books: In this environment content containers, like books, lose the definitiveness of their boundaries. What is separating an EPUB, which is made of HTML, from the web? As Hugh McGuire has said many times, this differentiation is arbitrary.  Arbitrary containers like zip files (EPUBs, which we might call portable websites) might assist in the transport of curated content, but, in the long run, they will be under a lot of pressure to remain contained and will increasingly become unbound.
Ownership: Another “container” that will come under increased pressure from these forces. If the mere fact of copyright ownership protected their content then publishers wouldn’t be looking to DRM (digital rights management). We know that the way in which book content is owned and licensed will change dramatically. Protecting ownership will increasingly become an impediment to business as it decreases the utility of information (something that O’Reilly was smart to recognise early on and perhaps reflects Samuel Johnsons’ famous quip regarding his writings that “I have been paid for them, and have no right to enquire about them”).
Authors: Also an arbitrary construct, in as much as both the realities of book authorship, and its production, are more collaborative and iterative than commonly perceived. This is another dimension that will be radically transformed by the new collaborative possibilities opened up by digital technologies. Indeed, perhaps the cultural construct of isolated genius will remain only as a brand. In reality, people are less and less isolated on the web and there is more genius out there than you can imagine. I would argue here that the concept of the author will also become more “porous”. We will be looking at a world of “networked genius” rather than the traditional standalone kind. This has been discussed in fascinating detail by Martha Woodmansee and Jack Stillinger.
Authority: The web doesn’t seem to allow anyone to merely assert ‘authority’ – such notions are subject to the ebb and flow of public web “opinion”. Publishing as an authority will certainly come under immense pressure and one possibility is the move to “distributed opinion networks” built and mediated by technologists. We have already seen this on the web, and the question of authority in these networks is well articulated in commentary surrounding Wikipedia vs Encyclopedia Britannica, for example.
When paper fails, it affects creators, content, ownership, and trust in radically transformative ways. Production processes change, content is both harvested and produced, contributors are corralled and facilitated, books become individualised ‘outcomes’. We might say the engine this “new” publishing economy revolves around includes two critical factors:
(1) content production, harvesting and curation for increasingly individualised contexts; and (2) speed of delivery.

Helping people to get what they want, their outcome, is going to be the bread and butter of this economy. This is a move from selling the artifact, to developing and selling a service, or towards providing services to help others produce and distribute content. The faster you can deliver it the more competitive you will become. People, businesses, governments, schools, etc., are all going to be very happy to pay for that.

*Please note the Open Oil project is a small project and not provided here to illustrate this kind of model at scale but to point at a very interesting and important emerging model.

Many thanks to David Berry for improving this post. This post and all others by Adam Hyde are CC-BY-SA

Originally posted on 13 Feb 2013 on O’Reillys Tools of Change site: