A Writer’s Thoughts On Open-Ended Publishing

One of the reasons I write so much about ereaders (without actually owning one) is because I feel like they represent something truly different in publishing, an industry that, until relatively recently, hasn’t changed a heck of a lot in the last hundred years. In the last decade, I’ve gone from total writer n00b to journeyman author, but it hasn’t been easy. The industry is being turned upside down, the recession is affecting everything, and everyone has an opinion but there’s not much of a consensus. Making progress is tough.

I read this piece this morning on O’Reilly by Mac Slocum, and it definitely speaks to my hopes of the future of publishing. From the get-go, I wanted to write things that were open-ended: I wanted to create worlds wherein other people were free to play, to write content that could be easily shared (sorta shameless plug: I released a draft one of my first books, The Aldersgate a few years ago as a podcast, all with Creative Commons licensing).

But the reality of my hopes doesn’t really gel with the model of traditional publishing. And that’s been something I’ve struggled with for a long time. I’ve often if I’d done the right thing with the podcast, and have debated whether or not I should do it again (so far I haven’t).

Anyway, Slocum was inspired to write his post by comments from Russel Jones, also at O’Reilly. Jones was pontificating on the future of publishing, and said:

The “book” now consists of whatever content you provide for readers to download — and if you can update them automatically, that’s not even exactly true. For example, you could create a book that updates constantly, a book that consists entirely of reader input, a book that is actually a series of links, a book that readers interact with, a book that grows over time, and, of course, book readers that collect their own metadata. Books that are applications, books that are interactive tours. Books where the ending (or the whole story) changes as people read them…

In this model, stories are plastic: they change and move and fluctuate with the input of readers, writers, editors. They evolve in a very short time. And evolution is certainly a huge component of storytelling, considering so many stories simply rehash older ones (take the Arthurian canon, for instance, and trace its beginning in Celtic and Welsh mythology to today’s incarnations… quite a trip in the evolution of a narrative). Not only are the stories changing, but they’re interactive. Writers and readers engage in dialogue like never before. And that’s immensely important.

I like what Slocum talks about, too. He believes that with new thinking, real innovation can be had. And in publishing, a huge part of that is making things public. This, of course, is where the publishing industry really gets their collective bookmarks up their spines. It just flies in the face of the traditional model, making “rights” and “ownership” an absolute nightmare.

Slocum explains:

That’s a huge change from what most of us are used to. From early on, we’re trained to create editions: an essay, a book, a magazine, a newspaper, a movie, a game, etc. Those are projects with defined beginnings and endings. But digital content doesn’t really exist in an edition-based world. It moves, it flows. It gets chunked up, mashed up, and recombined. It can be copied and pasted at will (whether you like it or not). It can be added to. It can be deleted from. It hibernates and reappears unexpectedly months or years later.

Whether or not the industry is ready — and whether or not readers and creators are ready — the face of how we perceive published materials is changing quickly. I think it’s a chance for plenty of opportunity for writers — and non-writers — to produce, consume, and interact with content like never before. I’m of a mind that, as we enter into the next decade, we’re going to be seeing a lot more examples of writers finding their voices online, through digital media, and then to print, reaching an audience before they go through the tedium of traditional publishing venues. Sure, not all of it will be top-notch, but inevitably the good stuff will rise to the top. It’s crowd-sourcing for reading, in a way.

How about you? Do you view digital books the same as traditional print? Do you feel more vested in something if you’ve got a window into the creative process? Does the idea of interactive writing attract you?

[Image CC by Horia Varlan, via Flickr]


3 Responses to A Writer’s Thoughts On Open-Ended Publishing

  1. It is a *really* bad idea, because without a common reference point, how can we discuss things? Do you really want to have your cheese moved behind your back? For example, imagine having a technical manual (say, "Learning Ruby in 28 Seconds"), where one day it shows you how to use a particularly technique, and when you try finding it a few weeks later because you need it, it has changed or has been removed entirely. Or maybe you and a colleague both read the "same" book, and when you are discussing it you have a totally different understanding, because what you read was different?

    Sorry, but this is a Tower of Babel. The idea is fine for certain things (the kinds of things that wikis are well suited for… technical documentation, sports statistics, etc.), but not for things a lot of things (novels, learning materials, reference sources, and so on) where stability is much more valuable than being up-to-the minute.


  2. The concept of interactive writing is a wonderful idea, a mass sharing of thought and form but it eliminates the individual writer…forever. Gone is the ability to make a living writing…forever. As an award-winning author I embraced the internet a decade ago thinking I was home, here was the ultimate location for a writer, a world where writing was essential to the development of the medium. But as noted in this article, cyberspace is also the realm where anyone can right-click and copy. It is a world where publishers run content farms and pay $4.50 for a 600 word, researched article. The internet is the demise of writing as a source of income which means more and more writers who have something of real quality to share will be forced to forgo writing in order to make a living. Something is dying here.

  3. I made the decision in high school (about 2002) to become "a writer." At the time, I had high hopes for the internet helping me to become well-known and liked and actually make me more appealing to a publisher. During college, I changed my major (to history so I can be a museum curator, ironically enough) because I realized that in reality, the direction the internet was headed–is headed–was taking away my opportunities.

    I wish that I could look at the world and think with hope about the new-fangled technology and data-sharing methods, but my chosen career has slipped from my grasp because of it. Perhaps I am a rare youthful relic, but I'd rather be that than see the world of books which I love so much just go away.

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