Field Notes from the Future of Publishing

Field Notes from the Future of Publishing

by
Ed Finn
2014-10-05

At the Frankfurt Book Fair, Ed Finn and his team attempted to “write, edit, and publish a book in three days.” In this essay, Finn explains the process, outcomes, and future considerations of that collaborative experiment in writing, reading, and publishing in parallel and as performance, in the same room at the same time, as he attempts to answer the question, “What is the future of publishing?”

End Scene

Our mission was simple: write, edit, and publish a book in three days from the floor of the Frankfurt Book Fair. 

It was a deliberately outlandish thing to do, setting up a booth at the largest, noisiest book expo in the world and inviting a small group of writers to sit there, talk, type, and edit a series of answers to the question “what is the future of publishing?” Dramatis personae on-site included celebrated science fiction writer and essayist Charlie Stross, publisher and Virginia Quarterly Review web editor Jane Friedman, author and entrepreneur Dan Gillmor, and novelist, essayist and assistant professor of English Lee Konstantinou.

Our starting point was the stagnation of current e-books and a new effort from Intel to prototype something different. As I wrote to our collaborators when I solicited them:

Why do this? We’re tired of e-books as they exist now. They are, by and large, crappy emulations of printed books, and they could be so much more. Intel’s developing an innovative new digital publishing platform. We’re going to put it to the test. We want to imagine the future of collaborative authorship and publishing by doing it, and we’re hoping to invite hundreds of people beyond our hardy on-site band of pioneers to join in. There will be a camera crew roaming the fair recording short interviews with people, and we’ll have some terminals near us set up to record video and text contributions as well. All of these will be embedded inline along with our text. Plus we’ll have a project website where the whole world can see the book take shape and join in.

To try this in such a public way, assembling a team of people I had, for the most part, never met or worked with, assumed certain risks. But we thoughtfully rigged the game in our favor: get a few professional writers lined up, ply them with lattes, lay down deadlines, and you will inevitably see results. The main surprise was my naïve assumption that I would have time to write alongside them rather than working with our excellent support team to keep the cameras rolling, the editorial engines churning, and our visitors to the booth nodding and smiling.

Now that we have the benefit of hindsight, why did we do it? What did we accomplish? The basic answer is that this was about performance. We wanted to take the distinctive energy, the imaginative space that writers require for creative production, and put it on display. I admit, unashamedly, that one of my inspirations for this exercise was the great, underappreciated Monty Python skit where novel-writing has become a national pastime that can fill a stadium with cheering fans. It’s a little silly, sure, but why don’t we celebrate writing like this? 

So we put up a big clock and gave everyone status updates on the project. We had a film crew (there is no better way to signal a happening than to have someone record it). Their efforts also serve to document our stage, props, and actors in this trailer. We organized the event as a series of individual “sprints” where we would all brainstorm ideas around a particular question, turn to individual writing time punctuated by occasional queries and sardonic commentary, and then gather for a brief review and reflection period. And, in fact, by the end of three days our little group of collaborators did feel something like a team in a stadium, or maybe a newsroom: working hard together on a shared goal under tight constraints. 

And the results were tremendous: we gathered videos, essays, and comments from contributors around the world. We divided the project into a series of discrete writing “sprints,” each focused on a theme we agreed on at the beginning of our venture. Ranging from production and editing to discoverability and the concept of the book itself, these topics unleashed a tremendous range of creative responses. The structure of the sprints allowed each writer to discuss and then stake out a claim on a particular topic. We were able to work in concerted parallel, explicitly and implicitly weaving together the threads of ideas like Dan Gillmor’s notion of iterated, perpetual beta books and Charlie Stross’s nightmare of feral spam literature. A number of these essays were also published or highlighted in other venues, including Slate, VQR, Publishing Perspectives and BoingBoing (see the full press roundup for details), allowing thousands of readers to engage with these ideas. 

Staging Writing

The effort to plan and execute this at a frantic site like the Frankfurt Book Fair was non-trivial. We spent hours discussing the layout of our space, the people we should invite, the larger goals and specific agenda items, all the way down to the optimal spacing of coffee breaks to allow for maximal productivity (key insight: make caffeine available all the time). Ultimately, the setting was crucial to creating a physical network effect: people stopped by our book—smart, connected people who were going to take this back to their executive boardrooms or their vast online communities. 

This brings us back to the notion of performance. Somehow for all the openness of digital culture, the way we share our innermost thoughts, our half-formed ideas and streams of consciousness, writing itself has remained unchanged. Writers compose in private, even when communicating with millions in real-time. You don’t see novelists sitting down and letting people watch them crank out prose, with a few notable exceptions.

The gulf between writer and audience has many consequences. The absence of the artist at the heart of the literary work, the way in which all of those false starts, dead-ends, and commodius vici of recirculation are elided in the final text, is a form of loneliness that many writers have struggled with. Ironically, we have made the written word, this deep expression of the self—the telepathic, mind-projecting transmission of thought and feeling from one brain to another—into a new barrier. I suspect this has been true for centuries: writers like David Foster Wallace find fiction to be a source of redemption, a way out of the lonely Skinner box of human existence, but also an endless deferment of direct, live contact. 

Turning writing and publishing into a live act also takes its inspiration from the performance of literary culture, the idea that extemporaneous discourse is an art in and of itself. So how do we create a space for live writing? Walter Ong (1982) called our transition into the space of contemporary letters the move from orality to literacy, noting that the explosive impact of the written word has involved losses as well as gains. The culture of auditing—privileging speech and listening as the primary formal and legal modes of communication—has given way to the culture of silent reading and, increasingly, silent writing. As Barthes reminds us, we lose something in these silences, as the spoken word can never be unsaid (1975). Too often the silently written word can be silently erased, and the Internet’s textual cornucopia tempts us to forget all that Google does not know.

The notion of live writing and the performance of writing has interested poets and literary scholars for decades (at least), leading to many experiments in creating more nuanced spaces on the page and in public readings for the performance of poetry and other literature. At its roots these modes of performance serve to construct our own identities as players on the cultural stage: Adam Smith more or less founded his entire theory of moral philosophy on the importance of knowing how to express your thoughts effectively on the fly in the Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). In our Frankfurt experiment we challenged ourselves to imagine how the process of writing itself could become more fluid and more open to observation. 

By curating a series of scheduled times for conversation and writing, we encouraged a reflexive examination of the writing process and opened up space for collective practice, with writers responding to one another on the fly rather than engaging in a more traditional essay-response format. Indeed, the whole experiment could have been conducted with quill and parchment (maybe the Declaration of Independence is a good precedent for writing as performance). But because of our starting conditions we chose to run our experiment online, licensing our work under Creative Commons and using a mix of open source (WordPress) and private (Intel’s Professional Grade E-Book) platforms. 

Computational tools hold huge potential to create new forms of collaboration between authors, editors, publishers, and their audiences, and we are only just beginning to imagine the possibilities. Crucially, they open up the practice of live writing, of shared composition, to become a space of creative performance. While our experiment in Frankfurt relied primarily on closed writing tools (Microsoft Word, the WordPress text editor and the like), I am fascinated by the potential for new modes of collective, live composition. Despite their individualized editorial interfaces, sites like Wikipedia and Reddit rapidly assemble collective narratives about world events as they unfold (the Boston Bombing, for example), creating a collaborative, performative composition space as pages are continually refreshed with new contributions. Likewise social media are rapidly becoming tools for collective storytelling through hashtags and call-and-response narratives that can involve thousands of voices in the same emergent “story.”

Publishing Performances

In terms of composition, most digital publishing tools are still discrete, private booths into which we pour our words. They are deceptively simple in their front-end operations: users see some kind of text box, maybe some tag or categorization options to direct their conversations towards the right audience, and a big, enticing “submit” button. The real sophistication lies in the algorithms and sharing platforms that curate and transmit all that text to networks of readers. As it stands, most of these systems function as black boxes, specifically fortified against those who seek to “game the system.” All of the most interesting heavy lifting takes place behind the veil, so authors, readers, and texts are put in touch according to proprietary notions of serendipity.

Many of these processes—recommendation engines, social media feeds, discoverability—remain beyond the scope of what we set out to accomplish in Frankfurt. Nevertheless a major ambition of our Sprint Beyond the Book is to make this backend as visible as the front, to demonstrate how easy it is for publishers and authors to create digital versions of their work without resorting to expensive software. The platform we were using from Intel, the Professional Grade E-Book system (PGE), was intended to serve this role: a simple, transparent set of tools to ingest PDFs on one end and create a graceful digital book on the other. 

Getting this done in practice was a reminder that every performance needs its gaffers, grips, technical directors, and stage managers. The PGE tool was a proof of concept, a working prototype that served as a kind of design fiction for a future, more fully realized product. Running on Windows, the PGE system ingested PDF files and produced a special layered file with rich media content and a set of social features for collaboratively bookmarking and commenting on the text. Its most enticing feature was the ability to “push” updated versions of a text to users’ digital libraries in the PGE Reader, allowing us to update our growing volume over the course of the sprint.The life cycle of the PGE Reader was itself instructive in the challenges of pulling a production like this off. In the months after the Frankfurt experiment Intel shifted course and the tool that absorbed so many hours of furrowed page-herding at Frankfurt is no longer available online. Our later experiments relied completely on WordPress and some professional production tools, a process I will describe in future essays about those events. 

In practice our workflow at Frankfurt was still radically simplified and accelerated from the traditional publishing model, with new iterations of our evolving text going online several times a day and a freshly formatted edition coming out roughly once a day. Evolving digital tools are just beginning to show promise for radical new intimacies between publishers, authors, and readers, a world where texts really become shared spaces. As it stands, one can create such a space with great effort and tinkering, but it’s possible to imagine a future where widely accessible platforms might allow anyone to create and share a compelling, adaptive, rewritable book.

The experiment in Frankfurt ultimately centered on a different kind of staging: not writing but publication itself as a performance. Bringing our authors together in public, creating the book out in the open, on the fly, is an homage to what I see as the core aesthetic of the publishing industry. Publishers are businesspeople, running companies that serve market needs and must turn a profit, but they are also cultural arbiters. They support writers (who are usually not businesspeople), they watch trends, and above all they define a certain kind of style. The worst insult one established publisher could deliver to Amazon’s ill-starred effort to launch a traditional trade division: “I have no sense of the character of their house.” The world’s great publishing companies still have this character, a sense of brand identity and cultural purpose that extends beyond a simple profit motive. This intangible aesthetic is its own form of performance, a long-running improvisation where books and market seasons are the individual episodes of a larger drama. 

The book sprint in Frankfurt, our second experiment at Arizona State University and our third at Stanford University (which will be the subject of separate essays) highlight this bigger picture. Expanding what Pierre Bourdieu called “habitus” in terms of individual actors in the drama of cultural systems (1972), we are using the framework of digital platforms to ask how a new transparency might transform the relationships between publishers, readers, authors, and critics. The linkages and interfaces of this framework are pushing all the players together: we already see writers blogging drafts and readers responding, publishers crowdsourcing new books, and authorship collectives short-circuiting the old rules to bring new books to life. The processes of writing, reading, and publishing are already happening in tumultuous parallel—what happens when we bring them together into the same room and the same conversation?

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller. Macmillan, 1975.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction. Trans. Richard Nice. Harvard UP, 1984.

Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy. Routledge, 2002.

Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Penguin, 2010.

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