The Content Machine: Towards a Theory of Publishing from the Printing Press to the Digital Network

The Content Machine: Towards a Theory of Publishing from the Printing Press to the Digital Network

by Michael Bhaskar

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The Content Machine: Towards a Theory of Publishing from the Printing Press to the Digital Network by Michael Bhaskar

This ground-breaking study, the first of its kind, outlines a theory of publishing that allows publishing houses to focus on their core competencies in times of crisis. Tracing the history of publishing from the press works of fifteenth-century Germany to twenty-first-century Silicon Valley via Venice, Beijing, Paris and London, fusing media theory and business experience, 'The Content Machine' offers a new understanding of content, publishing and technology, and defiantly answers those who contend that publishing has no future in a digital age.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780857281111
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 10/01/2013
Series: Anthem Publishing Studies Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 200
Sales rank: 789,146
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Michael Bhaskar is a digital publisher, researcher and writer based in London.

Read an Excerpt

The Content Machine

Towards a Theory of Publishing from the Printing Press to the Digital Network

By Michael Bhaskar

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2013 Michael Bhaskar
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85728-122-7



Imagine a publishing house. Here are the editors reading manuscripts before debating their virtues at an acquisitions meeting. We have the production department, sales, marketing and publicity; editorial managers with their proofreaders, copyeditors, text designers and typesetters; the art department with their large screens and colour printers. We have the C-suite executives and interns, secretaries and strategists, office managers, HR, contracts, the IT team and the legal counsel; we have an army of freelancers, from off-site readers to the man who delivers coffee. The large off-site machinery of distributors, sales agents and support services lies out of view, but remains essential. Departmental boundaries at a publisher's have, in recent times, become rather blurred; marketing and publicity, for example, share responsibility for managing the company's social media accounts. More or less, though, there is a clear workflow, a critical path winding its way through the organisational structure.

A manuscript navigates the path, beginning as a rough Word document. It ends as a complete text, gleaming from the attentions of many skilled editors and designers, produced as a handsome hardback with an eye-catching jacket, with excellent sales placements, favourable notices in major broadsheet newspapers, excited chatter on the web and a strong early showing in the bestseller lists. Somewhere on the journey it was published. Which department, which person did the publishing? One might be tempted to say the publisher, ex officio; only she really spends most of her time smoothing personnel issues in her large editorial team and wooing big name authors with big plans and bigger advances. One could say the editor, the individual responsible for bringing the book to the house, who sculpts the text and makes critical calls on its presentation. However, they didn't design the book, produce it or get it into the shops or people's consciousness. Do publishers need to commission, finance or distribute books to be publishers? Must they do it all and in what order? Can you only do a couple of tasks? Must you own a book to publish it?

The point is, of course, no one publishes the book – publishing, that strange textual alchemy, happens through the entire organisation and is the sum of its activities. Publishing is the peculiar, elusive, above all emergent property of publishers. So what kind of emergent property is it?

Before we can begin, we need to consider what publishing is. Before digital came along, there were several fault lines to publishing. First, the definitions and usages of the word 'publishing', for instance, continually shift and tug against each other. Second, the historical situations of publishers, still understood as 'publishing' today, can in no way be dealt with as a single category. Third, we need to go beyond book publishing to the spectrum of 'publishings', and ask what this multimedia status implies. Lastly, we need to analyse the operations of publishing, find those aspects often thought identical to publishing, and see if they really are. If we can establish that these functions are not reducible to publishing as a whole, we have an aporia, a 'black hole' at the heart of an activity that employs millions around the world with a history stretching back hundreds, even thousands of years. An odd situation. By tracing each of these strands we can start to see a theory of publishing, not as a strange and unwieldy imposition but an accessory to this vital area of our cultural and intellectual lives.

What's the Problem?

Particle physics might require a unified field theory – but publishing? Publishing consultant Brian O'Leary suggested as much at the Books in Browsers conference in San Francisco, arguing for 'a unified field theory of publishing' (see O'Leary 2011b). Theories explain the world, resolving apparent anomalies. They are testable against parts of reality. Presupposed is the idea something needs explanation in the first place. As a profession, in some senses analogous to plumbing or teaching, or an industry, analogous to the motor or drinks industry, publishing doesn't seem to require a theory or an explanation as such. Most industries or trades are more or less self-explanatory. No one is offering unified field theories of the beverage industry. Why would you need one for publishing?

O'Leary (2011b) constructs his theory in response to a new problem: the impact of digital technology on publishers. He sets out to critique 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 ('the critical admixture of tagged content, research, footnoted links, sources, audio and video background, even good old title-level metadata' (O'Leary 2011b)). Rather than seeing context as secondary to discrete physical units, it is at the forefront of a publisher's work in disseminating texts through convergent, digital, open, free, remixed and interactive spaces. Put simply O'Leary's field theory suggests that, with the advent of digital, what was a container industry should become a context industry.

It is a good theory. Yet it begs a question. Does publishing only need a theory post-digital? What's more, is it really a theory in the first place? A theory of publishing has to explain what publishing does in the digital age – O'Leary explains what it could do, he outlines a strategy, but he doesn't ask if the container model fully explains publishing before digital. In fact, publishing's problems are as old as publishing.

Publishing was never simple. Take an example, which will be explored in more detail below. What, exactly, is the difference between a published and an unpublished work? If I leave manuscripts lying around in public, does that in some way constitute publishing? There have long been separations between printing and publishing, and indeed, separations between the many acts now considered core to publishing. Publishing floats somewhere above the production and dissemination of books, neither printing nor distribution, sales, art, copyediting or copyright owning exactly, but a strange conceptual amalgam of all or none of them. The closer one looks the more publishing dissipates into a non-activity with blurred limits. While the Internet poses an existential challenge to publishing, even prior to the web publishing was existentially challenged. We don't just need a unified field theory for digital publishing, but for publishing in general.

To borrow Raymond Williams's (1983) term, publishing is a 'keyword'. Williams saw keywords as problems, concealing contradictions and alternative meanings. Culture is a prime example of a keyword that awkwardly straddles meanings referring to either art or society, deeply connected to both. If keywords are about connections with other keywords, collectively forming a complex, then note some of Williams's selections with the word 'publishing' in mind: aesthetics, art, capitalism, career, civilisation, commercialism, communications, consumer, creative, culture, educated, expert, fiction, industry, intellectual, literature, mass, media, mediation, popular, society, technology, wealth and work amongst others.

A more recent project (Bennett, Grossberg and Morris 2005) to update the list reveals yet more associations: audience, celebrity, commodity, consumption, copy, discourse, economy, education, information, knowledge, management, market, network, representation, sign, text, value, virtual and writing. Intensely, unstably connected, publishing often lacks what Williams called 'that extra edge of consciousness' (Williams 1983, 24). Designating 'publishing' and 'publish' keywords isn't consigning them to a language game, but to argue problems in language stem from real historical situations. To understand publishing, we must first understand its difficulty.

The Word Itself

The English word 'publish' predates the invention of the printing press by at least seventy years, if not more if its delay in reaching England is taken into account. The earliest use registered in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is from 1382 in the Wycliffite Bible: 'It is yhrd and with solempne word puplyschid in the halle of the kyng.' Books and cultural products have less historic importance than the wider sense of to make public, to declare or to announce something, a use more about sending a message than pertaining to an industry. Another example in the OED is from Lytton Strachey's Queen Victoria (published in 1921): 'For the Queen, far from making a secret of her affectionate friendship, took care to publish it to the world.' This refers to publishing as projecting an act or emotional state directly – there is no sense of an intermediary. Queen Victoria would not be a publisher in any colloquial use of the term. Most early uses were about not concealing things, a lineage in which publishing is hardly a positive act so much as a lack of secrecy.

The word 'to publish' stems from the Anglo-Norman puplier and the Middle French publier, loosely meaning to make public or known, to announce or to proclaim; both words trace back to the Latin puplicare, meaning to make public property or place at the community's disposal. The word's history is embedded in European public life. In post-classical Latin, it also meant to denounce and had a meaning 'to confiscate'. Roger Chartier records how the word meant to read a work in public in France: 'the older meaning of "publication" as a "public" reading of a work before the prince, lord or institution to which it was dedicated' (Chartier 1995, 33).

Another significant thread is institutional, typically relating to ecclesiastical, juridical or political bodies (the church, the law and the state). Thus one would publish a will, a libel, wedding banns or monarchical edicts, in a manner and meaning that has changed little over the centuries. Compare Shakespeare's will as recorded in 1616, 'And doe Revoke All former wills & publishe this to be my last will & testament,' to that of Robert Maxwell, quoted in the Financial Times in 1992: 'I, Robert Maxwell, residing at Heddington Hill Hall, Oxford, England, do hereby make, publish and declare this codicil to my last will and testament.' Both wills invoke publishing in a purely institutional way, outside of which the usage has no bearing – that is to say, the institution itself presupposes and contains the publishing. Publishing is an action only within the broader context and so can be seen in terms of a service or function within it, something reflected in history. For example, in early modern England, royal and ecclesiastical publishing, from proclamations to bibles, psalters and catechisms, were the two most valuable monopolies granted to publishers. In the later Elizabethan period, the two were effectively merged in the lucrative position of Royal Printer (a post dating back to 1541 – 42) allowing for close control of official publishing.

Only at the third level of the definition of 'publishing' do we come to an industry sense, as a process '[t]o prepare and issue copies of (a book, newspaper, piece of music, etc.) for distribution or sale to the public. Also: to prepare and issue the work of (an author)'. This leaves open interesting tensions, for example, between issuing music (sound) and books (text) and also procedural questions, such as what issuing copies involves at a granular level. The inclusion of author, bracketed, is also instructive, as it implies that acts of publishing are fundamentally distinct from those of authorship, or creation, even as the authorship connection ties us to ideas of individuality and textuality. This differentiation is alive in recognisably modern form in Thomas More's Dialogues Heresyes (1529), written just beyond the incunabula phase of the printed word: 'I am now driuen [...] to this thirde busyness of publishynge and puttynge my boke in printe my selfe.'

Publishing is here distinct from both authoring and bookselling, sufficiently removed from writing for authorial involvement to be remarkable, even explicitly seen as different from 'putting into print', which wasn't clear at the time. Quite unlike the usage in Strachey (1921), More's publishing becomes active, conscious and purposeful, contrasting with a more passive use at 3b: 'To make generally accessible or available for acceptance or use (a work of art, information, etc.): to present to or before the public; spec. to make public (news, research findings, etc.) through the medium of print or the Internet.'

Print and text are tacitly privileged. Why should this be when modern publishing is so much more multi-form? Only at this third level does the idea of medium come into play; we saw at first glance a near unmediated sense of publishing; yet in every understanding regarding content, mediation is key. Part of the issue with 'making public', perhaps the most commonly understood definition of publishing, is that it doesn't bring mediation to the fore – the act of making public is almost assumed to just happen, as if it didn't require a medium, or the process behind that medium, through which it happens.

At a fundamental level all dictionaries and definitions are circular, yet in many instances publishing is beset with a particularly vicious circularity. Publishers publish; to publish is to make something public. We immediately hit the stumbling block of the insufficient conception of 'making public'. In his 1755 Dictionary, Dr Johnson followed a prototype of the public (or 'publick') argument, defining 'publish' as '[t]o put forth a book into the world'. Characteristically commonsensical, yes, but it is a definition with the same ambiguity over what constitutes 'putting into the world' in the first place. Johnson, too, is caught in unhelpful vagueness.

Here's a brief thought experiment: you write a novel, and leave it on a park bench. Is this a published novel? Let's say you print 1,000 copies, leaving them on 1,000 park benches. How about now? Or how about a publisher buys it, takes out masses of adverts, but literally no one buys a single copy? In what sense has that work been published? At what point does a letter or email pass from private correspondence to public, published text? One hundred or 100,000 recipients? Or is the idea of putting a numerical value on being public absurd, and if so, what conceptual distinction should we make instead? If I post the email on the Internet, we can assume it has been published, but then, if nobody views it, how is it more public than an email sent to 100 people? Is being public a state of being – the state of being public in itself – or is it epistemological, the state of being known, or even being known to have been published?

Simply to say 'making something public' specifies virtually nothing. One way of thinking about this is to follow John Thompson's (2010) distinction between making a work available and making a work known to the public. Another is to approach the notion of public. However, this runs into a wall of arguments about what the public is, where it comes from, what influence it exerts, who constitutes and controls it, and so on. Social theorists like Pierre Bourdieu (2005) and Bruno Latour (1993) have, in different ways, suggested the idea of a 'public' is imposed on the world, not an innate feature of it. By saying publishing is axiomatically connected to the public, we create as many problems as we resolve. The discussion masks the inherent conceptual plasticity of 'public', a contested word if ever there was one. A definition of publishing needs a better sense of what becoming public really involves.


Excerpted from The Content Machine by Michael Bhaskar. Copyright © 2013 Michael Bhaskar. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements; Introduction: Useful Middlemen; Chapter 1: The Problem of Publishing; Chapter 2: The Digital Context and Challenge; Chapter 3: How Content Works; Chapter 4: The System of Publishing; Chapter 5: Models; Chapter 6: Addressing Problems, Meeting Challenges; Conclusion: Inside the Content Machine; Bibliography; Index

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

‘Bhaskar shows you not just where publishing's going but where publishing went while we were all sleepwalking. The definitive guide to the bleak yet fascinating future of books.’ —‘New York Times’ bestselling author Michael Levin, CEO,

‘In his bold and innovative book Michael Bhaskar tackles some of the big questions that surround publishing. He takes the reader on a quest for a unified theory of publishing, arriving at the Content Machine, which takes account of both its history and the challenges it faces from digital media.’ —Angus Phillips, Director, Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies

‘Scholarly yet utterly lucid, the dazzling generosity of Bhaskar’s historical reference is matched by his incisive understanding of contemporary challenges.’ —Alex Butterworth, Founder/Managing and Creative Director, Amblr

‘Michael Bhaskar brings his considerable experience as a digital publishing professional to inform a fascinating theory of publishing with broad historical scope.’ —Dan Franklin, Digital Publisher, Random House Group

Bhaskar takes us on a fascinating journey that ultimately leads us to question in whose hands the future of publishing will lie.’ —José Afonso Furtado, Catholic University of Portugal

‘An insightful, enjoyable and fresh contribution to the noisy debate on publishing's future.’ —Stephen Page, CEO and Publisher, Faber & Faber

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