What is it that we do now?
This question was posed to me by the digital editor of a longstanding print magazine. It came at the end of a discussion that ranged from tablet apps and workflows to business models and markup, in which we agreed that everyone needed to learn and adapt, but no one quite knew what we were doing next. It’s a challenging question for two reasons: what we do is in flux, and so is who “we” are.
If the “we” is publishers, we’re not only talking about cardigan-wearing copyeditors and door-to-door book salesmen anymore. Some of us are still slinging hardcovers while others build fanzines around novels authored on cell phones. Still others work within the rubric of publishing without always adopting its name: on company blogs, local news sites, online magazines, niche presses, Kickstarted-book projects, limited-edition newspapers, and more. Publishing’s tent is bigger and more inclusive than at any time before.
And just as our tent is expanding, so too are our ideas about what we do. A complete description of our work would begin to define what it is that makes this our tent: What brought us all here? What are we hoping to achieve? Of all the assumptions and ideas we’ve dragged in with us, which are the babies and which the bathwater?
There are two key ingredients to a successful community: a place to gather, and things to talk about. Publishers provide things to talk about, in the form of content, whose principle byproduct has always been discussion. But for most of publishing’s history, the place was far from our reach. You had to board a plane or train, or put real miles on your car, to reach the people reading your work, and you simply couldn’t get to them all. You couldn’t build the kind of rapport that happens when you see someone every so often, and chat about what they thought of that last book, or ask after their kids. The distance between publishers, authors, and readers was meaningful and far.
But the web changed all that; we are now separated by no more than the few pixels of a submit button. Our readers can reach us just as easily as we can reach them. And they do, in ways as varied as blog comments, reviews, discussion forums, bookmark services, Facebook groups, and in the earnest and loving reports of typos and other errors.
And that brings us to our first bucket of bathwater: we can no longer think of publishing as a broadcast medium. It isn’t, not anymore. The web requires that we listen and converse as much as (if not more than) we ship. In fact, we cannot assume that publishing of any kind is a distinct activity from belonging to a community. Part of the job of a publisher today is to facilitate discussion—and that means being a part of it. It means that we publish for people, not to them.
This is just as important when what you’re selling isn’t the content itself, but a service or product tangential to it. At Typekit, a large part of our success can be attributed to a publishing strategy that focuses on content that makes us all smarter: we share how we do things at Typekit and what we’ve learned from them, and we commission other writers to share what they know. An ancillary business case can be made for much of that content, but ultimately the question we ask ourselves is how we can make our community better; and we can answer that question confidently because we are ourselves a part of it.
Likewise, in 1997, Jeffrey Zeldman and Brian M. Platz co-founded a mailing list to advocate for the burgeoning web standards movement. Designers and developers themselves, they started A List Apart because they recognized the need. More than a decade later, A Book Apart published its first book, HTML5 for Web Designers, and within hours sold thousands of copies—despite not belonging to any of the major book distributors. There is a direct line from that original mailing list to the launch of a new and successful publishing house (as well as events and agencies). The business model is a consequence of supporting the community—it’s a happy byproduct, not a means unto itself.
Of course, supporting a community is hard work, and it isn’t cheap. It’s expensive not only in time, but in spirit: you have to care about your readers. You have to stay up late wondering how you can make their days better. But the result is that you are beholden not to a particular platform, or even a certain kind of business, but to your people. And the more in touch you are with those people, the more likely you are to publish content (or sell a service, or build a product) they not only need, but love. Broadcast may be the bathwater, but community is the baby we didn’t used to have.
Of course, once you gather your community together, you need to keep them in the room with you. You do not do this by leveraging social media, or making content “sticky,” or in any number of other cynical, trendy ways that seek to exploit a group of people instead of supporting them. Rather, you keep your people close by crafting narratives around the values they hold dear—and the best way to do this is to embrace the value of the editor.
Something about the nature of digital content seems to give us permission to slack off editorially. Digital formats are routinely marked by slapdash editing and nonexistent proofreading—a sign of how little anyone cares. Many online publications rearrange content based on the needs of machines rather than people. As the web forces us to speed up our publishing process, editing is often the first thing to be thrown out.
Moreover, there are several kinds of editing, and each deserves its place. Acquisitions editing brings authors and titles together in ways that makes the collective value of the work greater than any single piece. Development editing ensures that each work is the best it can be—that the author can reach the reader as she intends. Least cared for but often most valuable is copyediting, which looks after the myriad details that make the text pleasurable. All of which is old news, but it’s babies all the way down.
Yet the work of the editor has changed. The same principles are at play, but the contexts in which we publish are new. Publishing in a dynamic format requires a different editorial workflow and approach than publishing in a static one. And therein lies a lot of bathwater: concern for only one context (say, the desktop) without care for others (a phone or tablet); software that imposes the needs of print on natively digital content; and publishing cycles that presume content comes to an end after it’s published.
To start, publishing across multiple platforms is not simply a matter of converting a file: what works in one context may not work in another. Whereas before we needed to be concerned with how the ink adhered to the paper, now we have to consider what happens to the text when it appears on a phone, or a TV, or is read aloud by a screenreader. And that means we have to understand how a computer interprets the text.
Content people are fond of leaving the code to the geeks while we debate the merits of the Oxford comma, but there is a difference between programming and markup. HTML, whose own name comes from the editor’s act of “marking up” a text, is an element of the text itself—a machine- and human-readable expression of the text’s underlying semantic structure. This is a language that we can and must speak, because it not only determines how the text looks but what it means.
Which brings us to more bathwater: WYSIWYG-style document editors that ignore the principles of semantic markup or prevent us from engaging with the text completely deserve a path down the drain. We need to adopt the mindset that markup—HTML, in particular—is part of our job, and we need to demand tools that let us do it.
As an added benefit, editing content natively means we need not be at the mercy of the pub date: that moment at which content becomes calcified. Instead of publishing we can deploy, iteratively and continuously—taking advantage of what the web does best. A story may begin as a single article, advance in a discussion thread, expand outward to other publications as an argument evolves, and then develop into a documentation or resource. It may be revised and updated, reframed in light of responses or new events, or retired if its work is done. In this way, publishing transforms from a single moment to a sustained process that sees the text through from generation to revision and release, and onward to a long and varied life.
Once born, the text is no longer alone in the world. We’ve been collecting texts and reorganizing them into something new almost as long as we’ve been putting ink to paper. But the act of anthologizing has started to come into its own on the web, a product of the abundance of content and our own newfound power to interact with it.
The word “anthology” may seem a bit musty, but let’s rescue it from the bathwater if we can. The traditional apparatus of an anthology is instructive: an introduction defines the themes and methods behind the selection; headnotes place each work inside this larger plan; glosses and annotations explicate and contextualize. But while the anthologies’ roots are in literary forms, its application to other texts are clear.
As an example, Mother Jones has taken to publishing explainer articles that, well, explain a particular news story; the articles are continuously updated while the story progresses—so that a reader can enter at any point in the traditional news cycle and still understand what’s going on. The articles are crudely integrated—they don’t neatly fit into the editorial or design systems in place around them—but their value to the reader even in this early form is clear.
Above all, the explainer articles frame the story in the way the reader thinks about it, not the way the newsroom does. That’s good, user-centered design—something we’ve been preaching on the web for a while, but which is only just now starting to infiltrate publishing’s space. And it speaks to one of the ways we have to start thinking about our work, which is that we’re not only releasing content into the world, but engaging with the many ways in which it is consumed.
Plus there is simply more of it—more content, from more directions, competing for our reader’s attention spans (which stubbornly refuse to expand). Good anthologizing helps your readers locate your work in the context of others, as well as navigate an abundance of ideas when time is short but knowledge essential. And it raises everyone’s worth in the process, by acknowledging that no work can survive on its own.
As with most things, there is a right way and a wrong way to do it: SEO-addled “curation” that simply gathers up content on a trending topic adds little value for readers; what’s needed is context and analysis—a narrative that threads different pieces of content together, forming a whole much greater than the sum of the parts. Just as you edit your list, you need to edit the world around you.
Let’s come back to that question of what we do. Publishers used to be gatekeepers, keeping the horde of mediocre content at bay, while supporting and improving the very best. And for the last century or so, that has more or less worked, mostly because the expense of being a publisher made the gate too high for just anyone to climb.
Now that’s changed. We are all just pennies and a click away from publishing anything, and all the new arrivals have pockets full of chutzpah, not cash.
All of which is exciting, because it means there are more people willing and able to experiment, more people in a position to try new things—perhaps succeeding, perhaps not—but in either case sharing what they learned. And whether we’re working on fanfiction or dataviz or old-fashioned chapbooks, there is one community to which we all belong: each other. And that means I can’t answer this question alone; we have to answer it together.
Tell me: what is it that you do?
The Ensuing Discussion
(22 comments so far. Add your own?)
∞ Maria Varmazis said:
I greatly appreciate the commentary on ‘anthologizing’ content, or in other words, providing important context–the interpretation, the hook, the answer to “what’s in it for me?” or “why does this matter?” Navigating content can be a bit like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle without a box cover picture. We have to assume that visitors to our site who are viewing our content are seeing just a few of those pieces.
That’s where I see that we — the content strategist, the content advocate, whatever you want to call us — can add so much. By being the advocate for that big picture, we can give value to our readers and make a real difference in how they use our content. That’s how we go from online site content that merely exists, to online site content that’s useful, informative, and (frankly) awesome.
∞ Rob Boone said:
It’s minds like yours, Mandy, that inspire me to ditch my career in sales and venture into this glorious new world. Thanks for deploying.
∞ Max Fenton said:
xoxoforever, Mandy Brown (and Contents)
∞ Lee Thomas said:
Incredibly incisive articulation of where the field is at this particular moment, and where it’s already headed. This article is full of spot-on observations. One of my favorites:
“Of course, once you gather your community together, you need to keep them in the room with you. You do not do this by leveraging social media, or making content ‘sticky,’ or in any number of other cynical, trendy ways that seek to exploit a group of people instead of supporting them. Rather, you keep your people close by crafting narratives around the values they hold dear—and the best way to do this is to embrace the value of the editor.”
Hooray for the quality, context, and meaning those editors bring. Thank you, Mandy.
∞ Bryan McCarty said:
What a strong first article! I’m already loving the community of the Contents Magazine and it’s only just begun! Thanks for starting this and keeping me inspired and rejuvenated.
∞ Melanie Seibert said:
I love this breakdown of the sea change from traditional print journalism, to web, to mobile, to … ?
As you point out, the currency is knowledge (not paper, or web pages, or traffic). Now and in the future, we will give our attention to the entity (company, person, editor, publisher, whatever) that is able to provide us with the knowledge we need, can find, and can understand. Whether it’s my 18-year-old nephew, or the CEO of a respected corporation, or a traditional book publisher. We are all knowledge mongers now.
∞ Mahesh CR replied to Melanie Seibert:
+1 for “We are all knowledge mongers now”, so true!
∞ Mark Llobrera said:
I love the idea of “deploying” content, and then sustaining it. I think it takes effort and care to let an idea grow to the point where it can counteract our tendency to discard something as soon as we’ve commented/linked/retweeted it. Good ideas and content should endure and reverberate past that first moment, and part of the challenge for publishers is how to allow our readers to do this. Time-shifters like Instapaper/Readability are one step in that direction, but I feel like there’s still a ton of work to be done to allow users to collect and anthologize. Right now the friction involved with those actions is still extremely high.
Also: to the Contents team, thank you for launching with a single essay. It takes courage and trust in your users to let something stand alone like this.
∞ Max Johns said:
Brilliant article! It’s changed the way I think about my job. That “we cannot assume that publishing of any kind is a distinct activity from belonging to a community” is something I’ll be trying to teach a lot of people.
∞ Amy Howard said:
Hooray for anthology over curation! As a developmental editor who has discovered the joy of content strategy I am guilty “of leaving the code to the geeks.” Mandy, would you expand a bit on how I can better serve the reader by learning HTML?
∞ John Mohr said:
Excellent article Mandy, I am particularly enjoying the concept of deploying content.
What is it I do? Share what it is I have learned, with interested parties, who could deploy the concepts and improve a user’s experience. That is one short description. I look forward to other thoughts on your question.
∞ Mandy Brown said:
I’ve yet to find a better way to learn HTML than to just start doing it. But there are a few places you can go for help getting started: Don’t Fear the Internet has some introductory courses; they were made for designers, but are applicable to content people too. Jeffrey Zeldman’s Designing With Web Standards is similarly written for designers, but provides a really accessible introduction to the principles of web standards.
∞ Paul said:
What do I do? I must be one of those upstart, full of chutzpah folk with mediocre writing talent desiring to get better and finish writing my book. And somehow what this community is doing relates.
I clicked through 30 something odd links to finally arrive here, and I actually read your whole post. I guess that tells ME something.
∞ Trace Meek said:
I am most impressed at your assertion that web communication professionals need to know (or learn) HTML. Given the lack of adequate tools to manage web content, I’d argue that proficiency in HTML should be a job requirement for web pros. Thanks for a great article!
∞ Tonya Engst said:
Great essay. My experience as an epublisher of web and ebook content made me think, “right on!” several times as I read. The challenge is finding an audience willing to pay for quality content and a good user interface/experience amongst all the digital debris and free content.
∞ Susan Greenberg said:
I enjoyed this article. If anyone is interested, I attempted to tease out a cross-cutting definition of editing a year ago in this journal article:
∞ Mahesh CR said:
Excellent article Mandy.
Your statement “software that imposes the needs of print on natively digital content” completely nails the issue. I like to think that the container, paper/print in this case, has so far determined the nature of tools required and the business models that can sustain them. With the container and content going digital, the old ways embalming content at a point in time within a PDF/paper seems antiquated.
In my view there are three challenges most organizations face in dealing with online publishing. First is the disruption of their business models, little leeway to ponder the right way forward. Second is the lack of publishing tools and best practices that are relevant for content producers. Third is the mindset(and operational) change required to leave the ‘publish and forget’ approach and treat content as something living and to support a community around it.
These factors will impact every step of the content production/consumption supply-chain. Not a trivial problem but the rewards should be commensurate.
∞ John Vincent said:
I really enjoyed reading your article. I think it had a lot of good things to say, but I need to think about it for awhile to let it soak in. Certainly it was thought-provoking, which is very cool. I’m genuinely excited by the surge of interest and discussion of content strategy, development and deployment.
You asked what it is that I do… I’ve been involved with communications/editorial/content strategy and creation since the late 70s, and it’s been a fascinating evolution to observe and participate in. After majoring in creative writing in college, I lucked into a job writing user documentation for computer manuals and had to take programming classes to understand what I was trying to say. Then came news bureau and magazine work, followed by strategic communications planning, video production, and my first national electronic newsletter in 1985 (working for a telecom company at the time). Experimentation in hypertext and digital video led to interactive CD-ROM development in the early 90s, and of course, my first commercial website in 1995. I’m still developing websites more than anything else… mostly for small to midsize businesses and non-profits.
Throughout this journey, I’ve understood that, for me, the content was the whole point of communicating (although I may have called it the idea or the story or something like that), but the way it’s packaged varies based on the delivery technology. Content and technology go hand in hand. And certainly it is technology that is creating the wonderful self-publishing, online-publishing, everything-everywhere-all-the-time-publishing that’s going on today. It’s so amazing. But it also makes my brain tired when I try to stretch it to absorb what’s happening.
Today it seems, more than at any time I can remember, that we need to have the ability to focus.
Maybe that’s how I interpret “Belong” — focus to the point of being able to know who I really am and what I want to do. That will lead me to my community. Then I can “Edit” — which to me means to do my best work and learn from the best work of others. And at the end of the day (or week or year or whenever), I should “Collect” — build a library.
I think maybe that’s what we’re all doing, to varying degrees of success. I don’t really know for sure. But I did enjoy reading what you wrote.
∞ Brett said:
Fantastic article! I am going to email it to my colleagues and ask them to read it as so much of what you say here puts into “ink” what I have been thinking but have not been able to properly verbalize.
One thing you said, but did not talk more about: “Many online publications rearrange content based on the needs of machines rather than people.” I’d love for you to expand on what you meant here.
∞ Mandy Brown replied to Brett:
Re: “Many online publications rearrange content based on the needs of machines rather than people”: that’s a swipe at CMSs (and their ilk) that impose database structures on content that don’t often map to how people think of it. Tags/categories often have to be tortured into permitting a more casual or organic reading process; most systems naturally prioritize new content, disparaging the backlist (which, if a publication is older than a few minutes, is certainly where the best work lives). And there are insufficient tools for keeping content alive over a period of time; something like Contents annotations almost certainly requires jumping through fiery hoops while balancing a martini on your head.
Mostly, I want us to start thinking about how we (readers, thinkers) move through content, how it’s connected and so on, and then articulate that movement so that the very smart people designing database systems can sort out how to make the databases do our bidding, instead of the other way around.
∞ Susan Greenberg said:
Congratulations on getting your web magazine off the ground! Very interesting and sympathetic; I wish you the best of luck. Here in London, I remember being called “content strategy advisor” back in 2004. Am now in academe, after years on the word coalface, writing an analysis of editing. In case you’re interested, have a look at an article on editing I wrote for Convergence journal, published Feb 2010, called “When the editor disappears, does editing disappear”. http://con.sagepub.com/content/16/1/7.abstract
∞ Max Johns said:
I’ve returned to this article via the markup-related expansion piece on A Working Library (http://aworkinglibrary.com/library/archives/markup). Both are wonderful. I mentor web writers – usually hobby writers who are new to the web world – and have found no better way to introduce and demystify HTML than to have them read your words. Thank you!