A living representation

About 2-1/2 years ago, I wrote a post, "The privilege to be objects", that explored an idea advanced by Frank Chimero: "[R]eally good literature requires an artifact." Some content does not merit being designed and published in physical form; other formats and channels may be more appropriate.

That post came back to mind when I read John Maxwell's thoughts on "Pressbooks, Monographs, and the Essence of the Book". Maxwell is on leave this year from Simon Fraser University, where he teaches in the school's masters in publishing program.

Maxwell had taken part in a panel discussion, "Why do we need academic publishing in the digital age?" He uses his post to grapple with a question the panel did not have much time to address: Is academic or scholarly publishing "inexorably moving to a post-book world"?

He starts by building on a definition of "the book" that Hugh McGuire offered in October at this year's "Books in Browsers" conference. Hugh said:

"A book is a discrete, collection of text (and other media), that is designed by an author(s) as an internally complete representation of an idea, or set of ideas; emotion or set of emotions; and transmitted to readers in various formats."

Maxwell responds in part: "[W]e needn’t take boundedness and completeness as a prescription for what serious media ought to be. Our challenge is to look beyond that."

This brings us back to the idea of a container. My 2010 assessment, "Context first", proposed that we not use containers as the primary source of information, instead considering them as vehicles to transmit what Hugh would call an "internally complete representation." Here, "internally complete" is not the same as "complete".

I think we're inexorably moving to what I'd call a "pre-book world": a living representation of the development, refinement and extension of a particular work. At various points, an object – a book or an eBook, as examples – may be rendered, but as a subset of the greater representation.

That trend is easier to see in scholarly or academic publishing, where digital has been the norm for a decade or more. But I think it will grow to include many forms of publishing.

That 2010 post about the privilege of being objects included a related thought from Frank Chimero: we “invent things before we know what they are for”. I said yesterday that the web is the "ultimate CMS". If so, PressBooks is a good start at making a lightweight, open and network-savvy user interface.


About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.