Four years ago last week, I presented “A Unified Field Theory of Publishing”, the first iteration of a talk that soon became known as “Context First”. Though I’m not big on anniversaries, a conversation with a colleague spurred me to re-read the talk for the first time in a while. Four ideas, in particular, continue to resonate.
A good deal of the talk was drawn from thinking that underpinned the first 18 months of this blog, which I started early in 2009. In the presentation, I tried to integrate a set of topics – piracy, disruption, print on demand, workflow and content strategy, among others – that I had written about frequently and had come to think were connected by a common theme.
To support the talk, I’d started drafting a set of PowerPoint slides, bullet points and all, but soon abandoned the effort. I couldn’t see a way to ask publishers to change their thinking about workflow by using a presentation format that pretty much telegraphs “situation normal”.
I have three creative children; the oldest among them had graduated from college a couple of years earlier with a degree in studio art. I asked Frank if he might help me think about creating a more visual approach to the ideas in the talk.
His participation changed how I thought about the presentation, shifting it from an assessment to a call to action. That was a new pair of shoes for me to wear, and it took some time to get used to it.
A few weeks before I was going to present the talk at the inaugural “Books in Browsers”, Frank came to me and said that the draft we were working on lacked a clear statement of what I wanted publishers to do. This is not unusual in my writing – I live in the stratosphere, too often – and I asked Frank what he thought I should do.
He said, “You need to tell people what to expect. You’re describing a new world, with new rules. What are they supposed to do in it?” The answer to his question became:
- Our content must become open, accessible and interoperable. Adherence to standards will not be an option;
- Because we compete on context, we’ll need to focus more clearly on using it to promote discovery;
- Because we’re competing with businesses that already use low- and no-cost tools, trying to beat them on the cost of content is a losing proposition. We need to develop opportunities that encourage broader use of our content; and
- We will distinguish ourselves if we can provide readers with tools that draw upon context to help them manage abundance.
Four years later, I stand by this list. Standards, discovery, breadth of use and a service orientation are core characteristics of the new publishing order. I am fond of the talk as a whole, but these are the ideas I keep revisiting.