The content anarchist

I'm continuing to write a set of Sunday posts that revisit ideas Tony Schwartz offered earlier this year in "Turning 60: The twelve most important lessons I've learned so far". This week, I'm considering the eleventh of Schwartz's observations:

"Add more value in the world than you're using up. We spend down the earth's resources every day. Life's primary challenge is to put more back into the world than we take out."

In a publishing context, this lesson immediately brings someone to mind: Hugh McGuire. A bit less than four years ago, I heard him speak at an event hosted by BookNet Canada, at which he described his work to support crowdsourced creation of public-domain audiobooks.

It seemed like a fantastically idealistic venture, one that didn't have a VC exit strategy or a plan for world domination. It filled a need, bringing audiobooks to people who wanted them. The audience expressed its skepticism, and Hugh didn't bend.

If the measure is whether recording audio versions of public-domain books made Hugh a wealthy man, he hasn't succeeded. But if you look at what companies like Audible have done with his ideas, you begin to see the truth in "adding more value than you're using up."

Two years have passed since Hugh asked me to help him collect and edit essays for what became Book: A Futurist's Manifesto. After hearing him speak in Toronto, I had come to better know his work. In the second part of 2010, he had an idea for a simple workflow tool – a WordPress plug-in – that could be used to automatically generate digital and print formats from a single source file.

When I'm trying to earn an honest living, one of the things I do most is consult with publishers trying to plan for and support cross-platform content workflows. There are plenty of big systems out there, almost all of them designed in a world that barely knew what a browser was.

Publishing needed something, standing as it is at the edge of an abyss that bloggers so easily cross every day. And here was Hugh, working with John Maxwell of Simon Fraser University and Kirk Biglione of Oxford Media Works to suss out a lightweight tool.

It seemed both impossible and, in the same breath, simple enough to work. So we wrote, edited and published Manifesto in three parts while beta-testing the tool, PressBooks. It got better quickly. For someone like me, who blogs more or less regularly, the idea of working in HTML always felt natural.

The jury's still out on PressBooks. It has been tried in a number of places, but it's a lightweight tool competing for attention in a world of heavyweight systems. It has its critics, too, though Hugh has plowed through his share of skepticism on more than one occasion.

What is clear, though, is this: Hugh McGuire is trying to do things that he thinks make publishing better. Sure, he holds out hope that he might make a bit of a living on it, but that's second-fiddle. His commitment is why I said "yes" to his invitation to work together on Manifesto.

Sometime after I heard Hugh present in Toronto, Hugh, Laura Dawson and I were sitting in a midtown bar nursing cold beers on a hot May afternoon. Listening to him talk, I could hear the sound of content being liberated from what I would later call a "container". I stopped him for a moment and said, "I know what you are. You're a content anarchist."

The label kind of stuck, at least between the two of us. It was funny at first, but these days it seems more urgent. I hope the publishing world will soon find more room for its content anarchists.

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.