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The future of book manufacturing

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Wednesday, Apr 1, 2009

Reihan Salam links to this post from Tim O’Reilly, in which he suggests that publishing is becoming like software development—a process involving many authors working quickly (and perhaps patching bugs later). The fact that he is working on a Twitter book seems to underscore the point, though I can’t imagine who in the world would want such a thing. (Sort of like the board-game home version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”)


This sort of thing may indeed portend “the end of authorship,” as Salam titled his post. But I’m a little surprised he didn’t go the Roland Barthes route and proclaim “the death of the author,” and append the Foucaulidan corollary, the triumph of the “author function.” They were commenting on the dubiousness of using authorial intention in assessing the actual effects achieved by a particular text. But technology has made such concerns sort of passe. Authors aren’t being discarded because their works may not say what they intend; instead, relations of production in the publishing industry call for collaboratively manufactured texts to meet corporate goals. Exit authors; enter coders.


Reilly quotes Andrew Savikis:


The more I think about it the more obvious it’s becoming to me that the next generation of authoring/production tools will have much more in common with today’s software development tools than with today’s word processors.
Software developers spend enormous amounts of time creatively writing with text, editing, revising, refining multiple interconnected textual works—and often doing so in a highly distributed way with many collaborators. Few writers or editors spend as much time as developers with text, and it only makes sense to apply the lessons developers have learned about managing collaborative writing and editing projects at scale.


This seems like he is saying that instabooks of the future will have lots of boilerplate in them, and will be constructed along the lines of Mad Libs. Can’t wait for these. Sounds like Orwell’s Ministry of Culture, from 1984, where literature-makers rotated the dials of text-spinning machines to generate timely and appropriate Party-approved entertainment for the masses.


More likely, if books become a digitized commodity, the money won’t be there to produce high-quality ones (and authors all become de facto volunteers). So then we’ll have pseudo-books instead—a cordoned-off collection of curated blog posts masquerading as timely books, distributed online to hand-held reading devices along the lines of Kindle or a netbook. You could already compile one of commentary on the financial crisis. Alongside the collaboratively compiled, rapidly published texts from the publishing industry of the future will be micropublishing, feeding those publishers, things along the lines of blogs and Facebook updates and the like. So maybe it would be more accurate to say authorship will be everywhere and nowhere.


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