Citizen publishing – get your mind around this concept

I have a suggestion for those of you who have despaired of explaining blogging to friends and business associates who are just now beginning to hear about weblogs on TV or in the papers.

Try explaining blogs as a form of citizen publishing and see what their responses are. I think you will find a sudden dawning of comprehension. They might even startle you with the questions they ask once the concept sinks in.

Weblogs come in many flavors: journals, essays, emotional diatribes, collections of links, photos, essays, etc., but each can be described as a form of citizen publishing. I first saw this term being used on BlogsCanada. It immediately struck me that this concept opens the door to a better understanding of the power and the potential of blogging than any other term in use.

Get the idea that more than 3,000,000 people are publishing their thoughts and concerns in a way that an incredibly large audience can access these ideas. Most of these writers will not attract an audience and will not care that no one visits their site. However, there are thousands who will be writing material that you will want to read, and their ideas are being captured and preserved every day in weblogs on the internet.

How long do you thing it will be before some of these essayists will be publishing books of their best works and promoting them on the very weblog that they first appeared? With Publish on Demand, it becomes much easier to capture an interesting body of work, create an appropriate package, and make it available for sale while a more traditional author is still searching for an agent.

Update: I need to emphasize these differences:

In citizen publishing, the content is what matters.

In the traditional world of publishing, distribution is what matters.

In yesterday’s world of publishing, editors man the chokepoints and try to select a few “winners” from the flood of manuscripts pouring in on them. Getting published is often more a matter of who you know than what you have written. Furthermore, the publishing industry is resistant to adding new genres, because new genres upset the orderly structure of distribution systems and bookseller displays.

Citizen publishing on the web via weblogs opens the doors to an unlimited number of channels and genres. It even opens the door to different publishing models, like publishing novels online in serial form at a rate of an installment every few weeks.

Author Cory Doctorow has found that free online versions of a novel actually helped book sales, contrary to what you might expect.

If I were a traditional publisher, I would be frantically rethinking my business model and figuring how to capture the best of this outpouring and make money distributing it. Weblog productivity and reach threatens to turn the current publishing industry inside out. If traditional publishers cannot figure out to add value in a world of citizen publishers, they will go the way of computer service centers.

Similarly, authors who do not blog may be left in the dust by upstart authors who develop followings and sell books while the non-bloggers are still trying to persuade overloaded publishers to consider their work.

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0 Responses to Citizen publishing – get your mind around this concept

  1. phaTTboi says:

    I see several problems with the “citizen publishing” idea, David.

    First, the big problem with blogging today is that there is absolutely no intelligent way to navigate an unorganized information space with over 3,000,000 sources, growing at the rate the “blogosphere” is growing. Google just doesn’t do it, because even highly intelligent search automation depends on the seeker being able to ask the right questions, and the source being recognized as relevant. Even Google is poor at the latter, and the former shouldn’t be a condition for any user of an information space at all. Libraries of any size only became useful after tools like the Dewey decimal system, centralized card catalogs, and ISBN publishing numbering brought order to them. Information that isn’t systemically indexed and uniformly retrievalable by algorithmic means is just a mess. Maybe an intriguing mess, but a mess, just the same, and that nearly exactly describes the World Wide Web, of which blogs are a small part. What good is a relevancy ranked list of several hundred thousand search returns to anyone, if the poor user isn’t asking quite the right question? This is a big topic in itself, but I hope you see my point. In a real library, with open stacks, you can wander into a section of categorized knowledge, and the very structure of the stacks can effectively guide you to sources you otherwise would have missed. And of course, libraries are still run by the original information professionals, librarians, whose expertise is frequently invaluable. In the Web, and by extension, the blogosphere, you are on a mechanically assisted drunkard’s walk most of the time. RSS tools have grown with astonishing speed, thanks more to blogging than anything else, but the sheer size and growth of the information space they are trying to summarize and connect is all out of proportion to the sophistication of the tools. Not to mention that centralized mechanisms such as aggregation and search itself are fragile, as last week’s exploratory Google attacks demonstrated. I think that within the next few months, we’ll see many more kinds of large distributed attacks on centralized search, because it is just so attractive to malware writers, and so comparatively easy to do. I think it is going to be very messy, but I hope I’m wrong.

    Second problem is an old one from the print vanity publishing world. Editors make authors, but most vanity publishers are described as just that in the trade, because their egos get in the way of editorial collaboration. Good editors working for good publishers really advocate for readers. Professional writers learn quickly how valuable this is, and commercial books frequently have thanks and even dedications to editors, in recognition of the contribution editors make in shaping work for publishing. IMHO, unedited compiliations of blog contents hold little promise of becoming any more useful form of literature than doctoral dissertations…:-)

    Third problem is that the give and take of blogging is essentially conversational. Persons wishing to write the Great American Novel, or the Most Essential Self Help Book Ever Written are really using the wrong tool if they are trying to do it in a blog. Again, IMHO, blogs as public journals generally suffer from excessive self-restraint or the entire lack of it; hence the popularity of avatar identities and pen names in blogging. As for many of the other uses you mention, I also think that blog content management systems are frequently not the right mechanisms for the intended purpose, but are applied because blogging tools are so cheap and easy to use, there is little penalty to using them badly. Even as small, semi-public discussion areas, blogs have real technical limitations, that translate into artificiality and hard limits to communication. How many blogs do you know that have comment sections that support threaded discussion among multiple parties? Those that do inevitably shell out to chat room systems, which are hardly in the spirit of the blog, in keeping content closely allied with comment. Even with the simplistic comments capabilities of most blog tools, high volume sites routinely shut down comments, and become just frequently updated Web sites, because the operators can’t handle the admin load of comments. Billmon’s Whisky Bar is a lot different, and poorer site for recently having shut down comments, but I understand his reasons for doing so. I just don’t read there nearly as much now.

    Anyway, that’s my 3 cents here on your nickel, leaving you, probably, 2 cents for response…:-)

  2. Interesting comments above.

    I part own a self publishing company in the UK, Publish and be damned, and we recently had our first blogger publish his best entries as a book that makes fascinating reading.
    The old adage that ‘editors make authors’ needs examining too. Do they indeed? Does that mean that as a blogger I need to submit my entries to a higher authority that makes them somehow worth publishing? Am I not an author before I do so? I don’t think so.

    Of course there are ways to make a good book into a great book and editing is just one of the many tools that can make it so. Most authors serious about self publishing are aware of this, and act on it. When we first opened our site for business we had no idea of what to expect in terms of quality. We are incredibly impressed by the professionalism of the work submitted. Authors using our services range from people publishing their first book to established authors who cannot get certain books into the traditional channels due to limited markets. We don’t have any such restrictions.

    There is a huge difference between self publishing and vanity publishing. It’s a difference that’s not being acknowledged by the traditional publishing industry because they don’t like to see the rise of the self published book. It eats away at the very foundations of their power base. Whereas in the past an author was entirely at the mercy of a publisher we are now in a situation where the author can ignore the publishing industry in it’s entirety and still publish away.

    We don’t tell musicians releasing their work on the net that they somehow haven’t done it ‘properly’. We don’t tell artists showing and selling their work from their own gallery that they need to get their work curated before it is worth selling. It’s only authors who for some reason are expected to sign away most rights to their creation to a publishing industry that has done nothing to promote talent and everything to maximise profits.

  3. Thanks for the well thought out comments!

    I think that phaTTboi summarizes the traditional view of publishing quite well, while Andreas expresses what I expect to find in this untrekked new world of citizen publishing.

    phaTTboi illustrates the strength and biggest weakness of current library systems when he says:
    Libraries of any size only became useful after tools like the Dewey decimal system, centralized card catalogs, and ISBN publishing numbering brought order to them. Information that isn’t systemically indexed and uniformly retrievalable by algorithmic means is just a mess.

    Before search engines, we were dependent on categorization. The order he refers to is something devised by someone else, not by the reader.

    If I want information about some exotic subject like entitlement, or the real story of Chernobyl, I can get all I need in seconds on the internet. The fact that I have to sift the wheat from the chaff is no different than before. What phaTTboi seems to miss is that I can now draw from millions of sources instead of a few hundred.

    The most encouraging thing about self-publishing on a large scale is that a Darwinian model applies. Those works that are interesting to readers can find their way onto, no matter if they come from Tor, Doubleday or Publish and Be Damned.

    I think that Andreas is right when he says: we are now in a situation where the author can ignore the publishing industry in it’s entirety and still publish away.

    I give the old publishing industry two years, at the most, before it has to change drastically.

  4. Jim Elve says:

    Interesting post and comments.
    phaTTboi makes a god point about the amorphous nature of the blog world. Remember, though, books came long before libraries were invented to catalogue them. TV came before TV Guide. Hundreds of thousands of web pages were published before the Yahoo directory sprang up to help web users navigate the Internet. Blog directories are beginning to emerge. Indeed, filling that need was my main inspiration when I began building BlogsCanada’s topical and regional directory a year ago.

    As for whether or not editors “make” authors, that point is clearly debatable. How many times have we heard of a best seller that was rejected numerous times before an editor took a chance on it? How many talented writers have been stifled by rejection letters from editors whose judgment is necessarily clouded by profit motives?

    Good editors can and do help hone a writer’s skills and there is a certain amount of debate in the blogosphere about the usefulness of editors. I should note, though, that editors of web-published content need to possess some different skills than editors of print content. Web readers are different than print readers and good web editors are knowedgeable about these differences.

    The immediacy and give and take of the blog genre is what set it apart from the sluggish print media or prohibitively expensive TV and film. Blogging is new and just as those radio listeners of the 1920’s who were sure that television would never catch on, those stuck in the newspaper/magazine/book world will, sooner or later, see the value of the genre.

  5. Marie says:

    Oh trust me, the newspaper publishing world is scratching their heads, as we speak, trying to figure out where all their ‘sales’ have gone. The combo of Ad rates up, cirulation-distribution down, content minimalized and this new-fangled electronic media has thrown every aspect of the industry into a tailspin. The old ways of doing things just are going to cut it anymore. I’m having too much fun participating in the blog world to ever give it up!

  6. Vikk says:

    Great conversation. I agree with Jim, “that editors of web-published content need to possess some different skills than editors of print content. Web readers are different than print readers.” Each form comes with its own built-in expectations and demands. Web writers should have an understanding of the new, evolving form they’re exploring.

    At times I think there are as many reasons why writers blog as there are blogs created. I created mine with certain content limitations, so if I want to comment on something I must find a way to weave it into the blog’s already existing fabric.

    I don’t necessarily look at the blog content as work that would be included in a traditional or non-traditional book form. Instead, it’s more immediate. The content is closer to its origin, so the blog may end up functioning as more of an intermediate stage. I explore ideas and thoughts that may or may not morph into longer essays or even chapters at a later date.

    I am the only editor for the writing at this stage, so I have to give some thought to who my readers are and what their expectations are when they pay a visit.

    TITLE: Books and blogs and new ideas
    BLOG NAME: writelife
    DATE: 08/03/2004 12:26:01 PM
    There’s a very engaging discussion on Ripples about blogs, what they are and their relationship to traditional publishing. It was started by David’s post, Citizen publishing – get your mind around this concept (and his follow-up, Have a slice of

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